A French television journalist called it "The War of the Theme Parks."
Actually, it is more like a massacre. An overweight giant, a barbarian wild boar hunter, a colony of blue elves and a clown all ganged up against a mouse. So far, the mouse is winning, without even striking a blow.
When Walt Disney Co. announced plans to build its new $2.5-billion Euro Disneyland outside Paris for opening in 1992, it sparked a wild scramble of imitators all over France.
Backed by French and Arab investors, eager theme park promoters hired American consultants and sent executives on furtive tours of Disney parks in the United States. One group even enrolled an agent in a Disney personnel training seminar in Orlando, Fla.
In 1987, two years before the first shovel touched earth at the Euro Disneyland site at Marne-la-Vallee, 20 miles east of Paris, three French theme parks--Mirapolis, Futuroscope and Zygofolis--had already opened for business. Two more, Asterix and something called Big Bang Schtroumpf, opened this spring. Total construction cost for the Disney clones: nearly $600 million.
But so far at least, the French theme park explosion has been a huge financial flop and something of a cultural disaster. The struggling parcs d'attraction have suffered everything from violent sabotage raids by carnival operators to food boycotts by picky French eaters.
Mainly, the park builders failed to take into account the sociological peculiarities of France, which unlike most of the rest of the developed world, has had little previous exposure to theme parks. The French insistence on eating lunch at exactly 12:30, for example, cut into the concession sales and caused enormous, hostile, midday bottlenecks outside the park restaurants. To their dismay, park operators discovered that most French do not snack.
Likewise, the French aversion to meeting strangers with buoyant smiles and lighthearted greetings took the shine off the welcome by the park staff, a factor considered key to the Disney success. Conversely, visitors to one of the French parks, paying up to $20 for a single entry, were often treated as though they were buying subway coupons. Many French staffers openly defied orders to stop smoking, chewing gum and conversing with their colleagues.
Most parks also suffered from the French "only on Sunday" syndrome in which the French often dedicate Sunday, and Sunday only, as the day for family outings.
The French park failings do not seem to have fazed Disney executives here.
"It is difficult to say without sounding arrogant," commented Euro Disney president Robert Fitzpatrick, "but there is really no comparison." His proof: A recent $1-billion public stock offering by Euro Disney was gobbled up by European investors in just a few days.
However, Disney officials admit that there are some cultural lessons to be learned from the travails of the hastily built French parks. And some of the battered French developers warn Disney not to get too haughty.
"Disney is like Mike Tyson and we are like flyweights," said Marc Tombez, director general of the Mirapolis Park, 22 miles outside Paris near Pontoise. "They are like a symphony orchestra and we are like a jazz quartet. But they are dealing with an undisciplined French public that doesn't like to wait in line. I wish them well, but they could have troubles if they put too much America in their management."
In total, the five separately owned French parks had operating losses of more than $43 million in the season just ended. The hardest hit, Mirapolis, is undergoing the French equivalent of reorganization under bankruptcy, with creditors and bankers meeting weekly in an attempt to restructure its debt.
"I give us a 70-30 chance to survive," said Tombez in a recent interview, conducted as bank officials conducted an inventory of his office furniture.
Rudely awakened from financial fantasyland, facing a bleak tomorrowland, the French theme park promoters learned some painful lessons about the magic kingdom biz.
For example, Mirapolis designers discovered that a theme park built around the image of a grotesquely fat, belching giant has little appeal to the diet-conscious French man and woman of today. An impressive 110-foot-tall statue showing a squatting Gargantua, the character created by 16th-Century author Francois Rabelais, swilling a goblet of wine in one hand and eating a whole cow impaled on a giant fork in the other, looms hungrily over the Mirapolis grounds. A restaurant built into his bulging thighs serves roast chicken and platters of French fries.
"We have to forget about Gargantua," lamented Tombez. "First of all, Rabelais is only read by about 5% of the French people. Gargantua is well known but only for eating and drinking too much. But this is a time of fitness and form. The trend is to be light."
A $100-million park financed by Saudi Arabian investors and the French government Caisse des Depots, Mirapolis was hurt in its early days by violent attacks from traditional carnival workers who feared that the new theme park craze would put their old roving shows of rides and amusement booths out of business.
On at least two occasions, marauding thugs smashed machinery, put detergent in the fountains, poured sand in the gears of thrill rides and generally terrified park customers. On another occasion they spread tacks on the parking lot to puncture tires.
Asterix Park, a $150-million rival, is located about 50 miles away in another corner of the Paris metropolitan area, near Charles De Gaulle Airport.
Based on the immensely popular characters of the Asterix comic books created by Albert Uderzo and Rene Goscinny, which have sold more than 180 million copies in 29 languages, Asterix Park has a much more palatable theme. French opinion surveys show that more French know of Asterix, a feisty little wild boar hunter from Gaul who outfoxes the invading Romans at the time of Julius Caesar's Gallic campaign around 58 BC, than they do Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
In this respect, Asterix Park hopes to capitalize on French nationalism as it battles the Disney giant, which will be about a 40-minute drive away when it opens in three years.
"Asterix is the story of a little Gaul village that resists the domination of powerful invaders," recounted Asterix spokesman Didier Bailleux during a recent stroll through the deserted park grounds. "The Gauls have the secret of a magic potion--a drink that makes them supernaturally powerful and helps them against the Romans. In fact, we at Asterix also are resisting the pressure of invaders--you know who. Our secret potion is patriotism."
The theme park that provided the blue elves who sought to preempt Disney's Mickey Mouse is Big Bang Schtroumpf, with a popular theme based on the little cartoon and toy characters from Belgium, called "Smurfs" in English. But Zygofolis, a Lebanese-financed theme park in Nice, bombed when it attempted to base its theme on a clown character invented exclusively for the park.
Futuroscope, a high-tech amusement park near Poitiers, has no central character but is the only one of the French parks to actually exceed its estimates for visitors, 750,000 instead of the projected 500,000 during the summer season. But the park, financed by the French department (state) of La Vienne, runs the risk of becoming "anachro-land," as one Disney official put it, unless it constantly updates its technological displays. It is for the same reason that Disney discarded the idea of a Tomorrowland at its new Euro park.
Unlike Futuroscope, the compact Asterix Park follows the Disney formula more closely. As with Disney, the management asks employees to wear badges bearing only their first names, a very informal and un-French way of doing business. Unlike Mirapolis, which is near industrial buildings and has high-tension electric power lines cut across the property, the Asterix promoters have kept the real world isolated from their park. Even the parking lots are hidden behind earthen berms to keep vehicles out of the sight of park goers.
Most of the staff, like Bailleux, 29, are young and about as bubbly and friendly as anyone raised in the reserved, guarded French culture can be. As Bailleux strolled the grounds he occasionally stooped to pocket stray litter.
In fact, Disney specialists give Asterix Park the best chance for survival after the big battle begins in 1992. But the new park fell far short of its goal of 1.8 million visitors last summer.
When the park closed for the season earlier this month, only 1.3 million customers had paid their 120 francs ($20) to enter its gates. Park officials blamed the shortfall on their sociological misunderstandings.
In projecting their potential attendance, the Asterix marketers forgot about the French preference for reserving Sundays for family outings. As a result, they were horribly overcrowded on Sundays--on 10 occasions, all Sundays, they were forced to turn people away because the park was full--and nearly empty the rest of the week.
Unlike neighboring West Germany and Belgium, which have a 20-year history of large amusement parks, the French theme park experience began only in 1987. Suddenly, the French had the theme parks but didn't know what to do with them.
"We had suddenly-from-nothing mentality," said Tombez, a Club Med travel executive on loan to Mirapolis. "In 1980, Disney began to say it is possible we are coming to Paris. Overnight, all the investors and bankers in France began to say, 'Quickly, quickly let's go into the park business.' Everyone rushed out and bought the best American consultants. They gave us figures based on the American market. The only problem was that the Frenchman didn't know the product. He didn't even understand why he had to pay to get in. 'I have to pay,' he said, 'to do what?' "
Tombez cites what the expensive American consultants told the French theme park developers about eating habits. "They said in theme parks, 70% of the people eat--50% fast food and 20% in restaurants. But they forgot a big thing. American people will eat at any time. French people all eat lunch at 12:30. They cannot imagine anyone eating at 11 a.m. or 3 p.m."
The result, experienced by all the French theme parks: Gargantuan overcrowding and long lines at 12:30 p.m. and little business any other time of day.
For their part, Euro Disney officials appear unruffled. They are hoping for 11 million visitors in the first year of operation in 1992, timed to coincide with the unification of the economic markets of the 12 member nations of the European Community.
Said Euro Disney President Fitzpatrick: "At the most, they are investing $150 million in their parks. We are investing $2.5 billion. We are not just building a couple of thrill attractions."
But Fitzpatrick and Disney chief executive Michael Eisner have toured all of their European competitors looking for cultural idiosyncrasies that could affect business.
At the sprawling Marne-la-Vallee site, for example, they plan to install a luxury, hotel-style kennel for dogs to ease the pain of French visitors not accustomed to abandoning their animals, which will be banned inside Euro Disneyland although they are permitted inside most French resorts and even restaurants.
To deal with the famous French impatience, they will install specially covered waiting areas with entertainment to distract those in line. To avoid some of the nationalistic pitfalls, they will emphasize the European roots of some of the fairy tales used in the park, including Sleeping Beauty (La Belle au Bois Dormant). In the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, several of the bad guys will speak French.
"We intend to have polyglot pirates," quipped Fitzpatrick.
Despite the poor showing of the other French theme parks who had hoped to cash in on the Disney magic, the European investment community demonstrated its confidence in the Disney project during the company's first European stock offering in October.
Outside the Paris Stock Exchange, the Bourse, Fitzpatrick and Eisner were pelted with tomatoes and eggs by members of the Young Communist League, protesting the construction of the park. But inside, investors were buying up the stock at a rate unrivaled since former French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac privatized several important state industries.
Three days after the 83 million shares were put on the market, there was demand for 10 times that number in the several European markets where the offering was made.
"It was a great success," Disney vice president and treasurer John Forsgren said of the offering. "I think that people recognized that Disney is a different scale than these other places."