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Euro Disney: The story of the beleaguered Paris theme park shows how even the best marketers can stumble when they misjudge their customers

THE SPIRES OF SLEEPING BEAUTY'S castle are glistening, there's no line for Aladdin's cave and a yellow Mickey Mouse slicker costs only $5. It's late January, and the cold rain in France's Marne-la-Vallee is soft but relentless. In the Disneyland Hotel's luxurious lobby, a fire is burning in the grate, but there aren't many guests to enjoy it. Of 500 rooms only 35 are occupied. A supervisor tries a little humor to cheer up his bored and lonely desk clerks: "Welcome to the Phantom Disneyland Hotel," he tells them. "I'm sure you've counted the crystals in the chandelier 100 times. . ." This is Euro Disneyland in the "low season."

The low season has lasted longer than the folks at Disney ever imagined when they opened the park near Paris in April 1992. Despite howls from the intelligentsia about Disney's threat to French culture, France had laid out the red carpet. French children have always loved Mickey, and in 1985 when Disney announced its plans the grown-ups were newly enamored of the kind of American capitalism Disney does so well. Sixty international banks plunked down billions of francs, the government flooded Disney with incentives, and workers from all over Europe lined up for a piece of the American dream. Even the Roman Catholic Church saw an angle; for the first time in decades, it assigned a priest to the fallow farm area east of Paris.