California screamin' 

What if you built a theme park and nobody came?

That's the strange situation the Walt Disney Co. seems to be facing out west. Even though it's only been five weeks since the Mouse threw open the gates to its $1.4 billion expansion of the Disneyland Resort, there's real concern in Burbank over the public's lack of response to Disney's California Adventure theme park.

Disney execs launched DCA with plenty of hype: an hourlong ABC special, a $20 million print and TV ad campaign, a promotional tie-in with McDonald's. None of that seems to have mattered. A park designed to comfortably hold 28,000 guests has barely been pulling in 10,000-12,000 a day.

What gives? Some insiders say February's freakishly cold, wet weather may have kept people away. But if that were the case, how come Disneyland's attendance didn't dip as well? Visits to the company's original Anaheim park were virtually unchanged from February 2001 to February 2000.

Others say DCA's under-attendance may just be a repeat of the Islands of Adventure debut debacle. In the winter of 1999, Universal Studios launched its second Orlando park with TV commercials that were clever but confusing. Few who watched these award-winning ads had any idea that Universal had built a whole new park. They thought Islands was a new land added to the pre-existing park. It took a whole new set of ads for the public to grasp the difference.

When one views the DCA commercial currently airing (which pictures dozens of rubberhead characters peering over Disneyland's hedge at their new neighbor next door), it's easy to see how a casual viewer might get the wrong impression. But confusion can't explain the popularity of other components of the Disneyland redo. The 751-room Grand Californian Hotel won raves both from travel editors and architecture fans, and is virtually sold out through Christmas. And Downtown Disney -- the West Coast clone of Orlando's wildly popular shopping, dining and entertainment district -- is drawing crowds with Disneyland versions of the Rainforest Cafe and House of Blues. Both regularly report 90-minute waits before they can seat guests for dinner.

But just a quarter of a mile away, you can walk right up to two top-quality eateries -- Robert Mondavi's Golden Vine Winery and Wolfgang Puck's Avalon Cove -- and immediately be seated. Why? Because these Epcot-quality restaurants have the misfortune of being built inside of the California Adventure theme park, which means that -- after 7 p.m. -- there's scarcely any customers to be had.

Some industry experts muse that it may have been a miscalculation to build a California-themed park in Anaheim. Rides and shows that celebrate the Golden State apparently hold little appeal for regular Disneyland visitors, more than 60 percent of whom are Southern California residents.

While Disney officials won't admit their concerns, a recent policy change speaks volumes about their desperation.

Back when Disney management thought DCA would be a hit right out the box, these folks decided to restrict Disney cast members from using their employee passes to bring in friends and families for free from Jan. 1 to Sept. 3. Any employees who wanted to show off the newest park would have to buy them a ticket -- just like all the other guests.

But this week, Disney management suddenly decided to lift that ban. From now through June 14, cast members are invited --- no, actively encouraged -- to drag guests into DCA. The hope is that the delayed influx might help DCA meet its projected food, beverage and merchandise sales quotas.

Meantime, anticipating that tough times lie ahead, the Mouse has begun battening down the hatches. Virtually all expansion plans for the place have been canceled. An "Armageddon" special-effects show slated for DCA's Hollywood Backlot will now be built at Disney/MGM Studios instead. A West Coast "Tower of Terror" -- which would have featured actual hotel rooms where real guests could stay -- has been tabled as well.

DCA only opened on Feb. 8. It can't really be in this much financial trouble already ... can it?

Older Disney Co. employees keep trying to tell the 30-year-old accountants who currently run the corporation that there's no reason to panic. These guys see an intriguing historical parallel between how DCA is doing now and how Walt Disney World did during its first few months of operations. In 1971, Disney also expected the company's newest theme park to be an immediate hit. But after the doors opened on Oct. 1, barely 10,000 people a day entered the Magic Kingdom in those first few weeks of operation.

The underwhelming attendance levels set a wave of terror rolling through the company's executive suite. Only after Thanksgiving -- a holiday weekend that saw I-4 traffic backed up for five miles, as 50,000 people tried to make their way in -- did Disney finally see the Florida project as a success.

That's why these old timers are saying it's premature to sweat over DCA's apparent lack of popularity. If Disneyland management can just hang on till the next big holiday vacation period -- Easter is April 15 -- DCA should finally shake off its doldrums and rise from the dead. At least in a fiscal/attendance-level sort of way.

That would be one Easter miracle Mouse House managers would be happy to celebrate.

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