I came home from work to have Sleeping Beauty and Snow White waiting for me at the door. They both were holding something. Ah, yes, of course: Sleeping Beauty was holding her Sleeping Beauty doll, while Snow White gripped her Snow White doll. The day before, it was Cinderella and Tinkerbell. Same thing.

Ah, the joys of having 4-year-old and 2-year-old girls.

We've seen the renaissance of Marvel (NYSE:MVL) based on its improved cultivation of existing assets. But what about Disney's own rejuvenation?

Five years ago Disney (NYSE:DIS) had a tired consumer products division with a floundering network of Disney Stores offering products that, while related to its extraordinary portfolio of characters, had no apparent strategy for keeping consumer interest in these products over extended periods of time. They had trend-driven strategies but had failed to capitalize on the annuity value of many of their most beloved characters. Fast-forward to today: Dolce & Gabbana is reportedly designing a sequined Mickey Mouse T-shirt that will retail well north of $1,000, Disney Stores have been trimmed back to just a few highly profitable top-shelf locations, and at the center of it all is a concept that makes every single day Halloween in the Mann household: the Disney Princesses.

The Disney Princesses line is even doing something that few thought possible: It is providing a real, credible challenge to that gold standard of children's toys, Mattel's (NYSE:MAT) Barbie. And what did Disney do to turn this into a billion-dollar powerhouse? Simple: It took a set of characters it already had -- Snow White, Jasmine, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Cinderella, and Ariel (and yes, I recited these from memory) -- created a long-lived theme around them, and sold products based on them as a group.

Barbie, for all of its brand power, cannot compete with the Disney Princesses in terms of associative power. Mattel has accessories galore that go along with Barbie dolls, along with some adjunct books and videos, including computer-animated features with Barbie starring in stories based upon ballets such as the Nutcracker and Swan Lake. There isn't a huge adjunct business for children who want to dress up like Barbie, though.

Contrast this to the Disney Princesses. Disney doesn't need to develop stories around them: These are well-known and beloved. The company can market dolls and accessories, much like Barbie, but it also has created an enormous business out of promoting products that allow little girls to pretend that they are the princesses: tiaras, costumes, books, secondary videos, music, and so on. From next to nothing only a few years ago, Disney Princesses will generate more than $2 billion in product sales and additional income tied to other Disney properties, such as the princess-related events that have sprung up at the company's theme parks.

Disney Princesses, you see, have theme parks. Barbie has Ken. The Princesses have decades' worth of brand equity and wholesome images to back them up. Barbie has Ken. This is a big, big deal, and it's just getting started. Barbie didn't grow to be a multibillion-dollar property out of luck -- there is some incredible marketing competence at Mattel. I don't think they've ever run into a challenger like Disney, though.

Try this: If you're out trick-or-treating in a month, count the Princesses, and count the Barbies. You may be surprised how much the pendulum has swung in a very short time.

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Bill Mann has beneficial interest in the Walt Disney Company, mostly because he saw the Disney Princesses for what it was a little more than a year ago. He'll let you know if he shows up at home one day and Barbie greets him.