Down Mexico way 

What' s the biggest Disney news story of 2000?

Headlines followed both the death of a passenger on the Magic Kingdom's Splash Mountain ride, as well as an Orlando jury's ruling that the Walt Disney Co. stole the idea for its Wide World of Sports complex. Media coverage outside of Orlando also focused on the Mouse's work on a second theme park in Anaheim; after all, once Disney's California Adventure opens in February 2001, the Disneyland Resort becomes Walt Disney World in miniature.

But the big story for 2000 may well be the one unfolding beyond the headlines, down Mexico way.

Over the past 12 months, Disney has made subtle but significant moves in Central and South America that strongly suggest the Mouse believes this region holds the key to the corporation' s financial future.

In March of this year, Disney -- through an arrangement with Terra Network, S.A. -- began offering Disney's Blast, a family-friendly website with games and puzzles that feature Disney characters, to Spanish-speaking children throughout Spain and Latin America. Three months later, the Disney Channel Latin America began broadcasting a dubbed-in-Spanish version of the American cable channel's daily lineup. Now children throughout Central and South America can be introduced to Mickey, Minnie and the whole Disney gang via their native tongue.

Is this just some ham-handed attempt to win over Hispanic consumers? Or do the two moves result from a calculated corporate strategy, with a much bigger Disney deal in the works?

Consider this: For more than a decade now, one of the worst-kept secrets at Walt Disney Imagineering has been Disney CEO Michael Eisner's desire to open a theme park in Latin America. (Back in the early 1990s when WDI was working up plans for Disney's America, that project had a code name: "Project V," as in Virginia. One reason news never leaked out about that proposed history theme park is that most of the Imagineers thought the "V" stood for Venezuela.) Disney survey teams reportedly have made numerous trips south of the border during the past 10 years. They've scouted locations from Brazil to Costa Rica -- all to no avail.

But now comes word that Disney might have found a site for Eisner's Latin outpost that's closer to home than anyone expected. Several Mexican newspapers have reported recently that the Mouse is looking to buy a piece of land 45 miles northeast of Mexico City in the state of Hildago.

Mexican officials who have spoken to the press insist that they have met repeatedly with Disney Co. representatives. And a peek at the map reveals that a site in Hildago, about an hour away from the Gulf of Mexico, is indeed ripe with possibilities.

Perhaps most significant, the location is about 1,000 miles away from both Anaheim and Orlando. This means the new project would have minimal impact on attendance at the two older Disney resorts. Plus, the Hildago location would give the Mouse easy access to the bigger population centers of Central and South America. (A good many folks in these parts of the globe love Disney theme parks. Just ask anyone who's ever encountered a Brazilian tour group at WDW' s Magic Kingdom.)

No one outside of Eisner's inner circle can know for sure whether Disney is seriously thinking about building a new theme park and resort in Mexico. But know this: These days, Mickey leaves nothing to chance. With a project like this, there's always a well-thought-out plan in place. Each move is carefully calculated years in advance.

Think back to how Disney entered China. In the early 1990s, the Disney Co. persuaded the Chinese government to run two hours of Mickey Mouse cartoons once a week on state-run television. A few years later, the Mouse introduced its merchandise to Chinese consumers by setting up "Mickey's Corner" displays inside all of the country's department stores. By 1997, Disney had created and released an animated film -- "Mulan" -- that implied the corporation truly revered and respected Chinese culture. Eighteen months later, Disney and the Chinese government announced plans to build a $3.2 billion theme park and resort near Hong Kong International Airport.

When you know all this, the current release "The Emperor's New Groove" -- an animated feature film set in a mythical kingdom in South America -- suddenly takes on more significance.

Disney is determined to make "Groove" as big a hit as possible with the Hispanic population. That's why the Mouse is trying something unusual this week in Los Angeles, home of one of the U.S.'s largest Latino populations. At 16 multiplexes around L.A., two different versions of "Groove" are being screened simultaneously: One in English, and the other dubbed in Spanish.

Should this dual-language release have a significant impact on "Groove's" grosses in Los Angeles, expect Disney to expand this program into other major Latino markets around the United States, in particular those in Texas and Florida.

Will a Latin version of the Disney Channel, Spanish content on Mouse-maintained websites and dual-language releases of new animated films convince the Hispanic population that Mickey is su amigo? Or will they see a ploy and decide that Disney's just in this for the dinero?

2001 may provide the answer.

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