Disney pictures future

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Walt Disney Co. executives are looking overseas for theme-park expansion, and mainland China is the next likely location.

Another company hot spot is India, the site of a recent visit by top Disney officials.

On Wednesday, as the company prepared for its 50th-anniversary marketing campaign, Disney executives strolled through Walt Disney World and dropped hints about the future overseas.

The strategic shift to the Far East is beginning with Hong Kong Disneyland, scheduled to open in September.

Jay Rasulo, president of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, said a park on mainland China is now a good bet, as the country is growing economically and in population.

"I imagine some day there could be a second Disney destination in China," Rasulo said during an interview. He called the Hong Kong park -- the company's 11th -- "a beachhead for the Walt Disney Co. in China," and "our first theme park in China."

The company has been negotiating with Beijing for some time to build a park in the city of Shanghai, which, with 20 million people, is more populous than the state of Florida.

Rasulo's comments about the good prospects for a China park back up Disney Co. President Robert Iger's growing emphasis on Disney's growth potential in China and India, the world's two most populous countries.

Iger, the incoming chief executive officer, and outgoing CEO Michael Eisner traveled to India last week, but Iger said Wednesday that the trip was only to talk about the recent launch of the Disney Channel there.

He said the company expressed the importance of India to Disney's future but said that there was no talk about a possible theme park. Earlier this week, Disney denied a report in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post that the company had lobbied the Indian government on building a theme park.

Iger said the company's parks in Orlando, Anaheim, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong will continue to be a key driver for the growing media conglomerate, even though the resort division today accounts for a smaller share of revenue than in past decades.

The theme-park division accounted for well more than half of the total Walt Disney Co. revenue as recently as 1988, but now it's about 25 percent, as the rest of the company has expanded and grown more rapidly.

"This is a very core business for us, a very vital business, one we're investing in heavily today," Iger said of the park division. He said the parks are "where the characters live" -- characters that permeate the company's movies and merchandise.

Iger said Walt Disney World is significant in many ways to the company, with more employees -- 57,000 -- than any other park or industry segment.

"Central Florida is in many respects a capital of Disney," Iger said, adding that "we stand tall in Central Florida and Central Florida stands tall in the Disney empire."

Iger vowed that he may do a few things differently from outgoing chief Eisner, but he said the two shared " a deep appreciation" for what Disney means to the world and the creativity that it took to become the $30 billion-a-year theme-park and entertainment giant.

"Disney occupies a very special place in the world's culture and in the hearts and minds of people all over the world," Iger said.

Disney's global promotion, called "The Happiest Celebration on Earth," kicks off simultaneously today at the company's 10 parks and on its cruise line. For the 18-month event, popular attractions and shows from each of the parks have been replicated at other locations. Orlando, for example, is getting the Soarin' simulator ride from California Adventure and the Lights! Motors! Action! Extreme Stunt Show from Disneyland Paris.

Visitors who filled the Magic Kingdom and other Disney parks in Orlando said Wednesday that they expect that the company will continue to grow and entertain new generations of children who are growing up in a fast-paced world of technology.

"Disney has an even bigger ability to entertain today," said Jorge Eckardt, 36, who was busy getting Goofy's autograph when Iger walked by, trailed by media cameras.

"The technology is better than ever today," said Eckardt, who last visited Disney 22 years ago and this week brought his wife and two children, 5 and 11/2, as well as four other friends and family members for a week of park hopping.

"And it's still Disney. The name and quality are the best."

Eckardt said he didn't know much about the company's recent management struggles and did not know Iger.

"I'd rather have Goofy's autograph," he said.

Jerry W. Jackson can be reached at jwjackson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5721.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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