Disney in 2010

Dig my mouse ears? It's actually the number 2, a mouse ear, a 1, and the second mouse ear, because that's the 2-0-1-0 trinket that Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) was selling at its theme parks as we counted down to 2010 a few weeks ago.

That's right. You're still ankle-deep into 2008, aren't you? I've been taking an "unauthorized field trip" through time this week, checking in on what many of my favorite companies are up to two years later.

Think you know Disney? You won't believe what the company is up to in 2010.

A walk around the theme park
We'll start at the theme parks, because that's what many people associate with the Disney brand. They're doing great, by the way. Even Disney's California Adventure is a hotbed of turnstile clicks. Since Disney telegraphs its expansion plans early, you already know about the makeover that has added the popular Little Mermaid ride and will soon add the highly anticipated Cars Land.

It worked. Attendance at DCA still can't rival what Disneyland is drawing next door, but no one laughs at Disney's investment in the park anymore.

Out in Florida, Disney finally announced plans for a fifth theme park within Walt Disney World. It won't open for several more years, but the company finally dusted off the plans for the villains-themed amusement park that has been part of cyberspace chatter for ages.

The huge role that Expedition Everest played in turning Animal Kingdom around inspired Disney to make a gated attraction that caters to thrill-seekers. It's not all coasters, though Disney is really pushing the envelope on that front. Don't worry. There will still be plenty of rides for the entire family. I just can't wait for the park to open in a few years. I hear Disney is actually going to top the creepy Halloween scare houses that you find at your local Six Flags (NYSE: SIX  ) and Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN  ) October events.

Oh, and speaking of regional amusement parks, Disney is a hit in Canada. It acquired a Canadian amusement park from a publicly traded operator. Was it the Six Flags park in Montreal or the Cedar Fair property just outside Toronto? I'm not at liberty to say. Since Disney is now building smaller, localized themed experiences like indoor water parks and high-tech arcades, it was able to get a great deal from a cash-starved operator and enter a lucrative market that won't cannibalize its coastal bookends back home.

Animation in motion
Disney's back on track in animation. Those Pixar folks did a great job of reshaping Disney's full-length features. There are no more Home on the Range or Treasure Planet stinkers. Those direct-to-Blu-ray sequels also don't go out unless they're actually good.

The company's rebirth as an animation studio -- now well ahead of DreamWorks Animation (NYSE: DWA  ) -- has helped it in other ways. Along with its continued stream of hip live-action releases, Disney is a character magnet again.

Sure, that has boosted the company's licensed consumer products division, but Disney is also now one of the largest music labels. The Mickey Mouse company is also huge in cyberspace. The 2007 purchase of Club Penguin was really just the beginning. The company has created virtual worlds online, beyond the Disney Princess, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Virtual Magic Kingdom experiences that you already know about.

The hottest Disney virtual community is themed to WALL-E, the 2008 Pixar smash that got kids -- and kids at heart -- online to create their own virtual robots. Collectively, Disney's online communities in 2010 have a wider audience than World of Warcraft. Really.

Big things on the small screen
Are the writers still on strike? That's right. An amicable resolution didn't come together until the third week of February. Regardless, Disney's ABC resumed its golden network status by the time fresh shows emerged for the new fall prime-time season. No, Cavemen isn't on the air anymore. Breathe easy.

Since the economy didn't get back into high gear until after the summer, the programming gap was a mixed blessing. The advertisers came back just as consumers resumed their couch-potato poses.

ESPN is even bigger now in 2010 than it was in 2008. Pro sports are somehow even more popular. ESPN even shows hockey sometimes. You can thank the 2009 fashion trend that made hockey fantasy leagues hip for getting the NHL back on ESPN.

The Disney Channel is huge, too. Viacom's (NYSE: VIA  ) Nickelodeon is doing OK, but Disney is where young pop stars are born. Even after the Hannah Montana craze died out in the summer of 2009, Disney had the pipeline ready to go with more fresh talent.

M-I-See
Bob Iger is still CEO. Yes, he's still a Wall Street and shareholder darling. Even when eBay's (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) Meg Whitman returned to Disney's executive ranks after a brief retirement from the auction giant, there was no perceived power struggle at Disney. This is Iger's show, but he knows how to share the spotlight.

Disney's stock bounced back, as did most media companies. Seasoned media conglomerates like Disney and CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) should never have been fetching dirt-cheap multiples in the low teens the way they were when they bottomed out in the spring of 2008.

Well, I have to get back to the future. I'll see you here. I'll save a pair of the 2-0-1-0 mouse ears for you.


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