The French warm to `Lion King' but remain blase on Euro Disney

Financial analysts say the theme park needs to attract more visitors

Call it ``Simba does Paris.'' The young Lion King is bumping Barbies toward the back shelves of toy stores all over the city.

Disney's latest pawed hero stole the cover of a leading Christmas toy catalogue, roared over competition in subway poster wars, was draped across the front of a major department store, and even claimed the display window of ``Flory Story,'' a small Left Bank flower shop with nary a $42 stuffed lion in sight.

``I begged the movie company for that poster,'' says co-owner Valerie Bernard. ``People are attracted into our shop by our windows. I knew they'd be drawn in by that poster.

They have been drawn into movie theaters. Since opening on Nov. 23, ``The Lion King'' has sold 5 million seats, making it to date the most successful foreign film ever in France.

``Disney's `Aladdin' held the previous record for foreign films in France,'' says Jean Francois Camilleri, spokesman for the film's French distributor. `` `The Lion King' is doing even better.''

Add to ticket sales the revenues from marketing more than 1,000 products, including stuffed toy animals, T-shirts, a book series targeted to 10 different age groups, video games, compact discs, cassettes, and even candy.

The only place you won't see the ``The Lion King'' yet is Disneyland Paris, the resort and theme park in Marne-la-Vallee, east of Paris. ``The characters will be here next year, after the film opening,'' park spokesman Philippe Ravanas says.

Perhaps none too soon. The ``Lion King'' may be taking Paris by storm, but Disneyland Paris is still struggling under a financial cloud. For the parent company, Euro Disney, net losses in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 amounted to $351 million, down from $1 billion in 1992-93. Last week the theme park dropped its adult admission prices 22 percent in a bid to increase attendance. As of April 1, adults will pay $39, down from about $50.

Euro Disney's chairman, Philippe Bourguignon, says ``the decision to make our prices more affordable was possible because of 18 months of improvements'' in operations. Last March, a $2.26-billion refinancing deal with Euro Disney's 60 banks saved the park from closure. It also cut staff by 900 and reduced operating costs. The chairman says he expects Disneyland Paris to be profitable by the end of this fiscal year.

To meet that goal, the park will need to attract 700,000 more visitors by Sept. 30, says financial analyst Nigel Reed of Paribas Capital Markets. ``I'm concerned that if the park doesn't get to

10-million visitors and beyond, it could have another financial difficulty and need another restructuring.'' Stockholders have seen share prices fall from a high of 165 francs ($37) to $1.4.

The park's opening in April 1992 generated intense public interest and equally intense criticism. The French government put up $560 million to help finance the venture, including extending a rapid train line from Paris to the park's entrance. But attendance and occupancy in the resort's six hotels and convention center were disappointing, and the economy turned sour.

``When the project was conceived, Paris was exploding,'' Mr. Ravanas says. ``Then the market fell. Given what happened to the real estate market, we probably would have had to restructure finances regardless of the success of the park.''

Aside from criticism of cost, there was also the concern that the park was not quite French.

The Disney design team tried to anticipate that hurdle. Main Street, U.S.A., is still Main Street U.S.A., but the pirates of the Caribbean ``yo ho'' to each other in French. When it came to the signature Disney castle, the earlier models at other Disney parks were already European-inspired.

``We realized that we were building a chateau in the midst of a country that has real chateaux. We had to do more than build another chateau, so we built the dream of a chateau,'' Ravanas says.

One quality the designers couldn't plan into this site: sunshine. The roller coaster on Big Thunder Mountain takes on an unintended chill as the sun sets on a cold damp December afternoon.

``We considered climate,'' Ravanas says. ``But 50 million tourists go through Paris every year. France is the leading destination for tourists in the world. We're still persuaded that Paris was a good choice.''

Many Parisians are not. ``It's just not French. It doesn't please,'' a young mother on the metro says. ``And it's too expensive.''

Disney officials expect the price cuts to change this. They're also counting on Parisians like Hugette Lavigne. She saw ``The Lion King'' but had been reluctant to visit the park.

``I didn't see the interest, because it seemed so American,'' she says. ``But I went once with friends and everyone was enchanted.''

The French government gave the venture another boost. In a separate press conference on Dec. 14, government liaison Claude Villain announced that Disneyland Paris was the primary destination of 3.7 percent of all tourists who came to France last year and that Euro Disney had effectively created 42,306 jobs. Mr. Villain added that tax revenues the first two years of the park's operation had covered the state's initial investment.

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