Both sides now

Maybe it's time the Walt Disney Co. found itself a new corporate symbol.

Sure, Mickey Mouse has served the company faithfully for 73 years. And certainly his bright, smiling face has moved a mountain of merchandise. But this plucky little rodent just doesn't capture the true spirit of the company anymore.

So which animal would? How about that mythical, two-headed beast that turns up in Hugh Lofting's "Dr. Dolittle" books? You know -- the Pushme-Pullyu. That would exemplify what the company has done a lot of lately, which is never make up its mind while talking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time.

Consider some of the decisions Disney has made over the past six months.

First up is the way the Mouse opted to handle cast members trying to book rooms at its soon-to-open Animal Kingdom Lodge. The 1,293 room hotel -- currently in preview mode, with an April 16 opening -- was supposed to be the next big thing at Walt Disney World.

Senior Disney officials were so certain that tourists would be fighting to get into this luxurious, five-story hotel that even before construction was complete, they dispatched a companywide memo telling cast members to forget discounted employee rates during the hotel's first year. Anyone who booked a stay before April 2002 would have to pay full price, just like the rest of the guests.

Only the Mouse didn't get as many as advance reservations as expected. In fact, the lodge had so few bookings for this fall that, early last month, Mickey sent out another memo, saying, "Please disregard previous memo. Cast members can now book their discounted rooms for as early as Sept. 1."

A sudden change in direction also is evident in the Mouse House's struggle to come up with a coherent policy on the sales of mobile phones.

Last November, the Walt Disney Co. -- which at the time voiced concern about health risks that mobile-phone use posed for children -- announced it would immediately halt the sale of all cell phones that featured the company's cartoon characters on their covers. Many health-care professionals praised Disney for swiftly taking such a courageous and selfless stand.

Perhaps they wouldn't have been quite so free with their praise if they'd known it would take Disney only three months to reverse itself.

In early February, ABC broadcast the results of a scientific study from Denmark. This study, which reportedly followed 420,000 Danish cell-phone users, concluded there was no link between mobile-phone use and cancer. Almost immediately Disney abandoned its previous promise, and the sale of cell phones bearing the corporation's classic characters was back on.

Just last week, in fact, Disney announced an agreement with Japanese wireless operator NTT DoCoMo to create content for the wireless firm that specifically features Mickey. Why? To make DoCoMo's devices that much more appealing (and therefore that much easier to sell) to kids.

One has to wonder: Do Disney execs ever actually ever think about the long-term ramifications of these very public reversals? Aren't they worried these quick changes in direction might send the wrong messages to investors?

It's fairly obvious that a few of the larger players in the stock market have grown tired of Disney's constant back and forth. Witness Warren Buffet's decision last year to have his investment vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., divest itself of 16 million shares of Disney stock. That was more than three-quarters of Buffet's holdings in the Mouse House. When the news leaked earlier this year, it put a significant chill on the sale of Disney stock.

What can Disney do to restore investors' confidence? Acting less Pushme-Pullyu-like -- as in announcing a plan of action, then actually sticking to it -- might be a start.

Unfortunately, this is a lot harder than it looks. Remember Disney's announcement in January that it would shutter its faltering Internet operation, laying off 400 employees? Well -- what a surprise -- last month Disney changed its mind. Not only would the Internet operation not go out of business, but the Mouse had just purchased's hated rival,, in order to merge the two competing servers into one web superpower.

How typical of the decision-making being made these days at the uppermost levels of the Walt Disney Co. The Disney Store's controversial "Project Go" policy, requiring employees to delay restocking and sell, sell, sell? Just six months after it was foisted on all those who work at the Mouse's 700-plus-store retail chain, "Project Go" is gone. The early-February announcement that annual-pass sales to Disney's two California parks would be discontinued "indefinitely"? "Indefinitely" in Disney-speak evidently means a period lasting no longer than six weeks. Those passes went back on sale at the Disneyland Resort on March 17, following the slow start for Disney's California Adventure park.

If there's an upside to all this corporate waffling, it's that it offers a sliver of hope to those 1,400 Disney World workers who just learned their jobs may be on the line. If the Mouse continues to behave like a Pushme-Pullyu, not only will these cast members keep their positions, but they also can expect sizable raises in the next three months.

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