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Tampa Disney Store serves as nationwide model

Grace Phillips, 3, looks into the magic mirrors at a Disney princess who has come to life while her mother, Elita Phillips, watches in the background at the Disney Store at International Plaza last week.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Grace Phillips, 3, looks into the magic mirrors at a Disney princess who has come to life while her mother, Elita Phillips, watches in the background at the Disney Store at International Plaza last week.

TAMPA — As the countdown clock struck zero, Logan Puksahome unlocked the door with a bejeweled key larger than he is.

Suddenly, birds chirped, music swelled and an artificial sunrise bathed an awakened Disney Store in hues and images.

Four-year-old Logan was led down a sparkling terrazzo "pixie dust" trail to settle in front of a 12-foot high-definition display where he used a touch screen to launch a Cars video featuring his favorite anthropomorphic race car.

"I like Lightning McQueen," he said.

It's the standard daily opening ceremony at the latest vision of a flashy new store that Walt Disney Co. hopes will rejuvenate its stagnant mall retail chain — one that has kids lining up to take part. The makeover, which included Tampa as a test store in the fall, did more than add some fantasy to entice kids to this piece of entertainment retailing. Disney invested $50 million in digital technology that's starting to redefine how retailers design their stores.

"Awesome," said Michelle Snowden, a 39-year-old airline worker from Tampa browsing last week. "The old Disney Store got too schlocky."

Disney Stores fell to corporate neglect years ago. Disney sold the chain to apparel retailer Children's Place, then was embarrassed when it had to rescue the remains from the chain's Chapter 11 bankruptcy three years ago. With half the stores stuck in a store design Disney discontinued in 1996, what once was a collection of more than 600 stores in the United States is now down to 211. Locally there were only two survivors before the International Plaza store opened.

"It's still hard to believe somebody would haul Mickey Mouse into bankruptcy court. Talk about bad karma," said Steve Finney, Disney Store senior vice president of operations. "We see this reinvention not of a store, but a touch point to infuse Disney magic in local communities. We aim to be the best 30 minutes of a child's day."

The fourth test store opened in Tampa in September, but soon closed after a water pipe eruption above it flooded the place. Stripped to the studs, the store was reopened by the holidays.

After an intense 10-day training in all things Disney, staffers are taught to chat with kids and stage events. There are LED fireworks and "spontaneous" daily parades. Classes teach how to draw Mickey. Occasionally Disney villains — the likes of Cruella de Vil of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty and the evil queen from Snow White — stage a noisy takeover until enough shoppers promise "I believe" for Tinkerbell to save the store.

It's all enabled by a ceiling full of high-definition digital projectors. They bring to life cartoons on the walls, sparkles in the pixie dust trail and projections on leafy but blank acrylic trees.

A new digital show is downloaded weekly from headquarters.

Disney edited the merchandise clutter down from 5,000 items to the most compelling 1,200. Disney plans to equip clerks with handheld devices to order items not in the store from disneystore.com. But that has yet to be implemented, so shoppers must do that themselves.

You'll still find plush toys and the $4 billion-a-year Disney Princess and Fairies apparel lines. Wave a wand or crown in front of a "Magic Mirror," and technology picks a life-size animated princess to tell one of hundreds of stories and model a chosen garment.

Disney also bolstered goods for males. Marvel superheroes are now Disney property, so the Hulk, Thor and Iron Man have a corner. So does Vinylmation, a collectibles line once sold only at Disney theme parks. A customize-your-own Cars hot rod sells for $41 with add-ons that can easily double that. (The current Tampa record is $150.)

Traffic in test stores leaped 20 percent while sales and profit margins soared 25 percent. That was enough for Disney to debut the same new look in Times Square in New York last month and announce plans to remodel or open 25 new stores a year. The new look will increase the ultimate global store count from 370 to about 500.

Yet a few have wondered why at the Tampa store's morning ceremony, the sun rises in the west.

"Hey," joked manager Brent Knouff, "it's Disney."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Tampa Disney Store serves as nationwide model 02/07/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 5:15pm]

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