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Disney May Build Park Near Seoul

Times Staff Writer

Looking to expand its global entertainment empire, Walt Disney Co. is sizing up South Korea for a possible theme park.

During the last several months, company executives have been in talks with government officials over a site south of Seoul, sources familiar with the matter said.

The proposal being discussed would involve something more modest than the 310-acre Disneyland opening later this year in Hong Kong. The Korean project would combine restaurants and shops with a smaller-scale version of a traditional Disney theme park.

Discussions are in the early stages, sources cautioned, with financing details yet to be addressed. Disney’s foreign parks typically include substantial financial commitments by foreign governments and partners.

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The company recently denied a newspaper report in South Korea that Disney had reached a deal on a nearly 800-acre site. Theme park chief Jay Rasulo reiterated in an interview this week that the company had no agreement, although he did call South Korea “a potentially attractive market.”

Some industry observers are skeptical that Disney will move forward in South Korea anytime soon because Disney is preoccupied in nearby China. Disney plans to open its Hong Kong park in September. And it hopes to build a resort in Shanghai, where the company has been involved in lengthy talks for a park that would open after 2010.

Some longtime observers suggested that Disney might be using the South Korean talks as leverage to win concessions from Shanghai. Disney first signed a letter of intent 2 1/2 years ago in Shanghai, but no final deal has been struck.

“I would not be surprised if they are doing a little bit of gamesmanship,” said Orlando, Fla.-based theme park consultant Bill Coan.

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Disney successfully pitted government officials in Spain against their counterparts in France to win a host of lucrative concessions for building Euro Disney outside of Paris, which opened in 1992.

“They could be playing Korea off Shanghai,” said Frank Stanek, former president of international business development for Universal Studios parks and resorts. “It’s a logical extension of their historical practice.”

The Burbank-based entertainment giant -- which has 10 theme parks worldwide -- has made international expansion a linchpin of its growth. Over the years, executives have talked about possibly expanding Disney’s theme park network to areas as varied as Singapore, Australia, India and Latin America.

Hong Kong Disneyland is set to include a theme park and two hotels. Disney will manage the park and control 43% of the operation while contributing just a fraction of the cost -- $314 million. For its part, the Hong Kong government is expected to invest $2.9 billion in the park and accompanying infrastructure.

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Like China, South Korea represents a largely untapped market for Disney. Company icons such as Mickey Mouse are highly popular there.

Disney has made some inroads in South Korea with the Disney Channel and its publishing arm. The company is enticed by the nation’s affluence and its population of about 50 million. South Korean theme parks also fare well; one of the 10 busiest parks in the world, owned by the Lotte retail chain, is in Seoul.

“I would look at this as a pretty strong market,” Stanek said. “Korea has enough population and enough economic wealth to sustain a theme park.”

Analysts said one drawback could be tensions caused by instability in neighboring North Korea. In addition, Seoul is not a major draw for international travelers, unlike Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

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Beyond that, some analysts said, Disney risks offending its partners in China and in Japan, where it operates two Tokyo parks, by adding another competitor to the region.


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