DAN TURNER Staff Reporter
Flying the entire family to Disneyland or Walt Disney World can be an expensive proposition. Add to that hotel and incidentals and the price really takes off.
So instead of making people travel to its mega-theme parks, Walt Disney Co. is bringing mini-theme parks to them.
That's the concept Disney will unveil this week in Thousand Oaks when it opens the nation's first Club Disney attraction.
Although Disney officials decline to reveal where or when future Club Disneys will open, the Thousand Oaks experiment is expected to be only the first of many such stores around the country perhaps as many as 100, Disney's ultimate target.
Disney is not the only movie studio going after the location-based entertainment business. DreamWorks SKG has formed a joint venture with Universal Studios Inc. and Sega Enterprises Ltd. called Sega GameWorks, which will create entertainment arcades in malls around the country.
Warner Bros., with its valuable Looney Tunes franchise, is also likely to be keeping a careful eye on the progress of Club Disney to see whether it wants to get into the same business, analysts say.
"The old theme park model is going down the tubes. I think Disney understands that," said Kevin Skislock, director of equity research with investment banker L.H. Friend, Weinress, Frankson & Presson Inc. in Irvine. "Entertainment is increasingly coming to the consumer, instead of making the consumer come to it," he said.
Club Disney has been likened to such family entertainment chains as the Discovery Zone or Chuck E. Cheese restaurants but that's sort of like comparing Disneyland to a county fair.
In reality, Club Disney will be considerably more elaborate than anything like it ever launched.
Though located at Westlake mall in Thousand Oaks, the first Club Disney is not actually in a store-front within the mall. It is a 24,500-square-foot, stand-alone building with 30-foot-high interior ceilings.
Inside will be far more attractions than a family is likely to be able to handle in one visit, which in itself is part of Disney's strategy it wants repeat customers.
The attractions are targeted at children 10 and under and their parents. There are mazes, jungle gyms with slides, a multimedia center with CD-ROM games and access to family-oriented Web sites, and a laboratory for scientific experiments.
There will also be a restaurant, a retail store and six birthday party rooms where kids can have parties themed on Disney films like "The Lion King" or "101 Dalmations."
The admission fee will be $8 per person, regardless of age. Disney would not disclose the costs of developing the project.
Thousand Oaks was chosen as a launch pad both because of its proximity to Burbank-based Disney and because it is more typical of suburban America than most other communities in the L.A. area, according to Jay Rasulo, senior vice president and general manager of Club Disney. It also has a lot of families with young children, he added.
"We don't think of this as a substitute for theme parks," Rasulo said. "It's something to serve as a bridge between theme park visits."
In designing the attraction, Disney has taken to heart many of the lessons learned by Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Discovery Zone Inc.
That chain of mall-based children's entertainment centers, which grew at a blistering pace in the early 1990s, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last March. Since then it has laid off 386 employees and closed 87 of its 347 stores. Its stock, which once traded as high as $34.25 a share, is now all but worthless.
Besides the fact that it may have simply grown too quickly, two factors are frequently cited as the main reasons for Discovery Zone's failure: First, parents found the experience boring because there was little for them to do at the stores.
And second, the chain has traditionally done almost all its business on weekends, with little traffic during the school week.
Rasulo says both of those problems have been addressed by the new attraction.
"Frankly, the similarities between Discovery Zone and Club Disney probably end in the target area in that we're both trying to attract the same audience," Rasulo said.
Children will not be admitted to Club Disney without a parent, and in fact parental involvement is critical for many of the attractions inside.
Parents will have to make their children up for the fashion show, for example, and most of the games require two players. Each computer terminal in the multimedia room has two chairs in front of it, and much of the educational content of the attractions will be instructive for parents as well as their children, Rasulo said.
"I think Club Disney is going to do very well," said Skislock, of L.H. Friend. "They're creating what places like the Discovery Zone or Chuck E. Cheese should have evolved into."
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