Ex-Baltimore councilman heads Disneyland project

MICKEY IN EUROPE

March 17, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Paris Bureau of The Sun

PARIS — Paris--Robert J. Fitzpatrick may be the man best-suited to sell Europeans Walt Disney's collection of American myths. In a sense, he is living one.

His career has climbed steadily, elegantly upward in a way that would be hard for the more class-constrained Europeans to imagine: from French teacher at Baltimore's Gilman School to Baltimore city councilman and Johns Hopkins University dean in the 1970s to head of the California Institute of the Arts.

Now, in a spacious Paris office with a 7-foot-high tapestry of the character the French know as "Mickey Maousse," Mr. Fitzpatrick faces the biggest challenge of his life: building a European version of Disneyland.

"Unexpected things come up, and they offer new opportunities," said Mr. Fitzpatrick, 50, who moved here in 1988 to begin work on the $4.2 billion project that is scheduled to open in spring 1992. "For me, it's very boring to just continue doing year after year the things you've already done."

As president director general of Euro Disneyland S.C., Mr. Fitzpatrick is, in effect, chief executive officer of one of Walt Disney Corp.'s most ambitious projects.

Set on nearly 5,000 acres of Marne-La-Vallee, 20 miles east of Paris, Euro Disneyland dwarfs the original, 180-acre Disneyland inCalifornia.

(Disney World in Florida is the company's largest project, with 28,000 acres, only 6,600 of which are developed.)

Disney -- which already has 1,600 European employees and plans to hire thousands more -- is taking a considerable risk in Europe as it tries to repeat the roaring success of its Florida, California and Tokyo parks.

Two other giant theme parks have opened near Paris in the last few years, and both were dismal failures.

But Disney executives believe the Europeans' long-standing love for Mickey and Minnie will translate into a grand stampede to Euro Disneyland.

An estimated 109 million people from five countries live within a six-hour drive of the site, and Disney executives are expecting 11 million visitors in the park's first year.

The project will include Disney hotels with rooms for 5,200 people, each model built around an American -- or, on some cases, pseudo-American -- theme.

At the Hotel Cheyenne, rooms will come equipped with cowboy boot lamps and blue jean curtains. At the Hotel Santa Fe, an imitation volcano will erupt every day at 5 p.m. -- a phenomenon sure to puzzle visiting New Mexicans.

And at the Hotel New York, visitors can enjoy a genuine Rockefeller Center-style skating rink out front -- without muggers and dirt.

"It's the New York of myth," Mr. Fitzpatrick acknowledged. "You have to think in terms of back lots."

Such plans have sparked complaints from French intellectuals, who claim that Mickey is the Trojan horse of U.S. cultural imperialism. Mr. Fitzpatrick replies that Disney's roots go deep in Europe, and notes that much Disney lore is drawn from classic European fairy tales such as Snow White, Pinocchio and Cinderella.

That defense, worthy of a candidate for office, illustrates how the Euro Disneyland job weaves together the threads of Mr. Fitzpatrick's life: French language skills, political acumen and artistic flair.

Mr. Fitzpatrick's years in Baltimore followed an upward sweep, though the mark he left on the city was not deep. He was often criticized for trying to do too much, as he juggled duties as 2nd District councilman and Hopkins dean of students.

In 1974, a Time magazine story named Mr. Fitzpatrick one of America's 200 rising young leaders, but the choice brought less than overwhelming enthusiasm in his hometown.

The man who hired Mr. Fitzpatrick, former Hopkins President Steven Muller, responded: "If they had to pick anybody, though, I'm glad they picked Bob. But why not Orlinsky or Mikulski?" (Walter S. Orlinsky at the time was president of the City Council, and Barbara A. Mikulski represented the 1st District in the City Council.)

When Mr. Fitzpatrick announced in December 1974 that he was leaving the city for -- of all places -- California, he took it from all sides.

Peter A. Jay, a Sun columnist, wrote that Mr. Fitzpatrick's politics amounted to "liberalism a la mode," paced by the councilman's "Cause of the Week." And a student interviewed for an article assessing Mr. Fitzpatrick's performance at Hopkins complained of having to couch problems in politically attractive terms to lure the dean-councilman's interest.

But what was criticized in Baltimore was prized as versatility on the West Coast. In February 1975, Mr. Fitzpatrick became president of the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

In addition to running the institute, Mr. Fitzpatrick founded the Los Angeles Festival of the Arts in 1987, worked on the International Olympic Committee -- "a great opportunity that came out of nowhere" -- and labored for "six killer months" starting Euro Disneyland before resigning from the institute.

Despite his lukewarm sendoff from Baltimore, Mr. Fitzpatrick looks back with fondness on his years there.

"It has a sense of neighborhood and rootedness that I never found in L.A.," he said.

Asked if he outgrew Baltimore, Mr. Fitzpatrick's eyes seemed to flash agreement, but his words were measured: "Los Angeles and now Paris gave a scope that was not available in Baltimore for the things that I wanted to do."

His political career, he said, provided valuable experience for the challenges he faces.

"I learned what the pressures are on elected officials, what is do-able and what is not do-able," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

"And you learn that in a way that's impossible to know if you've never served in public office."

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