PHILADELPHIA -- With Disney's ( DIS) sure-to-be-contentious shareholder meeting ready to get under way, disgruntled former director Roy Disney is at least the sentimental favorite.

The nephew of Disney namesake Walt Disney charmed the audience late Tuesday at an unofficial meeting of shareholders intended to rally support for Roy's three-month-old public campaign to oust chairman and CEO Michael Eisner.

But though Roy received a standing ovation and other clear signs of support from the crowd of individual investors and Disney sentimentalists who packed the hotel ballroom to hear his presentation, the unanswered question Tuesday evening was how representative the applause at Roy's "SaveDisney" event would be of the vote that really counts: The balloting at Disney's annual shareholder meeting, scheduled for Wednesday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Like the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, who enjoyed undeniable success in gathering support (and money) in small increments over the Internet, Disney and fellow ex-board member Stanley Gold sought Tuesday to characterize their anti-Eisner effort as populist, revolutionary and Internet-based. "I think this is sort of an unprecedented campaign in American business," Gold told the crowd of about 600 shareholders at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel.

Now, of course, the question is to what extent the enthusiastic support of smaller shareholders -- along with announcements of anti-Eisner voting from various state and municipal pension funds -- will permeate the Big Money votes of which Roy Disney, the owner of 17 million Disney shares, must count himself a part.

In their presentation Tuesday, Gold and Disney hammered away at many of the same points they've made on their Web site and made at their meeting with reporters earlier in the day Tuesday.

Under Eisner, Disney's financial performance has been subpar and its stock appreciation "paltry," explained Roy Disney associate Michael McConnell in a presentation to the assembled shareholders. Disney's record of corporate governance has been "poor and unacceptable," he said. "Michael Eisner must be replaced," he concluded, earning a round of applause.

Roy Disney, who basked in a standing ovation for more than half a minute after he stepped to the podium, expressed his hope that under new management, the company would pull ABC television out of the ratings basement, produce better movies and improve the cleanliness of its theme parks.

Answering written questions submitted from the audience, Roy allowed that the price of popcorn at the theme parks had risen "way beyond" where it ought to be. In the past few years, he said, the company has cut corners unacceptably in training its employees and maintaining its theme parks. Disney's management hasn't circulated among its employees enough, he said, repeating a comment he remembered from when he used to own a ranch in southern Oregon: "You know, there's no fertilizer like the owner's footprints," Disney said the manager once told him.

Fierce Advocate
Minnie Mouse co-opted by dissidents
TSC Photo: George Mannes

The company made a mess of the acquisition and operation of the ABC Family Channel, Gold said, yet the board inexplicably rewarded Eisner and Disney president Robert Iger with bonuses in the wake of that failure. "Ooh ... Michael needs money. Bob needs money," Gold recalled. "That's a quote!"

Creative artists that Gold and Disney accuse Eisner of driving away -- such as the animation producer Pixar ( PIXR), which had a nasty public split with Disney earlier this year -- would return "in the blink of an eye" upon Eisner's departure, Roy said. Roy Disney even compared Eisner to the Wicked Witch of the West from the movie The Wizard of Oz, describing his recollection of a scene in which, after the witch is killed, the savage flying monkeys suddenly stand up like human beings.

As for the wisdom of a deal with Comcast ( CMCSA), Disney and Gold were circumspect. "The best defense against Comcast is a high stock price," said Gold.

Disney and Gold's message resonated well with the people in attendance Tuesday. "I'm amazed at how well they put it together," said Marilyn Unruh of Feasterville, Pa. "I'm glad they brought facts and figures and not just opinion." Unruh, who holds about 100 shares of Disney stock, and who for seven years was a "cast member" -- the corporation's favored term for "employee" -- at Disney's chain of now-troubled retail stores, said she has already voted her shares along the SaveDisney guidelines. (In addition to withholding votes for Eisner, the ex-directors are targeting presiding director George Mitchell and directors Judith Estrin and John Bryson.)

Another 100-share owner of Disney stock, Elizabeth Byrd of Philadelphia, said she, too, had already voted the SaveDisney line. Tuesday's presentation, she said, "reassured me that I did the right thing." Byrd, who said she had fond memories of watching the Wonderful World of Disney TV show on Sunday nights when she was growing up, said, "You hate to see things that are so dear to your heart destroyed by other people's greed or indifference."

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