Say so long to Simba.

"The Lion King," this summer's biggest box office success, is taking a temporary hiatus as of Sept. 23. On that date, the Walt Disney Co. will pull the animated feature from theaters nationwide, just three months after its mid-June release.

Buena Vista Pictures, one of Disney's subsidiaries, plans to clean and then re-release 1,500 or more prints of the film this Thanksgiving, a company spokesman said yesterday. "The Lion King" is currently being shown in 2,355 theaters nationwide. A new advertising campaign will accompany the blockbuster upon its re-release, which coincides, not incidentally, with the opening of the lucrative holiday film season.

Disney's move is a highly unusual one, and especially surprising given that the "The Lion King" has maintained a steady position on the box office Top 10. The film ranked seventh last weekend, and has grossed $232.4 million to date, with little sign of slowing down.

"It's very {gutsy}, but it's smart," a distribution executive at a competing studio told Variety. "What Disney is doing is re-energizing their picture, which could refresh it for both Academy {Award} consideration as well as box office appeal."

Disney execs hope that re-releasing "The Lion King" as a fresh product during the holiday will take advantage of what one company spokesman described as a "lack of family films" slated for this December.

It's an odd explanation, what with "Little Women," "Free Willy 2" and "Page Master," 20th Century Fox's foray into animation, among a sizable list of children's movies scheduled for release later this year.

Disney itself plans to release three live-action films over the holidays: "Tall Tale," "The Santa Clause" (starring Tim Allen) and the soon-to-be-renamed "My Posse Don't Do Homework" with Michelle Pfeiffer. Disney's "The Goofy Movie," which was originally slated to come out as well, has been pushed back to 1995.

Not everyone will be raking in the profits from "The Lion King's" re-release. For theaters currently showing "The Lion King," including 24 in the D.C. area, Disney's unusual maneuver could mean lower profits. By pulling the movie in mid-stream and re-introducing it as a first-run film, Disney stands to increase its percentage of profits from ticket sales. Generally, the percentage of ticket revenue that goes to the studio diminishes as a film's run continues.

"They can do whatever they want. It's their film," lamented one national theater chain buyer, who preferred to remain anonymous. He called the decision "a savvy business move" for Buena Vista, but a potentially disastrous one for theaters.

But not all theater chain executives are worried. "Three months is a long run," said Ben Ryland, regional marketing director for Loews, which is screening "The Lion King" in five local houses. "There are a lot of classy movies -- Academy Award movies -- that come out in fall. It's more of a weekend-date season. Besides, it's after Labor Day, and the kids go back to school," Ryland added.

Profits for "The Lion King" would almost certainly dip once school starts. In fact, it's common practice for theaters to revert to a "split-screen" system after Labor Day, showing children's films during afternoon and weekend matinees, with other films taking over the screens at night.

"They've undoubtedly done it in hopes of playing the film through Christmas," said Seymour Berman, a recently retired longtime local film buyer. "They're doing it now, when the kids are out of school. Then they'll come back with another campaign in the fall, hoping that the kids will want to see it a second, third or fourth time."

"It also undoubtedly has to do with the merchandising package," Berman added. "Today they find a way to suck every dime possible out of these films. It used to be them in the theaters and that was the end of it. Now it's every bit of merchandise they can think of."

Staff writer Rita Kempley and special correspondent Kathryn Wexler contributed to this report.