As it ramps up a worldwide celebration this week marking the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, the Burbank company knows it can no longer rely solely on Mickey and his friends to lure sophisticated young consumers into the Magic Kingdom.
Increasingly aware that children today are "born with a mouse in their hands," as one expert puts it, Disney scientists and designers are working overtime to appeal to the Internet generation. The goal: to make the park's next half century as profitable as its last.
"It's all about trying to keep our entertainment relevant to the way kids are growing up today," said Marty Sklar, principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, the company's in-house think tank. "We don't want to get left behind."
Over the next several months, Disneyland is set to unveil a new crop of interactive attractions designed specifically to hook tech-savvy youngsters raised on computer games, digital effects and MP3 players.
Some ideas, including a computer-animated clown fish (the star of the film "Finding Nemo") that swims around a submarine ride filled with park visitors, will come to life inside Disneyland. Others, including a Magic Kingdom virtual-reality game, will be accessible via the Web.
Then there's Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, a "Toy Story"-inspired space ride that will bridge the online realm with the physical world in what Disney designers are describing as an industry first. Beginning in June, Disney fans sitting at their home computers will be able to team up with park visitors to fight the evil Emperor Zurg, shooting at targets and accumulating points.
"We're in the business right now of really inventing a new genre of entertainment," said Bruce Vaughn, the Imagineering vice president of research and development.
It's about time, industry analysts say.
Four years ago, when Disney opened California Adventure, which sits like a barnacle affixed to Disneyland, critics panned its off-the-shelf rides and lack of innovation. Although the park has added upgrades, including last year's $60-million thrill ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, its attendance continues to fall short of projections.
Moreover, Disney's biggest competition these days isn't from such traditional rivals as Universal Studios but from video gaming companies and others that vie for youngsters with short attention spans and money to spend.
According to a recent survey by Nielsen Media Research, 13- to 17-year-old gamers now spend an average of $39 a month on video and computer games, nearly as much as the price of a theme park admission. The $24-billion gaming industry has become the fastest-growing sector in entertainment business.
"Many kids are saying, 'Why should I go to Disneyland? I'd rather play my video game at home,' " said Martin Lindstrom, a branding expert who has consulted for Disney. "We never heard that before."
As Lindstrom sees it, there is a growing divide between youngsters weaned on computers and their parents, whom he dubs "the monologue generation."
Raised on more "passive" media, including TV, newspapers, radio and billboards, adults are content with linear entertainment experiences that unfold in a traditional story-like way. They are more patient (read: willing to wait in line) and, Lindstrom says, can cope with only about 1.7 channels of communication at once.
Children, by contrast, can simultaneously master 5.4 channels of communication (including surfing the Internet, text messaging and talking on the phone). They yearn for entertainment that is frenetic, multi-sensory and interactive. Used to video games that have different levels of play, they want to experience something new every time.
The situation echoes the Pixar/Disney movie "Monsters, Inc.," in which a society of monsters faces a shortage of the energy source upon it relies to produce electricity: the screams of little children.
"Kids these days!" the power plant's boss says at one point. "They just don't scare like they used to! Times have changed. Scary isn't enough anymore."
Figuring out what will be "enough" for today's kids poses a special challenge for theme park operators, whose industry has been rocked by its own roller coaster ride.
Although parks recently have seen a rise in traffic, they have yet to recover fully from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that decimated the travel industry. Since then, the industry has been buffeted by everything from recession to high gasoline prices.
Disney's competitors have been struggling. Under a new owner, General Electric Co., Universal Studios last year canceled plans for a theme park in China, sold its stake in a park resort in Spain and has scaled back its design team. And Six Flags Inc., one of the nation's largest park operators, has faced heavy losses.
But no one has more to lose than Disney, the industry's biggest player. At stake is not only the estimated $8 billion in revenues that the parks bring in annually but also the future of the Disney brand. Disney's entire range of businesses, from merchandise to movies to television, depends in large part — and perhaps more than any other company — on luring customers at a young age and keeping them for life.
In the past, at least, that's something at which the stalwart U.S.-based parks — the original Disneyland in Anaheim and the company's biggest resort, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. — have excelled.
The parks were Disney's cash cow over much of the last decade, helping to deliver record profit year after year. But business was sluggish even before the terrorist attacks of nearly four years ago.
Although overall attendance is growing steadily at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, fewer international visitors are visiting despite the weak dollar. And Disney recently bailed out its Euro Disney resort after the company faced steep financial losses.
Undaunted, Disney is opening its newest theme park this fall, in Hong Kong. But, especially as chief executive-elect Robert Iger takes the reins, the folks at Walt Disney Imagineering who are responsible for research and development say there is new emphasis on reexamining the existing parks as well.
After a recent vacation at Walt Disney World, for example, Iger raved about Turtle Talk With Crush, in which a digitally animated sea turtle character from "Finding Nemo" converses "live" with guests at Epcot's Living Seas pavilion. Although Iger does not officially succeed retiring Disney CEO Michael Eisner until Oct. 1, he has already made it clear he wants to wow park visitors with high-tech attractions developed within Disney.
"Bob is challenging us to continue that tradition that Walt really started," said Tom Fitzgerald, Imagineering executive vice president, referring to the park's founder.
As the Imagineers see it, Walt Disney was the original gamer. When he created Disneyland in 1955, he wanted it to transcend the carnival-type rides already familiar to consumers. Instead, he sought to marry technology and storytelling to take children, and their parents too, into virtual worlds.
Science fiction author Ray Bradbury once wrote that he would forever be indebted to Disney for "his ability to let me fly over midnight London looking down on that fabulous city" in the Peter Pan's Flight attraction at Disneyland.
But some critics say that grand tradition has faltered in recent years, citing especially the struggles of two of Disney's newest parks, California Adventure and Walt Disney Studios near Paris.
Roy E. Disney, Walt Disney's nephew, has blasted Disney management for building those parks "on the cheap," in part by outsourcing the rides. Others have dubbed California Adventure a "Wall Street park" driven more by budgets than by creativity, a claim Disney executives have fiercely disputed.
Disney executives declined to discuss how much money they are spending on interactive attractions, but they say these new ventures are far less expensive than traditional "iron rides" that cost up to $100 million. The rides are also more adaptive, meaning they can be easily — and relatively cheaply — updated to keep them fresh.
Disney is not alone in taking aim at the Internet generation. Later this month, Legoland California in Carlsbad plans to introduce a robotic ride that allows riders to select the intensity of their experience as they become knights in training in a medieval tournament.
Farther from home, the government of Dubai, which hopes to become the "Orlando of the Middle East," has hired Craig Hanna, an "experience design" consultant and former Universal Studios executive, to develop rides with online components.
"Park operators are starting to realize that building bigger, better roller coasters isn't the [way] to grow attendance," Hanna said.
Some of Disney's past interactive efforts have stumbled. A nationwide rollout of DisneyQuest, an indoor theme park with a host of interactive rides, hasn't happened.
Still, to visit the Glendale warehouse that doubles as the Imagineers' research and development headquarters is to be deluged by new ideas.
Under one scenario being considered, for example, visitors to Epcot would receive messages over their cellphones from Disney Channel character Kim Possible. Kim might tell them where to find her arch-nemesis Dr. Drakken or how to unlock secret codes around the park. Each player could adjust the experience according to skill level.
"Suddenly, it's really incredible what we can do," enthuses Vaughn, the research and development chief. "We've been waiting for this audience, which wants and desires and expects great involvement."
That audience will soon get to meet Lucky, a 20-foot audio-animatronic dinosaur that, beginning this month, will stroll through the Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, smiling, grunting and belching. Guided by a puppeteer and robotic controls, Lucky will be the first of what the Imagineers hope will be several robotic "living characters" that interact with park guests all over the world.
This summer, the "Virtual Magic Kingdom" game will let computer users create their own characters and navigate through a theme park modeled on Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.
Contestants will perform a series of tasks — a multilevel ship-to-ship battle in Pirates of the Caribbean, for example. But to collect any prizes they win, they'll have to go to a special kiosk inside Disneyland or Walt Disney World.
For Disneyland's Buzz Lightyear space ride, Imagineers designed software to link the ride systems to the Internet. When players at home hit an alien target, it sets off a light in the ride at Disneyland, giving players in the park the chance to score extra points.
The game may eventually connect with similar games in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Florida, creating the possibility for global tournaments.
Such experimental, experiential attractions, Sklar said, reflect the ideas Disneyland was built upon.
"Walt would love this," he said. Whether kids will, of course, remains to be seen.