Disney on Ice, once a backwater that the media giant practically ignored, has quietly grown into an important tool for the company as it seeks to further exploit its creative franchises and turn young children into Disneyphiles, explains the NY Times. Moreover, the shows — which are populated with figure skaters dressed as Disney cartoon characters — are helping the company expand into difficult foreign markets, analysts say. “People forget that these kinds of live shows can be extremely powerful brand builders,” said Alan Gould, an analyst at Natixis Bleichroeder in New York. Consider Russia. Disney, like many companies, sees the potential for lavish growth in the Russian market, where its presence is limited. The problem is that Disney’s typical foreign expansion strategy — establishing a Disney Channel outpost to pump Mickey and friends directly into people’s homes — has proceeded slowly because of government restrictions on foreign media. But the company has been able to use a powerful lever — Disney on Ice — to increase demand among Russians. Last year, Moscow and St. Petersburg played host to Princess Classics, a skating show meant to introduce children to characters like Snow White. The tour, Disney’s second such effort in the country, sent retail sales of Disney merchandise soaring and generated positive local media reports. Three more tours are in the works. “We spread the gospel for Disney,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and chief executive of Feld Entertainment, a Florida company that handles operations. Disney on Ice started in 1981 as just another of the company’s many licensed products. Feld Entertainment, which owns the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, paid Disney a fee for the right to use its characters and stories and went on its way, touring the shows around the United States. Later, Feld hit international markets like Japan. Realizing there was a bigger opportunity, Disney in 2001 put the division under the tutelage of Mr. Schumacher, the person responsible for turning the company into a Broadway powerhouse. He and David Schrader, a Disney executive vice president, worked with Feld Entertainment to make the shows more theatrical by improving storytelling and tinkering with components like costumes and music. As a result, attendance has doubled in the last seven years. In 2008, nearly 12.5 million people will attend one of 15 productions playing around the world, including several offshoots called Disney Live, which are essentially the ice shows without the ice. (To put that in perspective, Broadway as a whole sold 12.3 million tickets in its 2007-8 season, which ended May 25.)