It may be Mickey Mouse's 50th birthday in 1978, but Walt Disney Productions is not spending much time on nostalgia these days, aside from the enhanced merchandising and licensing opportunities presented by the year-long celebration of the incredibly popular Mickey's first half-centry.
Instead, the entertainment company's main energies, are going into what it calls "imagineering." That involves the ambitious, and somewhat controversial, expansion of its Walt Disney World amusement and vacation site near Orlando, Fla., which had 1977 revenues of $274 million and 18 million visitors.
The company hopes the expansion will handle the Park's double-capacity crowds during peak periods, and perhaps also double the time vacationers spend at Disney's Florida facilities.
"Awkwardly called EPCOT - or - for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow - this second phase is being billed as the culmination of "Walt Disney's greatest dream."
It will include a series of educational-amusement pavilions sponsored by Exxon, General Motors Corp. giant corporations in "Future World," and what amounts to a permanent World's Fair of interanational exhibits, sponsored by foreign countries in the World Showcase."
At the center of the planned figure eight theme park will be "The American Adventure" - an attraction where, according to the company's recent annual report, visitors "will experience the remarkable three-century story of the American people, from the first step onto Plymouth Rock to the first step onto the Moon." This will be "brought to life" by audio-animatronic versions of Ben Franklin, Mark Twain and Will Rogers who also will present a message of "optimism for the future."
"Master Plan 5," the latest and most detailed version of EPCOT - nwscheduled for start-up sometime in 1982 - was unvieled a Disney Productions' annual share-holders' meeting there on Wednesday and in eight illustration pages of the company's recently issued fiscal 1977 annual report. EPCOT now is scheduled to start up sometime in 1982.
The new theme park, particularly "Future World," is described as a"form for free enterprize," and a "new kind of entertinment," where people don't "just have a good time, but come away with a positive feeling about themselves and the world."
"We believe EPCOT Center has stimulted many of America's leading corporations because the EPCOT dynamic is really the American dynamic," Disney president Card Walker told shareholders.
According to Disney Chairman Donn B. Tatum and president Walker, the company expects most of the financing for the new park exhibits - estimated at abour $30 million each - to come from the corporations and countries themselves. Disney Production will have to dip only marginally into its own cash till (which totaled $175 million at the end of 1977), and won't require any new debt or equity financing, the officials said.
"It is time to give our shareholders a tremendously leveraged run for their money, leveraged on a base already built up, Tatum told a group a stock analysts after the meeting in the Anaheim convention Center across a street from the original Disneyland.
Tatum said it was too clearly to announce what kind of admission pricing policy would be followed. And the analysts seemed to be having a hard time determining what kind of return on investment Disney can expect on this ambitious but somewhat nebulous project.
In December Disney announced that GM, the world's largest auto company, had agreed to sponsor the transportation pavillion at "Future World" which, according to a preliminary prescription will guide visitors form "man's earliet and most humble designs" to "a hands-on' involvement with working prototypes of tomorrow's vehicles."
And at the annual meeting it was revealed that Exxon, the world's largest oil company, will sponsor the energy pavillion where visitors will supposedly witness "the formation of fossil fuel energy," a sudden energy storm of wind, lightening, rain, fire and volcanic eruptions, and also "see man overcoming the major crises of the past and finally the choices te must consider today."
Won't an exhibit purporting to tell the energy story sponsored by a single oil company, let alone Exxon, lack creditbility? "Not at all," said Chairman Tatum. "It will not be Exxon's view on energy or MGM's view on transportation. It will be an exposition of choices and fundamentals in each field, and will only be sponsored by GM and Exxon. We will be responsible for hte design and content." (See DISNEY, F2, Col. 1) (DISNEY, From F1)
Other pavillions still up for grabs include light and health, the seas, the land, space and the "Amerrcan Telephone & Telephone, Atlantic Richfield, Coca-Cola, International Business Machines, RCA, and Sperry Rand.
Disney Productions says it has meanwhile been in touch wirt industry and government agencies in Canada, japan, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Poland, Saude Arabia and West Germany, among others, for foreign exhibits.
Some observers believe that the company's enthusiasm for EPCOT is a function, in part, of its frustration in going ahead with other long-announced projects.
The ski complex at Mineral King in California has been thwarted by envvironmentalists and the federal government. The Independence Lake ski and resort project in northern California is proceeding, but has been slowed by three years of environmental and engineering studies. At present, it is scheduled studies. At present, it is scheduled for a 1981-1982 winter season opening, if there are no road blocks from here on out.
The Tokyo Disneyland, has meanwhile been hampered by the financial troubles of its Japanese cosponsor, the Keisei Electric Railway.
Keisei's role largely has been taken over by Mitsui, the giant trading company. The switch has required a second turn through the slow Japanese "consenus" process of decision making. But Disney officials say the project is still alive, with completion also targeted for 1982.
In fiscal 1977, ending last Sept. 30, Disney Productions registered its tenth consecutive year of record earnings. That income totaled $81.9 million came from the company's two fore on revenues of $629.8 million, which increased percent. Even larger percentage gains are expected for 1978.
Of the gross revenues, $414.6 million came from the company's two amusement parks in Florida an Anaheim (with combined attendance of 23.7 million). This accounted for $93 million in operating income.
The film and television divison had revenues of $118 million and operating profits of $50 million. And the consumer division, which markets and licences Disney-related products, reported $97 million in sales and an operating income of $36 million.
The margins are heftiest in the film and television division, but business there has recently been spotty.
The long-running "Wonderful World of Disney" has slumped in the television ratings. "Pete's Dragon," its Christmas feature release, had a somewhat disappointing reception and is expected to just earn back its $9 million investment. However, "The Rescuers" the 1977 Disney all-animated release, earned $17 million in domestic film rentals and has already added $20 million in foreign rentals. This makes it the most profitable animated feature ever made by the Disney studios,sccond only to "Mary Poppins" in overall profitability.
Asked if the arrival of Fred Silverman as head of NBC would have any effect on the longstanding Disney relation with that network, Chairman Tatum told analsts that Disney has a five-year contract with NBC. By coincidence, one of the upcoming Disney made-for-TV features is called "The Snatching of Little Freddie."