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Disney's D23 Brand-Building Extravaganza

Disney
CNBC.com
Disney

There's no better illustration of the degree of Disney fan obsession, than an arena filled with thousands of them, screaming like the Beatles had reunited when CEO Bob Iger takes the stage.

Today Disney kicked off its first inaugural D 23 Expo, a four-day convention for fans of all corners of the conglomerate's Magic Kingdom.

The Parks and Resorts division is showcasing its resorts in the works, ABC previewing its new fall TV shows, and the studio showing never-before-seen clips from upcoming films. It's like ComiCon but for just one company, and Disney's probably the only media company with the range of such massive brands to attract long lines and fill the Anaheim convention center.

But Disney is struggling with a weak ad market, which has hit ABC, and a pullback in consumer spending, which has squeezed margins at the parks. So why invest in such a pricey fan fest in this economic environment, with no clear return on investment? I sat down with Iger in an exclusive interview this morning and he told me that strengthening relationships with fans is more important than ever in this economic environment, that there's no better competitive advantage than this army of fans who can now go spread the word about ABC's new fall TV shows or "Princess and the Frog," which Disney previewed a full half-hour of today.

D23 shows no indication that Disney is pulling back as a result of tough economic times: the parks and resorts booth showcases all sorts of new investments. Hong Kong is expanding its park with three new areas; California Adventure is building a new "Cars" land; and a massive new resort is in the works in Hawaii. Then there's the Disney Cruise Line, doubling its cruise capacity as it ads two new cruise ships over the next two years. Can consumers absorb this kind of capacity and justify this investment? Iger isn't worried, telling me that all of these investments are for the long-term, and he has no doubt that the economy, and consumer spending, will recover when these attractions are ready.

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Iger even says things in the near-term things are looking up. He says that in the past three or four weeks the battered ad markets have started to show signs of life and is optimistic that the domestic automakers will have no choice but to invest significantly in new ad campaigns to convince Americans to buy Ford and GM cars, which will of course help ABC and ESPN.

In addition to the economy the big topic weighing on chief executives today is, of course, healthcare. On the heels of Obama's address last night, Iger weighed in, acknowledging that mounting health care costs are a huge and pressing issue saying that the company is a huge proponent of reform. In Florida, where Disney has 60,000 employees and costs are particularly high, the company is trying to take control by running its own healthcare center.

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