Will fifth park snap into place?

Since their company is the undisputed king of Central Florida's theme-park market, you'd think the executives in charge at Disney would be able to kick back and relax a bit. The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney/ MGM and Animal Kingdom combined are drawing record numbers of visitors.

But if rumors can be believed, there's a fifth park in the wings -- and it could be the first time Disney partners with someone else to build it.

It seems an unlikely scenario. But folks in the know back in Burbank insist that a series of high-level meetings have taken place between the American entertainment giant and Lego Global Family Attractions, an arm of the Denmark-based toy manufacturer. Disney execs apparently are giving serious thought to letting Lego build its next stateside park on Disney World soil.

Why would Disney -- a company renowned for not playing well with others -- even consider getting in bed with the maker of Lego and Duplo blocks? Putting it bluntly, a "Legoland at Walt Disney World" would be a lot cheaper to build than a traditional Disney park.

Take, for example, Disney's Animal Kingdom. The Mouse spent more than 10 years and $800 million to develop and construct Disney World's fourth park. And recent reports suggest Disney may have to spend another $200 million to $300 million on new rides and shows before Animal Kingdom meets its initial attendance and revenue projections.

Now consider Legoland California. Opened in March 1999 in the San Diego area, the 128-acre park, built for just $130 million, was an immediate hit. (Other Legolands are in Denmark and England, with one in Germany set to open in 2002.) The first stateside Lego park drew an estimated 2 million visitors during its first year -- which is why its parent corporation is planning to expand. Expect six new rides and additional retail and restaurant facilities along with a medium-sized hotel to open by 2003.

Now, Legoland California's 2 million visitors may not seem like much compared to the 8.6 million who visited Animal Kingdom last year. But those aren't the important numbers. It's the bottom-line numbers -- the idea that Disney could open a fifth Orlando park for less than $150 million -- that intrigue the Mouse.

It's also worth noting that these two conglomerates have gotten chummy over the past four years. First came the Lego Imagination Center, a 4,400-square-foot retail center that opened at Downtown Disney in October 1997. Then in August 1998, the Mouse and the toy giant announced plans to begin releasing Lego System-brand construction toys that featured Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. And, earlier this month, a second Lego Imagination Center opened as part of a new shopping and dining district at the expanded Disneyland Resort.

Given that amount of close contact, it's not so outrageous to think that Disney and Lego might consider taking their relationship to the next level.

Here's how the deal could play out: The Walt Disney Co. and the Lego group would form a limited partnership. The two companies would put up the funds to build "Legoland at Walt Disney World." Lego and Disney would then split the profits, with the Mouse getting the lion's share because it provided the land.

What sort of attractions might guests expect to see, were they to tour a Disney-fied Legoland? Picture Splendid China. Only instead of looking at a miniature version of the Great Wall, you'd see an all-Lego version of Belle's village from Beauty and the Beast or the city of Agrabah from Aladdin. Staffers at Feature Animation say copies of artwork from these two films, as well as other Disney animated classics, already have been provided to the Lego production team. You could also expect the park to have tons of low-cost kiddie rides, deliberately designed to appeal to Lego's target audience: kids ages 2-12.

Enter the cynics: Wouldn't Disney be embarrassed to have its name associated with such a low-tech park? Given the iconic grandeur of Cinderella's Castle, Spaceship Earth and the Tree of Life, wouldn't it be a step down for the company to play an active role in a park where the biggest draw is a teeny tiny version of Toontown?

To be honest, Disney doesn't care about stuff like that anymore. These days, all the Mouse worries about is heads in beds -- in other words, making sure the tens of thousands of hotel rooms the company owns and operates are kept full. A fifth theme park -- even a modest one -- might be enough to get the typical tourist to extend their vacation (and vacation spending) by a full day.

Last June, the Lego group announced it had narrowed its site search for the company's next park. The three candidates: Tokyo Bay (not far from Tokyo Disneyland), the greater Baltimore/ Washington, D.C., area (specifically Prince William County in Virginia, where the Mouse wanted to place its "Disney's America" park in 1994) and Orlando.

A lot still depends on whether Disney decides to get greedy and inadvertently does something to block the deal. Lego wants to have its fifth Legoland family theme park open by 2005. That would keep the company on track for its master plan of becoming the world's premiere toy brand by 2010.

That's a tall order. But -- with Disney helping to promote the brand through a new theme park in Central Florida -- not impossible to achieve.

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