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Siemens holding the key to Disney's Spaceship Earth

Orlando Sentinel

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February 27, 2008

Visitors to the newly updated Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot might experience the ride and miss the show.

Or they might experience the 26-year-old ride with a few new updates and spins, and catch the bevy of interactive games in the post-show area. And still, they might neither notice nor care about the real significance of the deal behind them, a pact that ties Walt Disney World and the global technology company Siemens AG with the kind of multifaceted partnership that illustrates how Disney World sells itself not just as a theme park but also as a marketing venue for all sorts of companies.

Siemens is a German company that generated about 68.6 billion euros (about $102 billion in today's U.S. currency) in sales last year making medical-device, power-grid, information-communication, transportation and automation and control systems, and has more than 6,000 employees in Florida, including those at the company's power headquarters on Alafaya Trail.

Though the company makes almost nothing that the average Disney World visitor might want to buy, Siemens' $100 million, 12-year agreement with Disney World in 2005 gives it naming sponsorship of Epcot's most iconic structure and ride, along with various other business arrangements. Under a new sign reading, "Spaceship Earth Presented by Siemens," the ride and its post-show gauntlet of games have been rolled out one a time, in soft openings during the past few weeks. Grand-opening festivities for everything are set for next Tuesday.

"We felt we needed to have a brand that was well-known in the United States, both for our business-to-business customers and for the same reasons you would brand anything for a consumer, to give them the sense that you are familiar," said Jack Bergen, Siemens' corporate senior vice president for corporate affairs and marketing.

It's one reason that Epcot in particular was designed to be a showcase of corporate sponsors. Siemens replaces AT&T in sponsoring Spaceship Earth. Other major sponsors at Epcot include General Motors and Nestle. Smaller partnerships recently were announced with Waste Management and a nonprofit coalition of several companies including State Farm insurance. Disney also is not afraid to package deals that include product placements in movies or TV shows, or arrangements with other Disney properties, said Lawrence Aldridge, senior vice president for corporate alliances at the Walt Disney Company.

Siemens had considered other brand-identification options, such as buying naming rights to a stadium or a bowl game.

"The big challenge of the marketplace now is the clutter that is out there, with naming rights and all, you're seeing it everywhere now," Aldridge said. "Employers are looking for more ways to connect with customers."

Still, Disney remains highly sensitive about its image and therefore cautious about picking marketing partners, or deciding how it will allow them to operate, he added. "One thing we're not going to do is ruin the magic," Aldridge insisted. "We're not talking about NASCAR here. You're not going to see stickers down Main Street or anything."

On the Spaceship Earth ride, visitors might notice just a few new show scenes, lighting, costumes and set decorations and a new narrator, Academy Award-winning actress Judi Dench. The ride vehicle includes an interactive feature that quizzes visitors on such things as their hometown.

Once they get off the ride, visitors encounter Siemens' real show, which begins as they enter a high-ceilinged parlor and watch as their pictures (taken on the ride) appear on a large globe in the center, then slide over the globe to their hometowns, where they shrink into pinpoints of light that tally who came from where on any given day.

The post show also features several areas of educational high-tech games highlighting some of Siemens' technologies, including Inner Vision for medical technologies; Power City, for energy distribution; and Super Driver for transportation. Along the way, visitors also encounter a few displays showing off some of Siemens' other programs, including its "Generation 21" science-education awards. Disney planners were impressed enough with the games that they took the unusual step of opening entrances directly into the post-show area, so that visitors can skip the ride and get right into the techno-games, if they prefer.

"I believe that with this ride we see the beginning of the post show as an attraction," said Jim MacPhee, Disney World vice president for Epcot. "It's pretty phenomenal."

Spaceship Earth also provides Siemens with a large VIP lounge that the company outfitted with more of its technologies, to show off to customers or to reward top employees 365 days a year.

Long term, the ride and the post-show represent a small portion of the commitments Disney and Siemens have made to one another. The two intend to work together to adapt and develop Siemens' power, communications, transportation, waste-management and other technologies to Disney World's in running a business with 60,000 employees, 22 resort hotels and more than 100,000 daily visitors.

"We could use this platform, that would be a living showcase of how we can make a city work or a place like Disney work," Bergen said.


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