Founder Centenary Hype Hopes to Reverse Attendance Slump

By Published on .

Advertiser: Walt Disney Co.
Agency: Leo Burnett Co., Chicago
Title: Disney World
Rating: 3.0 stars

Maybe it's gas prices. Maybe it's consumer no-confidence. Maybe people are just too embarrassed about Pearl Harbor to show their faces, but Disney World is like totally sucking wind.

Attendance in the second quarter was down 7% -- a half billion dollar's-worth -- and so now, in its advertising, the Disney theme park division is wishing upon a star. Under the circumstances, the company is in no position to fret about the details, such as the fact that the star has been dead since 1966.

Yes, it is the Walt Disney centenary. The affable, avuncular visionary with the rakish moustache and rodent fixation was born 100 years ago, and the Walt Disney Co. is now, in its trademark fashion, re-releasing him.

They say it started very small, as most dreams do. A twinkle in the eye, the thrill of something new Then the dream began to grow and to come alive Touching every one of us, lighting up the skies. ...

The centenary anthem, courtesy of Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, comes illustrated by Walt himself drawing Mickey (nee Steamboat Willie) Mouse and a whole succession of Disney images: classic animated characters morphing into their flesh-and-blood equivalents at the Magic Kingdom. Plus, there's Walt, in black-and-white (the way he introduced each week's The Wonderful World of Color), brushing pixie dust from his shoulders like dandruff.

Insipid jingle
The jingle is insipid, but the effect serves. Disney World, et al, is where the magic comes alive.

Anyway, supposedly. Maybe the slump at Disney's parks has less to do with gas prices than it does with the public finally catching on.

Over the course of the past 30 years, the trip to Disney World has become the Middle-American hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to the Mecca of wholesome adventure. You give the kids a balloon, drag them around on trams and formerly futuristic rail conveyances and stand sweltering in line all day. Then, as a parent, you sleep easily knowing you have done your duty. Haven't the kids been awestruck by the magic of the Magic Kingdom and their boundless juvenile imaginations have been unleashed?

Uh, actually, no. The little brats aren't particularly awestruck because they don't appreciate the engineering and design miracle that is Disney World; they're children, and therefore stupid, so they take the illusion at face value. Nor are their imaginations even remotely unleashed because the park is for the most part passive entertainment -- essentially TV with a monorail.

$400 cost per fun hour
Furthermore, with all the transportation and queuing up, the actual entertainment time is quite limited. Years ago, before the AdReview children were fully ripened, we calculated the CPFH -- cost per fun hour -- of a four-day Magic Kingdom vacation and, in 2001 dollars, it comes out to about $400, not even counting airfare.

You can get a lot of entertainment for $400 an hour. For $400 an hour, two kids can get a personal clown, Mom can get a seaweed facial and Dad can get a lap dance (if Dad were so inclined, which Dad isn't, because the very thought of it disgusts him, not to mention the hygiene issues) with plenty left over to get the van detailed.

Is it worth it? Well, when we asked them what the best part of their Disney vacation was, the AdReview offspring immediately volunteered: "The balloon!" Lesson learned. If you want to unleash kids' imaginations, we suggest sending them outside with an empty corrugated carton. If you want delight, give them the garden hose.

Targeting parents
Thus we are intrigued with the cleverer second half of the Disney campaign, which targets not parents for their kids, but baby boomers for themselves. One spot is set at a spelling bee, where the little contestant is asked to spell "microphone." She gets as far as M-I-C- when the teachers, parents and grandparents start singing the theme to TV's old Mickey Mouse Club.

The direction and acting in the spot are clumsy, but the idea is superb, because Disney parks really are magical for grown-ups, who can appreciate the miraculous Imagineering and don't whine at naptime. That strategy argues in favor of pixie dusting off Walt, who means nothing to today's young parents, but everything to the Mouseketeers generation.

And if it fails, there's always 2042: The centenary of Michael Eisner.

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