Good news. Good grief. 


What's a Mouse gotta do to catch a break?

The recent good news that post-9/11 travelers are flocking back to Disney World should have translated into a little positive PR. Maybe even given the beleaguered corporation's stock a boost.

Sorry Mickey. When Wall Street learned about the crowds in Orlando, the wizards promptly bought up all the available stock for the rival Six Flags corporation. Wall Street reasoned that, if Disney's parks are doing this well in April, Six Flags is sure to have an equally impressive summer.

These days, The Walt Disney Co. is the Rodney Dangerfield of the entertainment industry. No one gets excited about its successes anymore.

Remember just last month when Disney tried to lure David Letterman away from CBS? Scads of copy speculated on what Dave's arrival might mean to ABC anchor Ted Koppel and his long-running "Nightline." When Dave opted to stay put, Mouse House managers had to kiss a lot of ass to soothe the hurt feelings in ABC's news division. The media gleefully reported every smooch.

Perhaps that's why the Mouse has started to soft-pedal stuff. Maybe they're tired of the negative spin placed on even the most innocuous of stories.

Consider the Winnie the Pooh attraction currently under construction in Anaheim. This Disneyland feature is based on the wildly popular "Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" ride in Orlando's Magic Kingdom. The hope is that this opening-in-2003 attraction will boost attendance at the Southern California park.

That's the kind of small, upbeat item that Disney should be spinning in its favor, right? But the Mouse deliberately doesn't mention Winnie the Pooh these days, out of concern that any Pooh-related stories will remind readers about the corporation's ugly, ongoing legal battle with Stephen Slesinger Inc., the company that licensed the Pooh characters to Disney. This also explains why Disney is mounting such a low-key campaign for next month's 25th anniversary release of its first feature-length Pooh project, "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh."

Mind you, the Pooh ride isn't the only one deliberately being built out of the spotlight. Insiders have begun whispering about Epcot's "Mission: Space" pavilion, which had been the source of much hoopla for the science and discovery park -- until recently, when the Future World thrill ride suddenly seemed to be sucked into a news black hole.

Here's the problem: The attraction's sponsor, Compaq computers, is about to be swallowed in a merger with Hewlett-Packard. And Hewlett-Packard is in bed with DreamWorks, Disney's direct competitor in the feature-animation field. (Earlier this year, Hewlett-Packard signed a three-year, multimillion-dollar deal with DreamWorks to provide computers and support technology to its Glendale, Calif.-based animation studio.) That begs the question, will Compaq still pick up the $100 million-plus price tag for the Epcot project?

Negotiations between Disney and Hewlett-Packard are said to be continuing. But thrill-ride fans -- who could mark the days until "Mission: Space" opened on the huge countdown clock that overlooked the construction site -- were disheartened when the clock recently disappeared.

And speaking of space news, Disney Studios execs are suddenly very concerned about their animated summer film, "Lilo & Stitch." The reason, if you can believe it, is the less-than-stellar reception given "E.T."

See if you can follow this circular reasoning: "E.T." is a movie about a little boy who befriends an extraterrestrial stuck here on Earth. "Lilo & Stitch" is a movie about a little girl who befriends an extraterrestrial stuck here on Earth. Given that Universal's promotional millions couldn't steer a new generation of filmgoing kids toward the Spielberg classic, is Disney's made-in-Orlando animated film doomed at the box office? Urgent meetings in Burbank among Disney's PR staff have focused on ways to keep this cartoon from sinking.

This is the same brain trust that in 1985, after Paramount's "Young Sherlock Holmes" had tanked, scrambled to "fix" Disney's upcoming animated release, "Basil of Baker Street," about a mouse who modeled himself after Sherlock Holmes. The PR staff concluded that the former failed because modern audiences didn't like Sherlock Holmes movies. So, to distance their next cartoon from this alleged stigma, Disney rechristened "Basil" as "The Great Mouse Detective."

That sort of lamebrained response has the filmmakers shuddering in fear, even though "Lilo & Stitch" has been testing through the roof with audiences.

Who could respect a corporation that actually behaves like this? Rodney Dangerfield, indeed.


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