Though Tourists Love It, Euro Disneyland Is Stuck in the Red

`C'EST genial!,'' yells a small French boy, as he leaves Euro Disneyland's new ``Temple of Doom'' thrill ride. With this shout, he is giving the ride about the highest verbal thumbs-up a French child's vocabulary offers.

What is not so fantastic - but rather downright bleak - is the 20-month-old theme park's financial performance.

Having announced $908 million in losses for the year through Sept. 30, Euro Disney is now attempting to restructure its $4 billion debt. If it cannot, Euro Disney officials warn that the elaborate development east of Paris could close.

The dire warnings took an even darker turn last week when Michael Eisner, chairman of Walt Disney, the entertainment group that owns 49 percent of Euro Disney, told shareholders that the Paris park's financial performance was ``dreadful.'' It is Disney's ``first real financial disappointment,'' he added.

The tone is not typical ``Disney,'' but neither is Euro Disney's performance. While Euro Disney swims in the red, Disney's movies, products, and the American theme parks continue to register brisk (20 percent) profit growth.

Most analysts see the warnings of closure and Mr. Eisner's tough words, including statements that Disney will only go so far to rescue Euro Disney, as part of a high-stakes game of chicken that Disney is playing with Euro Disney's creditors - most of which are French banks.

Disney wants to ``scare'' the banks into restructuring the park's debilitating debt, the argument goes.

But the banks suspect that the park's situation is not quite as bleak as its owners want them to believe. They doubt that Disney wants to face the horrendous blow to its image a closure would produce.

The irony is that, amidst all this negative publicity, Euro Disneyland is actually an uncontested popular success. More than 18 million visitors have poured through its turnstiles, making the first leisure park of its dimension in Europe the top tourist destination in France, ahead of the Eiffel Tower, the Palace of Versailles, or the Louvre museum.

In fewer than two years, Euro Disneyland also has become a bigger tourist destination than such tourism-dependent countries as Greece, Morocco, and Tunisia.

The park's problems lie elsewhere: high interest rates on the project's initial development loans, a strong French franc that makes visiting France more expensive for non-French Europeans, and a European recession. People come to the park, but they do not spend much money once they are inside, and not enough of them stay in the park's hotels.

A clearer picture of Euro Disneyland's future is expected after Jan. 15, once an audit sought by its creditor banks is complete. The parent Disney company has said it will support the park only until March 31.

Another irony of the Euro Disney saga is that the brinkmanship over the park's future comes just as France seems to have come to terms with having one of Mickey Mouse's residences, an incomparable beachhead of American culture, in its backyard.

At first the park was likened to a ``cultural Chernobyl'' by one Parisian intellectual. President Francois Mitterrand sniffily pronounced - as if speaking for the country - that the park ``is not my cup of tea.'' At the first signs of the park's tough financial picture, openly gloating reports appeared in the press.

Now, news reports emphasize the park's good attendance record, examples of the fun visitors are having, and the pain that the park's financial troubles is causing for its employees - just like so many other French companies that are having to lay people off.

One explanation is that Euro Disneyland is now run by Frenchman Philippe Bourguignon. The American Robert Fitzpatrick and a coterie of other American managers were shipped out last April. Since then, Mr. Bourguignon has been trying to ``Europeanize'' the park with more flexible admission-price scheduling and wine in restaurants. Another explanation is that there is a greater realization that trouble at the park means trouble for more French workers, who already face a 12 percent national unemployment rate. One other reason may be that - pride and a love-hate relationship with the United States aside - the French have come to realize that Euro Disneyland may have something worth saving.

``This is beyond my highest hopes,'' exclaims one French woman, to no one in particular, as she views the park's electric light parade on a recent shivering-cold Paris night. Euro Disney only wishes it could say so much for its financial picture.

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