Show stoppers

These days, you almost have to feel sorry for the folks who handle publicity for Walt Disney World.

After all, these are the people who had to put the best possible spin on management's decision not to open any significant attractions during the resort's 30th anniversary year. Which is why the PR staff ended up churning out bushels of press releases, insisting that live entertainment (rather than new rides) would be the real centerpiece of WDW's 15-month-long "100 Years of Magic" centennial celebration of Walt's birth -- Dec. 5, 1901. Festivities go into full swing this week.

But, now Mouse House management has decided to save a few more bucks by cutting back on the very thing the PR staff had been so busy promoting: live shows. Which presents the spin staff with an even greater challenge. With such fare as "Beauty & the Beast: Live on Stage" cut back from seven days a week to just four, it's going to take some pretty amazing misdirection on publicity's part to convince the savvy theme-park goer that a $50.88 daily ticket still packs the same punch.

Through careful manipulation of park operating schedules, Disney has been able to fool the public -- so far -- about most of its cutbacks. For example: Over at MGM, the Mouse has scaled back the number of weekly performances of the popular "Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure" show (now only presented on Sundays through Wednesdays). But -- by making sure that Disney/MGM's other popular show, "Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage," is up and running whenever "Notre Dame" is dark -- visitors rarely have realized they're getting a lot less bang for their vacation buck.

Over at Disney's Animal Kingdom, the cost reduction moves are painfully obvious. Since the park opened in April 1998, the Mouse hasn't really added many new shows and attractions to DAK. And the only new stuff that's on the horizon is the "Triceratop Spin" carnival ride next month and the "Primeval Whirl" mini-coaster next spring.

So, DAK already has had attendance problems because it offers too little to do. Yet, managers still decided to cut back the number of weekly performances that Animal Kingdom presents of "Pocahon-tas and Her Forest Friends" (now only Tuesday through Saturday) as well the number of daily performances of the very popular "Festival of the Lion King" show (reduced from eight to four times a day). As a result, the number of complaints at DAK's guest-relations office appears to be skyrocketing. Which is why the guest-relations staff is reportedly handing out dozens of free food vouchers and/or blank FastPass tickets each day.

The thing that makes many veteran WDW visitors absolutely furious is the fact that -- even as the company cuts back on the live shows and park operating hours -- there have been no such cuts over at Downtown Disney. As they have for years, some two-dozen stores along Lake Buena Vista's waterfront still throw open their doors each morning at 9:30 a.m. And -- while the parks are closing earlier -- Mickey hasn't ever felt compelled to shutter up the shops early. The stores in the Downtown Disney Market-place don't close until 11 p.m., while the shops over on Pleasure Island and the West Side don't shutter until the last partygoers (and their wallets) stumble out into the parking lot at 1 a.m.

Mickey is still aggressively expanding the retail side of his Walt Disney World operation. Take the recent change the Mouse made to the Magic Kingdom's Main Street area. Where there was once a colorful little cul-de-sac that featured a turn-of-the-century barber shop, there's now an enormous, new 17,000-square-foot store. As a result, the once charming west side of the street has become a Mouse-merchandising monstrosity.

But -- as bad as that may sound -- it's nothing in comparison to the enormous Hasbro sponsored "Once Upon a Toy" store under construction along the waterfront at Downtown Disney. The store is so huge that it actually bursts out of the confines of the Marketplace area, swallowing up most of Parking Lot A. The building will feature dozens of witty touches, including a gigantic genie popping out of the store's ersatz chimney.

That used to be the sort of thing WDW visitors would associate with the resort's theme parks rather than its shops. But, given the fact that Disney's current president of parks and resorts, Paul Pressler, used to head the Disney Co.'s retail chain, I guess it's understandable.

At least the new superstores give the publicity-staff members something to crow about. They can actually tell it like it is: "Come to Walt Disney World: a Great Place to Shop, and ... Oh, yeah, we have rides, too."


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