Attraction scores 'coup' by luring Walt Disney

March 15, 1995|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Staff Writer

Walt Disney Co.'s designers, artists and engineers aren't usually for hire. But occasionally they'll work for an outside client if they like the project and aren't too busy.

Disney's interest in Baltimore's children's museum was sparked by a combination of personal contacts and excitement about the attraction's possibilities, officials said yesterday.

"Children's museums have been successful throughout the country, and this is going to be the state-of-the-art children's museum," said Douglas Becker, museum chairman and president of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. of Columbia. Disney "didn't need a lot of hard selling," he said.

It didn't hurt that Disney officials admired the urban projects of the museum developer, the Rouse Co., including Harborplace. Columbia-based Rouse is also landlord to some of Disney's mall stores.

Bran Ferren, the Disney executive overseeing the design and construction of the Baltimore project, knows the city. His company, which was bought by Disney in 1993 and which he still supervises, is designing exhibits for the Columbus Center's Hall of Exploration at the Inner Harbor.

"This is wonderful news," not only for Baltimore but for children's museums in general, which are losing visitors to for-profit "pay for play" centers such as Discovery Zone, a museum advocate said.

"Disney working on the exhibits will help the children's museum to compete," said Janet Rice Elman, executive director of the Association of Youth Museums in Washington. "Everything Disney does is wonderful and magical. They are thought of very highly."

Disney is only a contractor to the Baltimore children's museum. It won't have any ownership, and its name won't go on the project, which will be called Port Discovery. Don't expect Mickey Mouse in the exhibits.

Although Disney will be paid for its services -- the amount is under negotiation -- the local project amounts to little more than a sideline hobby for the $10 billion corporate giant. The exhibits budget for the museum is $12 million, and Disney's cut will be far less.

"This is not a Disney project," Mr. Ferren said. "We're doing this because we care about kids and education, and it's an exciting challenge. It keeps our people sharp."

Port Discovery will require perhaps a dozen people from the 1,000-employee Walt Disney Imagineering, the California-based Disney subsidiary that conceives, designs and builds exhibits in Disney parks.

Mr. Ferren said he knew of only a few other outside contracts undertaken by the Disney unit in the last decade. They include developing exhibits and shows for the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles and designing Space Center Houston, a museum at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Johnson Space Center.

At the space center, "we approached Walt Disney Imagineering three times" before the group said yes, said spokeswoman Gwen Griffin. "That's a real coup for the Baltimore museum."

The space center, an interactive science center and theater, opened in 1992 and draws a million visitors each year. The Gene Autry museum, which recounts the history of the American West in multimedia exhibits and fine art, opened in 1988 and attracts 500,000 visitors annually, a spokesman said.

Current Disney Imagineering projects include an Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.; expansion at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.; and a planned DisneySea oceanic theme park in Tokyo.

Last year, Disney scrapped plans to build a $650 million history theme park in Northern Virginia after critics said the project would mar nearby Civil War battlefields. The company has said that it still might build a theme park in the Washington region.

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