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Disney to Open Theme Park in Israel?

A Disney-affiliated investment firm has just signed on to help build an amusement park/mall/multiplex project in Israel. Will Mickey Mouse be going Middle Eastern this time around?

Disney Hebrew

Mickey Mouse may be going Middle Eastern: A Disney-affiliated investment firm has signed on to help develop a 20-acre entertainment complex in Haifa, Israel. Plans for the entertainment complex include a small amusement park, a multiplex theater, and a shopping mall.

Shamrock Holdings, founded by Disney family maverick Roy E. Disney as his family investment firm and still maintaining intimate ties with the Walt Disney Company, is a partner in the Haifa project. The other party Shamrock is working with is New Lineo Cinemas Israel. New Lineo operates two large multiplex/shopping mall complexes in suburban Tel Aviv.

A spokesperson for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts tells Fast Company that Disney has no plans to build a park in Haifa, Israel. However, local politicians, New Lineo and the Israeli press all confirm that the project is going ahead.

At a press conference Monday, New Lineo Deputy CEO Avi Edery said: "The project, which is still in its development stages, reflects our goal of providing quality entertainment for the people of Israel."

In an official statement, Haifa mayor Yona Yahav noted that, "This plan expresses confidence in our plans to turn Haifa Bay into a thriving business area. The plan began with the municipality's assistance in the building of Cinemall and the upgrade of the mall, previously known as the Lev Hamifratz Mall, and the building of the transport hub for the cable car, which carries passengers up to the Technion and Haifa University."

Shamrock already has extensive holdings in Israel, including some which have landed the firm in political controversy. Shamrock acquired 25% of New Lineo in 2009; the movie theatre company is also reportedly trying to open similar shopping mall/multiplex hybrids in Europe.

That an amusement park is opening in Haifa, partially funded by a Disney-affiliated investment firm is beyond dispute. But the real question that amusement park geeks is asking is whether Disney is involved.

Globes, a reputable Israeli business daily, reports that the site will include a "Disney amusement park." So does industry newswire Amusement Management. The Chinese Xinhua news agency, which has surprisingly extensive Israeli/Palestinian coverage, claims the amusement park will not be Disney-affiliated, echoing the statement of the Walt Disney Company.

The plot for the amusement park is small, at only 30,000 square meters. This will be smaller than the attached 50,000 meter multiplex/mall. But there are precedents of Disney opening micro-theme parks.

In terms of size and location, the Israeli project seems like a larger scale version of the DisneyQuest Indoor Interactive Theme Park in Florida. DisneyQuest is a mega-arcade that contains a variety of proprietary immersive virtual reality games and high-tech indoor rides. Disney also pioneered the Club Disney project in the 1990s which placed children's entertainment centers inside big box locations near suburban shopping malls.

The Disney California Adventure Park also operates on a small (55-acre) plot. Disney also has experience in building immersive shopping center/mall hybrids, such as the phenomenally successful Downtown Disney projects.

However, Disney has a mixed record of success in opening overseas theme parks. While Disneyland Paris is the most visited amusement park in Europe, the park's financial troubles have been legendary. Hong Kong Disneyland has been facing similar financial issues as well. Disney is currently involved in building Disneyland Shanghai and previous plans to open a Disney park in Dubai never got past the planning stages. The only overseas Disney theme park to enjoy financial comfort is their Japanese project.

While Israel has indigenous theme parks of its own such as the comically quaint Mini Israel, low air fares mean that Israeli travelers can easily visit European megaparks such as Disneyland Paris. Tense relations between Israel and its neighbors also mean that a large-scale theme park would not have a regional audience to draw on. Israel's population is less than that of Los Angeles County; even with the country's massive tourism trade, there are simply not enough numbers to support a local megapark.

But whether or not the finished project will have mouse ears, it seems that the late Roy Disney's private investment firm thinks Israel amusement parks will make them some shekels.

Follow Neal Ungerleider, the author of this story, on Twitter.

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