BURBANK, Calif. - Walt Disney Co. these days has more than one mouse on its mind. As it ramps up a worldwide celebration this week marking the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, the Burbankbased company knows it can no longer rely solely on Mickey and his friends to lure sophisticated young consumers into the Magic Kingdom.
Increasingly aware that children today are ‘‘born with a mouse in their hands,’’ as one expert puts it, Disney scientists and designers are working overtime to appeal to the Internet generation. The goal: To make the park’s next half-century as profitable as its last.
‘‘It’s all about trying to keep our entertainment relevant to the way kids are growing up today,’’ said Marty Sklar, principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s in-house think tank. ‘‘We don’t want to get left behind.’’
Over the next several months, Disneyland is set to unveil a new crop of immersive and interactive attractions designed specifically to hook techsavvy youngsters raised on computer games, digital effects and MP3 players.
Some ideas, such as a computeranimated clown fish (the star of the film ‘‘Finding Nemo’’) that swims around a submarine ride filled with park visitors, will come to life inside Disneyland. Others, such as a Magic Kingdom virtual reality game, will be accessible via the Web.
Then there’s Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, a ‘‘Toy Story’’-inspired space ride that will bridge the online realm with the physical world in what Disney designers are describing as an industry first. Beginning in June, Disney fans sitting at their home computers will be able to team up with park visitors to fight the evil Emperor Zurg, shooting at targets and accumulating points.
‘‘We’re in the business right now of really inventing a new genre of entertainment,’’ said Bruce Vaughn, the Imagineering vice president of research and development.
It’s about time, industry analysts say.
Four years ago, when Disney opened California Adventure, which sits like a barnacle affixed to Disneyland in Southern California’s Orange County, critics panned its abundance of off-the-shelf rides and lack of innovation. While the park has upgraded since, including last year’s $60-million thrill ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, its attendance continues to fall short of projections.
Moreover, Disney’s biggest competition these days isn’t from traditional rivals such as Universal Studios, but from video gaming companies and others that vie for the short attention spans and entertainment dollars of youngsters.
According to a recent survey by Nielsen Media Research, 13- to 17-year-old gamers spend an average of $39 a month on video and computer games — nearly as much as the price of a single theme park admission. The $24 billion gaming industry has become the fastest growing sector in entertainment business.
‘‘Many kids are saying, ‘Why should I go to Disneyland? I’d rather play my video game at home,’’’ said Martin Lindstrom, a branding expert who has consulted for Disney. ‘‘We never heard that before.’’
As Lindstrom sees it, there is a growing divide between youngsters weaned on computers and their parents, whom he dubs ‘‘the monologue generation.’’
Raised on more ‘‘passive’’ media such as TV, newspapers, radio and billboards, adults are content with linear entertainment experiences that unfold in a traditional, storylike way. They are more patient (read: willing to wait in line) and, Lindstrom says, can cope with only about 1.7 channels of communication at once.
Children, by contrast, simultaneously master 5.4 channels of communication (from surfing the Internet to text messaging to talking on the phone). They yearn for entertainment that is frenetic, multi-sensory and interactive. Used to video games that have different levels of play, they want to experience something new every time.
Figuring out what will be enough for today’s kids poses a special challenge for theme park operators, whose industry has been rocked by its own roller coaster ride.
Although parks recently have seen a rise in traffic, they have yet to recover fully from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that decimated the travel industry. Since then, the industry has been buffeted by everything from recession to high gasoline prices.
Disney’s competitors have been struggling. Under their new owners, General Electric Co., Universal Studios last year canceled plans for a theme park in China, sold its stake in a park resort in Spain, and has scaled back its design team. And Six Flags, one of the nation’s largest park operators, has faced heavy losses.
But no one has more to lose than Disney, the industry’s biggest player. At stake is not only the estimated $8 billion in revenue the parks generate annually, but also the future of the Disney brand. More than perhaps any other company, Disney’s entire range of businesses, from merchandise to movies to television, depend in large part on luring customers at a young age and keeping them for life.
In the past, at least, that’s something at which the stalwart U.S.-based parks — the original Disneyland in Anaheim, and the company’s biggest resort, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. — have excelled.
The parks were Disney’s cash cow over much of the last decade, helping to deliver record profit year after year. But business was sluggish even before the terrorist attacks of nearly four years ago.
Although overall attendance is growing steadily at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, fewer international visitors are coming despite the weak dollar.
And Disney recently was forced to bail out its Euro Disney resort after the company faced steep financial losses.
Undaunted, Disney is opening its newest theme park this fall, in Hong Kong.
But especially as chief executive-elect Robert Iger takes the reins, the folks at Walt Disney Imagineering who are responsible for research and development say there is new emphasis on reexamining the existing parks, as well.
After a recent vacation at Walt Disney World, for example, Iger raved about Turtle Talk With Crush, in which a digitally animated sea turtle character from ‘‘Finding Nemo’’ converses ‘‘live’’ with guests at Epcot’s Living Seas pavilion.