Disney touch comes to Baltimore

March 15, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

An article in Wednesday's editions of The Sun about plans for a children's museum in Baltimore incorrectly reported Anthony W. Deering's title. He is the president and chief executive officer of the Rouse Co. Mathias J. DeVito is chairman.

The Sun regrets the error.

A touch of Disney is coming to Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced yesterday that a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co. has been chosen to design and build the exhibits at the $25 million children's museum planned for the former Fishmarket complex on Market Place.

The selection of Walt Disney Imagineering marks one of the rare occasions when Disney's in-house design experts, best known for their theme-park attractions at Disney World and Disneyland, have agreed to work on a project for a client other than the parent company.


It came less than a week after museum planners announced that the Rouse Co., a nationally prominent developer based in Columbia, will serve as development manager for the nonprofit venture, which will be one of the largest children's museums in the country.

Together, their involvement is expected to catapult the children's museum from a "second-tier" attraction drawing 500,000 visitors a year to one of the Inner Harbor's biggest draws, attracting 1 million visitors a year.

It is seen as an instant boost for the city's Market Place area, where past redevelopment projects have failed.

It is expected to help planners raise the funds needed to complete the nonprofit museum, called Port Discovery, in time for it to open in 1997, the 200th anniversary of Baltimore's incorporation.

Port Discovery is one of 300 children's museums open or on the drawing boards in North America. But it is the only one that will have exhibits designed by Disney.

"This is not just another attraction," said a beaming Mayor Schmoke. "This is a world-class attraction here in our community that is going to make a big difference in the quality of life for years to come. . . . It will bring people from all over the world."

Douglas Becker, chairman of the nonprofit group building the children's museum, said Disney's selection represents a perfect marriage of education and entertainment.

"We know that to allow kids to learn, we need to . . . make sure we have education that's fun," he said. "And there's no one who knows more about fun than the Walt Disney organization."

Disney's participation has the potential to make Port Discovery the catalyst for a new wave of revitalization around the harbor, said Nicholas Brown, former executive director of the National Aquarium in Baltimore and a leader in the local tourism industry.

"There's nothing in Washington that could compete with this," Mr. Brown said. "Disney will bring verve. It knows how to handle crowd control, which can be the Achilles heel of an area. There's a quality to anything that Disney touches that in lesser hands would be tawdry and cheap. When they do it, they pull it off."

Anthony Deering, chairman of the Rouse Co., said he regards Walt Disney Imagineering as "a world-class resource for imaginative design. . . I think it will be a wonderful collaboration."

Walt Disney Imagineering was chosen over six other groups that bid last year to design exhibits for the children's museum, which is being planned by Baltimore Children's Museum Inc.

Disney is now negotiating a contract that will spell out the terms under which it will be paid to design and build the exhibits.

At the City Hall news conference yesterday, museum representatives made clear that Disney would have no ownership interest in the project. They said the museum would be operated by the staff of the nonprofit organization and that Disney's role would be limited to designing and fabricating exhibits.

They said the museum won't have Disney cartoon characters cavorting among the crowds and won't be a thinly veiled outlet for Disney merchandise.

But they also were vague about what it would be.

"Ask me when we're done designing," said Bran Ferren, executive vice president of creative technology at Walt Disney Imagineering. Mr. Ferren, 42, represented Disney at the news conference and will be in charge of the Baltimore project for Disney.

Of the firms interviewed, Walt Disney Imagineering stood out because of its history of working on projects that stimulate the senses and challenge children to explore the world.

"We're just so excited that they're going to help us use their knowledge about attracting families and kids to come to where they can learn together," Mr. Becker said.

The museum board has secured $2 million from the state and $3 million from NationsBank and is seeking another $3 million from the General Assembly this year. That would leave $17 million to be sought in a fund-raising campaign that starts next month.

Design work will begin this month, with construction scheduled to commence by mid-1996.

For Walt Disney Imagineering, the project represents "a wonderful opportunity to bring Disney's ability to communicate, in ways that entertain, to subjects of importance for young people to learn about," President Martin Sklarstated. "Our exhibit design team is excited about creating something the people of this region can take great pride in and enjoy."

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