Disneyland Paris turns 20, with mixed results

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Disneyland Paris fetes its 20th anniversary Thursday, but while Mickey Mouse now draws nearly twice as many visitors as the Louvre's Mona Lisa, his fantasy park is not yet out of the financial woods.

French theme parks in general have done well amid Europe's debt crisis, offering a fairly low-cost escape for families, and Disney reported a record 15.7 million visitors in its fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2011.

That compared with 8.4 million visitors to the Louvre art museum, and 6.6 million to Paris' iconic Eiffel Tower.

"It's magic, we're in France, but it feels like we're in another country altogether," a Belgian tourist named Christelle told AFP.

Britons Jojo and Jake added: "We're students so we work very hard most of the time so it's really nice to come away and do something really childish but really fun."

But Disney, which bet heavily on a site east of Paris prone to damp, chilly winters, posted a net loss of 55.6 million euros ($72.8 billion) despite a modest increase in sales to 1.3 billion euros.

The sprawling park, served by high-speed trains and home to 57 attractions, boasts Big Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain Mission 2, but also lies beneath a debt mountain that amounted to 1.87 billion euros last year.

Disney says it will pay off that debt by 2024.

It also highlights employment opportunities for minorities that have had trouble even getting job interviews elsewhere in France.

Mourad Adli, a 40-year-old Algerian is cited as an example, starting as a pop-corn vendor when the park opened and now the head of its 60 restaurants.

A French intellectual slammed Disneyland Paris as a "Cultural Chernobyl" 20 years ago, a tag that has not stopped it from drawing more than 250 million visitors in the meantime, making it Europe's leading tourist destination.

Last year, the park provided about 55,000 direct and indirect jobs according to a study commissioned by Disney and regional authorities, and each Disneyland job was said to generate nearly three others elsewhere in a nation where the unemployment rate stood at 9.4 percent of the workforce in the fourth quarter.

"American companies don't care if you have exactly the right profile for the job, we look first and foremost at potential," Disneyland Paris chief executive Philippe Gas told AFP.

Born in a tiny village in Algeria's mountainous Kabylie region, Adli is a case study in social mobility, and was named head of the park's restaurants in 1998.

He hopes to move on to California, or Shanghai where work has begun on a new Disney resort.

"Whatever my roots, my country or my postcode, here it doesn't matter," said Adli, who grew up in Montfermeil, a Paris suburb where riots fuelled by anger at the lack of jobs erupted in 2005.

The picture is not quite as bright at Disney's real-estate division however, where sales plunged 62 percent last year, while cash flow from operations fell more than 28 percent to 169 million euros, partly due to a one-off gain a year before that.

And in nearby Bailly Romainvilliers, where the population has leapt from 600 in 1990 to 6,000 today, Mayor Arnaud de Belenet said that although Disney was clearly an economic locomotive, many jobs there pay "barely above minimum wage, which is not at all what local people are looking for."

But Mickey and his friends still sport perennial smiles and promise a "Disney Dreams" gala to mark the 20-year milestone, with a laser, water and fireworks show seen nowhere else in the world's Magic Kingdoms.

The group also plans to expand its adjoining Walt Disney Studios complex and is even mulling a third park ... for 2030.

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