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Disney’s New Habitat : Entertainment: A $750-million, 500-acre Florida theme park featuring animals is scheduled to open in 1998. Anaheim expansion won’t be affected, officials say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a move that reflects new life in its theme-park division, Walt Disney Co. announced plans on Tuesday to go ahead with a fourth amusement park in central Florida featuring animals--both real and imagined.

The $750-million park, due to open in 1998 as “Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom,” will feature close encounters with live, wild animals such as hippos and giraffes as well as mechanical creations of unicorns and dinosaurs spread over 500 acres, Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner said in unveiling the plans at Walt Disney World near Orlando.

He called it “a celebration of animals that ever or never existed.” The park will be part of the Disney World complex that currently includes the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center and the Disney-MGM Studios.

The new Disney project will have little impact on an expansion of Disneyland in Anaheim, the company said. Having scrapped plans for a $3-billion resort earlier this year, executives are working on a scaled-down addition.

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Judson C. Green, president of Disney’s theme park division, said there is plenty of money for both parks, and Anaheim plans are speeding ahead. “It truly has no impact on what we do in Southern California,” he said. “They are completely separate markets.”

The animal park has been in the works for more than five years, but was stalled when the recession struck and foreign tourists shunned Florida because of concerns over crime.

Then, starting late last year, Disney’s three existing parks near Orlando and Disneyland started to recover. Operating profit rose 20% in the six months through the end of March--and Burbank-based Disney decided to resume the expansion of its theme park empire.

“There is no question that Disney, in order to maintain the significant growth over the past few years, needs to expand in Florida,” said PaineWebber analyst Christopher P. Dixon.

But the real question, he said, is whether a theme park emphasizing exotic live animals is the best option.

“This a bit of a departure,” Dixon said. “Is this going to be a theme park with a petting zoo or is it going to be a zoo with a bunch of rides? . . . Any time you deal with live animals, the costs tend to be so much different.”

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Disney officials have been hesitant to undertake a project involving herds of live animals until recently, said Harold Vogel, analyst for brokerage Cowan & Co. in New York. “You have to feed them, clean up after them, and make sure they stay healthy,” he said.

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Although Disney has underscored conservation as a theme for its project, it runs the risk of becoming a big-game target for animal-rights activists. One group expressed its dismay over the project Tuesday.

“We feel their excuse that this is conservation or caring for endangered species is ridiculous. If they really cared for animals, they would leave them where they belong--in Africa and Asia,” a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said Tuesday.

But Disney theme park chief Green said the company already has extensive experience in caring for live animals. The company operates an 11-acre wildlife and bird preserve on one of its Florida lagoons and a 5.7-million gallon aquarium.

The wild animal park idea was extensively tested and potential guests loved the idea.

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The park will center around a 14-story “Tree of Life” and be divided into “lands” like all Disney amusement parks. Separate sections will be devoted to live, mythological and prehistoric animals.

Disney’s attention to the prehistoric could cause some histrionics at MCA Inc., which is building in Orlando a $2-billion “Jurassic Park” theme park, including 2,500 hotel rooms.

“Would you rather have [Disney’s] ‘Dinoland’ or ‘Jurassic Park?” asked Ron Bension, chairman of MCA Recreation Services, which operates the Universal Studios movie theme park nearby. “I will take ‘Jurassic Park.’ ”

He said he thinks the Disney undertaking will help MCA’s Florida parks.

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“They have done an excellent job of marketing,” he said. “Ultimately, an investment of this size will bring more people into the marketplace.”

Shares of Disney stock closed Tuesday at $58.25 a share, down 12.5 cents, in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Magic Kingdom Expands

Walt Disney Co. will expand its amusement park empire with Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom, a 500-acre addition to Walt Disney World in Florida. Details on the company’s existing parks and proposed expansion:

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Disneyland * Location: Anaheim * Opened: 1955 * Acreage: 80 * Annual attendance: 10.3 million*

Walt Disney World

Four parks in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.:

Magic Kingdom * Opened: 1971 * Acreage: 100 * Annual attendance: 11.2 million*

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Epcot Center * Opened: 1982 * Acreage: 260 * Annual attendance: 9.7 million*

Disney-MGM Studios * Opened: 1989 * Acreage: 135 * Annual attendance: 8.0 million*

Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom * Projected opening: 1998 * Acreage: 500 * Attractions: Rides, landscapes and live, exotic animals

* 1994 estimate

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Sources: Walt Disney Co., Amusement Business magazine; Researched by CHRIS WOODYARD / Los Angeles Times


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