Cake for Euro Disney, Despite Bumpy First Year

SLEEPING Beauty's castle resembled a huge birthday cake, the shy Parisian sun came out of hiding, and several dozen babies born exactly one year ago were invited as Mickey Mouse's special guests.

The occasion was the first anniversary of Euro Disneyland, the huge $4-billion extravaganza east of Paris whose opening April 12 last year was accompanied by a media blitz and complaints from French intellectuals about American cultural imperialism.

One year later, as 60,000 visitors strolled through the park and Euro Disney's new French president, Philippe Bourguignon, cut the birthday cake, both the French and the American-owned Walt Disney Company are learning to live with each other.

The first year of operations has been anything but easy for Disney. Arriving in France with the huge successes of the California, Florida, and Tokyo parks behind them, Disney executives made few concessions to the French way. As a result, Euro Disney just missed meeting its target of 11 million visitors during the first year, registered a loss, and was forced to modify its previously sacrosanct marketing policy.

"We want to give this park its own personality rather than make it just a copy of something that exists elsewhere even if at the same time we remain vintage Disney," Mr. Bourguignon said.

Following a relatively successful summer season, attendance plummeted in November and December, leading to an operating loss of $126 million during the first six months rather than the $24.5 million profit it predicted in its first year.

Clearly, something had to be done before the park's detractors, who argued that such an American institution would not succeed in Europe, were proved right.

The major policy change was to lower prices during the winter for residents around Paris, whom Disney executives had ignored on the grounds that the park could make a profit on the millions of German, British, Dutch, and Spanish tourists.

The gamble worked, and Disney says it will welcome its 11 millionth guest before the end of the month, making it the most visited tourist attraction in France.

The company also announced it will reduce entrance fees (about $45 for adults) between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. on summer nights. Prices will also fluctuate on a seasonal basis in an effort to reduce the huge crowds on summer weekends and attract visitors during the rainy winter months.

Seeking to Europeanize the park, Bourguignon plans special events to celebrate major continental holidays, including Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest.

"Most of our visitors want as American an atmosphere as possible, but celebrating Halloween doesn't mean much for them," explains Bourguignon, whose smile is as wide as Mickey's.

France's economic crisis and its effect on the real estate market have also forced Disney to delay opening a second amusement park on the 2,000 hectare site.

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