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.
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.