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Is Walt Disney Studios about to get a toon-up?

Is Walt Disney Studios about to get a toon-up?

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What makes the Walt Disney Studios Park outside Paris the worst performing Disney theme park ever built? There are several major factors.

First of all, the park is extremely small, taking up roughly the same amount of space as Frontierland in the neighbouring Magic Kingdom. A complete walking tour takes approximately five minutes, and the park's maximum capacity is a measly twenty thousand guests.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the park contains only nine attractions. Nine! That's fewer than can be found in Fantasyland. Compounding this problem is the nature of the attractions themselves. Almost all of them are shows or walkthroughs, meaning they have very little repeat value. Once you've done them, that's it.

Of these attractions, only three are aimed squarely at families with children, and this has become the most persistent complaint levelled against the park. Families arrive from the Magic Kingdom, expecting the same variety of style and appeal, and are disappointed.

Lastly there is the question of theme and detail. I covered this aspect of the park in depth in my very first article for this website, so I won't repeat myself here. But suffice to say that a walk through the Studios holds as much excitement, intrigue and romance as a walk through your local supermarket car park.

I concluded that first article by theorising that, should the resort be lucky enough to receive fresh funding, this ailing park could well see an unprecedented leap in quality. Happily, that time has now come. The Disneyland Paris resort has avoided insolvency and received a hefty sum from The Walt Disney Company and its shareholders. As expected, the Studios park is to receive the lion's share of the windfall. But how will the money be used? And will it go any way towards saving what is beginning to look like a doomed venture?

Happily, the resort's management appear to have taken the worst of the park's shortcomings into account when preparing their plan of action. The Studios will be welcoming two major additions before the end of 2008, each of which is designed to alleviate specific problems and finally set the park on track.

The first problem to be addressed will be the lack of child-friendly rides and the shortage of space as the Studios undergo their first major expansion. A brand new "production zone" is to be created: Toon Town is finally coming to France.

This promises to be quite a departure from the existing Toon Towns however. For a start, the French version will be entirely indoors, offering much needed shelter from the temperamental European climate. Apart from this first practicality, the construction of a "show" building raises an interesting question about the zone's presentation.

While it was initially expected that France would receive a direct copy of one of the US Toon Towns with the addition of an artificial sky, it seems that something a little more ambitious could be on the cards. Rumours of a "Toon Studios" are rife and could herald a truly unique addition to the park. As opposed to the rural idyll populated by Mickey and friends, the Toon Studios building would house a replica of Toontown - the fictional city from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" that is home to Hollywood's most famous animated characters. This slightly grittier, urbanised take on the Toon Town concept would probably prove more palatable to European tastes, and would lend the park a much needed sense of atmosphere and excitement.

But what of attractions? Whatever form the park's new section takes, it will be quite a simple affair consisting of a collection of façades, meet 'n' greet areas and a small boutique. I can confirm that it will contain at least one dark ride, although there are few firm details at this stage as to what it may be. The only thing that is known for certain is that Goofy will feature prominently. Some rumours claim that Florida's Barnstormer kiddie coaster will receive a re-theme (possibly transforming it into a stunt car coaster), while others tell a far more intriguing story. Goofy, it seems, could be taking possession of Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin. Quite why Disney would choose to oust Roger in favour of Goofy is uncertain, especially considering the Toontown connection. Nevertheless, it is still the strongest rumour backstage and has even been heard doing the rounds in managerial offices.

And where will this new zone be situated? Designed to open up the extremely cramped Animation Courtyard, the entrance to the new section will occupy the space between The Art Of Disney Animation building and the Flying Carpets ride, which had previously been earmarked for Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters. It will then project outwards on to the car park of the costuming building. This is an unprecedented move, as the costuming building itself is only three years old, and opened at the same time as the Studios park. Doing away with its parking facilities goes to show the lengths to which the resort's new managers are prepared to go to turn the struggling park around.

However, a few concerns remain. It is by no means clear just how much of the car park is going to be sacrificed for this new development. If it is decided to do away with it altogether then we could be looking at a Toon Town of some considerable size, with space for several features besides the dark ride. The alternative is that the ride will be the only thing to be built beyond the existing park boundary, and that Toon Town will be nothing more than a glorified entranceway - a few small façades and nothing more.

Fortunately for us, it appears that this last option is not likely to see the light of day. A few hours ago I received the transcript of a Belgian radio interview conducted with André Lacroix, the resort's new CEO, in which he outlines his plan for the Walt Disney Studios. It makes for exciting reading:

"During this first period we'll concentrate heavily on the second park by creating two new attractions, including a real monster hit from the American parks. But that won't be all. The Studios park will keep growing, and in six years time it'll be twice its current size."

As you can see, if all goes according to plan we are in for a real treat, and no doubt a few surprises along the way. The fact that Lacroix talks about continuing to expand the studios even AFTER 2008 (when the "monster hit" is scheduled to open) is a hugely promising step and has already sent the rumour mill into overdrive.

In the meantime, enjoy the New Year. I'll be back soon with a full rundown on that "monster hit" next time.

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