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Walt Disney (DIS - Get Report) is the poster child for the term "economic moat." The firm's catalog of valuable brands and characters spans from the obvious (think Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck) to the less obvious (ESPN, for example). That deep vault of intellectual property fuels an impressive business for the Burbank, California-based firm. Because Disney has its hand in everything from media networks and movie studios to theme parks to merchandise, DIS can leverage the same characters across all of its businesses for substantial profits.
It's that exact logic that spurred Disney's acquisition of Pixar way back in 2006 - the firm realized that its most popular characters of the last decade had come from its partner, so it bought the Steve Jobs-backed studio more for its creative acumen than its technical talent. And that move has been paying off in spades. Likewise, Disney has a cash cow in sports network ESPN, which makes up the biggest chunk of its TV profits. ESPN is the most valuable network on TV, measured by the affiliate fees that providers are willing to pay to carry the channel. While it's not a cheap business to run (ESPN pays the NFL $1.8 billion annually to carry Monday Night Football), it is a lucrative one.
Theme parks have been a drag on Disney's earnings for the past several years. They're monstrously costly to operate, and under recessionary headwinds fewer consumers have been willing to shell out the cash to take their families to the "happiest place on earth." That said, the late-stage nature of theme parks has the potential to add a significant boost to Disney's profitability once the recovery does come full circle. When times are good, the cash that parks throw off is impressive.
Investors should watch closely when earnings drop on Nov. 7.
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