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The bear essentials



Starting this month, the 100 Acre Woods gets a million-dollar makeover.

On Jan. 22, the Walt Disney Co. is looking to relaunch its lucrative Winnie the Pooh franchise with an ambitious new television series, "The Book of Pooh." Through a clever mix of ancient Japanese puppeteering techniques as well as state-of-the-art computer technology, Edward Bear and friends will come to life as never before -- which, hopefully, will delight a new generation of kids.

But there's more at stake here than the success of a TV show.

The opening in 1999 of the "Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" ride at the Magic Kingdom (which forced the closure of that Fantasyland favorite, " Mr. Toad's Wild Ride") was just one part of the plan. Those talking Eeyore dolls from Mattel? They factor into the equation, too. Disney is looking for a serious financial return for their recent reinvestment in the " silly old bear."

You see, unlike Mickey Mouse, Disney didn't invent Winnie the Pooh. He was created by English playwright A.A. Milne, who wrote the first of a series of children's books starring the hunny-loving bear in 1926. It wasn't until 1960 that Walt Disney Productions actually acquired the rights to throw Pooh on the big screen.

Unfortunately, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a feature-length Pooh film, Walt suddenly lost his nerve. The movie mogul worried that the stories' stuffed stars -- while already beloved by millions of children in the U.K. -- were virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Would there be an audience for a film built around a British teddy bear?

Disney decided a more cautious approach was in order. Instead of a full-length film, Walt Disney Productions would first do a Pooh featurette, testing the water to see if American moviegoers would have any interest in Milne's poetry-spewin' bruin.

Did they ever. After Disney's "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree" made its theatrical debut in February 1966, Walt learned there was real money to be made in hunny. More important, the audience snatched up tons of movie-related merchandise.

Thirty-four years later, consumers are still purchasing Pooh product. Which is both good and bad for the Walt Disney Co. Good because the Mouse has made a fortune merchandising Milne's characters. (Some analysts suggest that Pooh actually moves more merchandise for the Mouse nowadays than Mickey.) Bad because Disney has had to share the hunny pot with the author's heirs. Finally tiring of this arrangement, Disney paid the Milne estate a reported $375 million last year to acquire the remaining copyright on the Pooh characters. Thanks to the Copyright Extension Act of 1998 that Disney lobbied to push through Congress, that means Pooh and friends will remain the sole property of the Disney corporation through 2026.

The sum paid may seem enormous. But it's chump change compared to the estimated $4.5 billion the sale of Pooh product annually generates for Disney.

The notoriously cheap Disney obviously is looking for a quick return on the investment. This explains the vigorous campaign to reintroduce the Winnie the Pooh characters to American consumers over the past few years.

The wide variety of new Pooh product in stores last year included "The Tigger Movie" on Disney Home video and DVD, a set of collectible Pooh porcelain figurines, and that talking Eeyore doll that keeps offering its owner morose advise.

Mickey's masterful marketing campaign also found Pooh a permanent home in the Magic Kingdom. For years, Disney World badgered cast members about why Winnie didn't have his own ride or show. "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" opened in June 1999 and proved to be an immediate hit. Exit polling currently shows the ride is second only to Space Mountain as the most popular attraction in the park.

A more elaborate version of the ride debuted at Tokyo Disneyland in October. This state-of-the-art attraction -- which uses global satellite positioning technology to keep track of the ride vehicles as they move through the "Pooh's Hunny Hunt" show building-- has become a huge hit with the Japanese public; on opening day, guests stood in six-hour-long lines just for their chance to ride past robotic versions of Pooh and pals.

Disney plans to expand Edward Bear's global reach by opening Pooh attractions at both Disneyland Paris as well as the company's soon-to-begin-construction Hong Kong theme park. It's also been reported that Imagineers plan to design an entire Winnie the Pooh land as part of a third theme park for the Disneyland Resort that will open 2010.

But most of that Pooh stuff lies off far in the future. For now, Disney's concentrating most of its marketing might behind "The Book of Pooh" series launch. This high-tech take on Milne's characters is being produced by the same folks who created the Disney Channel's previous big bruin hit, "Bear in the Big Blue House."

The chief creative concern of Disney executives this time out? According to Disney Channel general manager Rick Ross, " The show [had to look] like the product. Hopefully, kids will walk into the Disney Store and think that the bear will talk to them."

After all, those stores have to move an awful big pile of Pooh before Mickey's finally back in the black on this one.

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