Behind Norway's "Frozen" windfall from Disney

When Walt Disney (DIS) gave tourism officials from Norway a sneak peek of "Frozen" in May 2013, the Norwegians had no idea the film's producers had already been to their country for research because it's where the Hans Christian Andersen story the film is based on takes place. For the tourism officials, who had traveled to Disney's headquarters in Burbank, Calif., seeing the 15-minute rough cut of "Frozen" was enough to convince them of the movie's promotional potential for their industry.

"We thought this is great," says Hege Vibeke Barnes, who runs Norway's tourism promotion office in New York City and was one of the attendees in Burbank. "This is a fantastic opportunity."

That led Disney to sign an agreement with the Norwegian government to promote the movie to tourists by pointing out how the real Norway inspired the fictional world of Arendelle, home to Princesses Elsa and Anna, along with Olaf the talking snowman and Sven, a reindeer that acts like a dog. According to Barnes, the agreement was initially met with skepticism in Norway, but citizens have since changed their tune.

"They had no idea how this would play out," Barnes said, adding that tourism took a hit in recent years because the economic turmoil in Europe among other reasons. "Now, they are very, very happy."

In fact, the Disney partnership has turned out even better than the Scandinavian country had imagined. Norwegian data shows that visits from the U.S. surged 37 percent in the first three months of the year, and tour operators are predicting that bookings this summer will surge another 25 percent to 40 percent. The numbers of overall foreign visitors also rose. Tourists have plenty of options to walk in the footsteps of the movie's princesses and friends, including a tour run by Adventures by Disney.

"Frozen" tipped its hat to Norway in many ways. Not only does it feature fjords and a merchant selling Lutefisk, a local delicacy, but it also has Norwegian-speaking trolls. Norwegian architectural elements were sprinkled throughout the film's fictional world, such as Nidaros Cathedral, the country's national sanctuary, and Stifstgarden, the historic home of Norway's royal family. The filmmakers also consulted with reindeer herders to get correct details about how the animals are used.

Tourism is a big industry in Norway, accounting for about 6.5 percent of the country's GDP, ranking second only to the oil industry. Tourism employs 220,000 people, accounting for 8.5 percent of the country's total employment.

"Frozen" has already morphed from a feature film to a cultural phenomenon. According to Box Office Mojo, it has grossed more than $1 billion around the world, making it the highest-grossing film in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studio. Disney CEO Bob Iger has said 9 of the 10 top sellers in Disney stores are "Frozen" merchandise. Visitors to Disney theme parks should be prepared to wait if they want to meet any "Frozen" characters.

And "Frozen" may be just warming up. A Broadway musical is in the works, and a film sequel is a strong possibility. All of which means Norway can look forward to a steady flow of tourists for some time to come.

  • Jonathan Berr

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