Disneyland Paris fetes 20th after rocky childhood

Associated Press
A firework display lights up the castle of Sleeping Beauty in Disneylands theme park in Marne-la-Vallee, east of Paris, Saturday March 31, 2012. This will mark the 20th year since Disneyland opened in Paris in 1992.(AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
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CHESSY, France (AP) — Disneyland Paris celebrated its entry into adulthood in spectacular style this weekend, with a 20th birthday extravaganza replete with celebrities, parades and a new state-of-the-art show.

The resort 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) east of Paris has a lot to celebrate. After overcoming a rocky childhood, the "Magic Kingdom" now makes up a chunk of the French economy and of Disney's own revenues.

Mexican actress Salma Hayek and retired French soccer great Zinedine Zidane led celebrations at the park featuring a high-energy projection of Disney cartoon characters onto Sleeping Beauty's castle crowning Main Street, U.S.A. Also starring in the event, marked with fireworks and water displays, were Peter Pan and other Disney characters.

"Marvelous!" Frenchman Xavier Fin, 40, said Sunday, a day after the show. "I'm here with my son and it's so great for him to see all the creativity. It's really overwhelming."

Beyond the glitz, however, there is a real story for Disneyland Paris to crow about after some volatile years and a rumored brush with bankruptcy.

The resort — 40 percent owned by the Walt Disney Co. — has come a long way under the marketing mantra "slowly but surely."

Five years ago, the resort finally started to make operating profits. Building on its fortune, Disneyland Paris became the most visited tourist destination in Europe in 2008. It broke its record for ticket sales last year, marking its 250 millionth visitor since its creation.

Over the years, the French have also learned to love Mickey. The resort was decried by some in France as a threat to the French culture — a "cultural Chernobyl" for some, a "construction of hardened chewing gum" for others. An initial ban on wine — done away with — inside the park was seen as a snub of the French heritage.

Now, two decades on, the Gallic grouching has been transformed into enthusiasm — at least for the hordes of French who visit the park, a 2,230-hectar (5,510-acre) expanse. The French now make up about half of the visitors, according to the French Tourism Ministry.

The resort began its life in the verdant Paris region, blossoming out of farmland, with the name EuroDisney but was re-branded in the mid-1990s as Disneyland Paris to link itself more closely with the French capital. It now accounts for a considerable portion of the tourist revenues of France — the world's most visited country — and employs some 15,000 people.

"In 2011, 6.5 percent of all the tourism income in the country came from Disneyland," French Tourism Minister Frederic Lefebvre told The Associated Press. "And a third of all the visitors to the resort come to see Paris as well for the historic heritage, so it is extremely important to France."

The resort's French CEO, Philippe Gas, speaking with typical Disney-style fervor mixed with Gallic pride, went even further: "It is perhaps arrogant to say, but we are the best deal that France ever made."

The operating profit book, indeed, looks fatter than in the past, but the resort still has huge debts linked to its rocky financial past.

"It didn't work in the early years how we wanted," Gas said, "but now we are at the healthiest situation in our history."

The initial construction went hugely over budget and, with less than half the expected number of visitors, put the resort on a downward economic spiral. In 1994, with the company in serious financial difficulty, rumors circulated that the park was on the verge of bankruptcy and crisis talks were held between the banks and backers, which rescued the park.

Expansion with a new park in 2002, Walt Disney Studios, consolidated the long-term survival of Disneyland Paris. Now, though the debt is still huge — €1.8 billion ($2.4 billion) — the company has been paying it off in large sums since 2009.

"It's been a long way, but now we have a calendar of payment that will see all the debt wiped out by 2024. We no longer need Mommy and Daddy to help us," Gas added.

Walt Disney Co. should be pleased that the French Mickey is cleaning up its debt slate. It has announced expected losses of some $200 million dollars on its current movie "John Carter," making it among the biggest flops in cinema history.

The company is increasingly reliant on the success of its theme parks, and profits generated by higher ticket prices and attendance levels, strongly contributed to the Walt Disney company's 12 percent profit spike last quarter.

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