Disney Makes Bears Look Goofy

Just last week, Citi analyst Jason Bazinet downgraded Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) , fearing that weakening consumer spending trends and anecdotal evidence of last-minute resort discounting would eat into the family-entertainment giant's performance.

Sucker!

Disney is trouncing Wall Street's expectations, as it has during every single quarter under CEO Bob Iger's tenure. (Check out the previous quarter's topper).

Fiscal first-quarter revenue climbed 9% to nearly $10.5 billion. Earnings -- before asset-sale gains and one-time items from a year ago -- soared 29% to $0.63 a share. Analysts expected a profit of just $0.52 a share on $10 billion in revenue.

Three of Disney's four segments -- media networks, theme parks, and consumer products -- generated double-digit top-line gains. Operating margins widened at all three. The lone holdout was Disney's studio division, but that was a given, since it was competing against last year's fiscal first quarter, during which DVD sales of Cars, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and a Platinum Release of The Little Mermaid sold briskly.

Making a difference
Iger referred to what the company is calling "The Disney Difference" during yesterday's conference call. Disney feels that it is in a more recession-resistant position than its competitors. No leisure company may be completely insulated from an economic slowdown, but Disney's various moving parts prove that its unique promotional ecosystem is enough to keep it afloat during lean periods.

Take a look at any of Disney's non-studio divisions. Media networks rose, despite the dearth of fresh prime-time content on ABC late in the season. How could this be? We'll get a clearer picture when rival CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) posts its quarterly results later this month, but we know that Disney was helped by strength at its all-weather cable properties like The Disney Channel and ESPN.

Theme parks? Though Bazinet feared that Disney would come undone here first, attendance and per-capita spending were up at both coastal resorts. Regional amusement-park operators like Six Flags (NYSE: SIX  ) and Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN  ) may be suffering at the turnstiles, but Disney has been able to set itself apart as an aspirational brand that's worth saving up for.

Bears who argue that Bazinet's suggestion of weakness at Disney's resorts will come into play during the current quarter will be disappointed. Disney noted that bookings are ahead of last year's pace. To be fair, next month's Easter holiday will fall during the current quarter. The school break came in April last year.

Brands on the run
Internal estimates at Disney find that consumers spent 13 billion hours collectively consuming Disney-branded content last year. Ten billion of those hours were spent glued to The Disney Channel. Another 800 million hours were spent at its theme parks, with 1.2 billion hours spent consuming Disney movies at theaters, on DVDs, and through Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iTunes digital downloads. The last billion hours were spent everywhere else, no doubt consuming Disney's websites and virtual communities.

No one can milk a successful franchise like Disney. Disney began the call alluding to the box-office success of Hannah Montana's concert movie, which opened over the weekend; it was the industry's biggest debut during a Super Bowl weekend. Just as Disney Channel hits like Hannah Montana and High School Musical have been transformed into hot CDs and traveling stage shows, the same goes for Disney's animated characters.

Toy Story came out 13 years ago, but it's still generating $400 million annually in licensed merchandise sales. The Toy Story Mania ride opens at Disney's resorts in both California and Florida this summer. Next year finds the two original films getting theatrical re-releases in 3D form, leading up to the 2010 debut of Toy Story 3.

Iger all but leaked the news that a Cars sequel was on the drawing board, possibly in time to coincide with the 2012 opening of the high-tech Cars Land attraction at Disney's California Adventure. A virtual community game is also on the way.

And we're no longer singing Disney's animated praises between Pixar releases. Sure, you probably went "ooh" and "ahh" over the Super Bowl ad for Pixar's Wall-E, due out this summer. However, the Pixar brain trust is also now very involved in Disney's holiday release of Bolt, a cross-country road trip flick about a celebrity dog trying to make his way from New York to California with the help of a housecat and a hamster.

How cool will Disney be if it can swing two hit animated features a year, the way that DreamWorks Animation (NYSE: DWA  ) has done from time to time? Especially knowing how lucrative a hot franchise can be in Disney's proven moneymaking hands?

Recession? What's that? Disney hitting the wall? Heck, it hasn't even hit the Wall-E yet.


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