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Disney to Wish Upon Steve Jobs' Star


In helping to revamp stores, Apple chief suggests company "dream bigger."

Between Build-A-Bear Workshops (BBW) and Forever 21, stores under the Walt Disney (DIS) header have their work cut out for them to appeal to the younger set. Lost in a sea of youth-oriented competitors, the chain has faltered in recent years into becoming an expensive flop -- at an annual loss of $100 million by 2002. Aside from the Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers regalia, the Disney name hasn't been grabbing youngsters' attention or -- more importantly -- their parents' wallets.

Attempting to save the Disney Store from the depths of liquidation sales and shuttered gates, Jim Fielding -- president of Disney Stores Worldwide -- will be executing a complete overhaul on all Disney locations. And with an eye toward the sleek future of interactivity, he's enlisted Disney's Board of Directors member and Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs for some suggestions.

According to the New York Times, each of the 340 American and European locations will be given a "floor-to-ceiling reboot" -- adding to an untold number of new shops. Rebranded under the name Imagination Park, the stores will shift focus from racks of plastic figures and stuffed animals toward a high-tech array of multimedia stations. Kids will be able to sing karaoke, interact with Disney Channel stars via satellite, or just plop down and watch a clip from The Little Mermaid.

Just picture a Chuck E. Cheese's (CEC) if it was featured in Tomorrowland.

After Disney finalized the Imagination Park concept -- with the help from Steve Jobs' overriding suggestion, "dream bigger" -- Jobs' involvement reached an Area 51 level. A prototype store was built within an undisclosed, unmarked warehouse in Glendale, California, as per Jobs' request. Fielding said that the prototype was crucial in order to achieve a more "Pixar-esque" feel.

In fact, with the interactive theaters and mobile checkouts -- the latter a fancy name for employees with handheld scanners and receipt printers -- the new Imagination Park will have a strong Apple Store influence.

Disney wouldn't be the first to follow in Apple Store's successful footsteps. Microsoft (MSFT) announced in February its plan to open its own all-inclusive, interactive retail chain. The two companies hope to profit from Apple Stores' touchy-feely atmosphere where customers can have hands-on experiences with featured products.

Microsoft's ability to successfully emulate the Apple experience for its visitors is unlikely -- Windows 7 and an array of Zunes probably won't generate the same foot traffic as a shiny iMac and a souped-up iPhone. However, Disney may have rescued its retail brand with this move. Toy stores are a dime a dozen, but try to find one child who doesn't want to put his grubby mitts on something shiny and interactive. The planned media stations turn each Disney Store into a fun-filled -- and free -- arcade.

Imagination Parks will likely draw crowds, but at $1 million per store renovation, will the company recoup the cost?

Maybe -- if Disney finds a star to wish upon.

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