Theme park sprouted from a field of dreams
By Susan G. Strother - of the Sentinel Staff
'Time after time in 1982, groups of thick-booted MCA Inc. executives waded through the marsh near Kirkman Road, envisioning a Hollywood-style working studio where palmettos and scrub brush stood. Every so often, one of the group would pull out a pistol to shoot a snake.
Today, the bog and tall grasses are gone, and MCA is gunning for much bigger game.
The grand opening of Universal Studios Florida on Thursday will herald a new era at MCA - the California company born 66 years ago as Music Corporation of America. The $630 million Orlando studio tour is a prototype that if successful, will shape the company's plans for similar attractions in Europe and Japan.
MCA generates most of its income from the box office, relying on movies, such as this summer's Back to the Future III and Bird on a Wire, to inflate the bottom line.
But movies are never a sure thing. If the Florida park is successful, spawning attractions in Europe and Japan, MCA will have a new cash crop to blunt the inevitable downturns in its main business.
"The parks, in some ways, may be a stabilizing factor." said Alan Gould, an entertainment-industry analyst for the Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. brokerage in New York. "Revenue there may be less volatile than in film entertainment."
Success is by no means guaranteed. Universal Studios
must be more than an afterthought to the 12 million tourists who come to Orlando
each year. That's not an easy task, given the competition, especially from the
Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park owned by the
Walt Disney Co.
Some analysts have said it will be difficult for both movie-themed attractions to meet their attendance goals. And Disney, which opened its studio tour in May 1989, has a one-year head start.
As a result, MCA has come out of its corner swinging,
working to position itself in the public-relations ring as a friendly company
that can build a better movie park. It has little choice in the matter; Orlando
is a fight MCA cannot afford to lose.
"It's critical," said Jay Stein, president of MCA's recreation division "We've made a huge commitment here. The success of Universal Studios Florida is vital to what we plan
all over the world, insofar as our recreation business."
MCA entered lhe theme-park business almost by accident in 1984, when the company allowed tour buses into its Los Angeles studio back lot. Visitors were shown scenes from famous movies and were dropped off for a sandwich at the studio commissary.
Much to its surprise, the company found that the public
was fascinated with the tour. Other attractions, such as vintage cars and a
Western.style stunt show, were added. The first special.effects exhibit was
built in 1965, when visitors were shown how the Red Sea
was parted in the movie The Ten Commandments.
"Most people couldn't just walk into a movie studio, so there was tremendous pent-up demand." re-called Barry Upson. the first manager of the L.A. tour and a designer of Universal Studios Florida.
Stein figured there could be an equally successful tour on the East Coast.
"A cloning of the LA. tour made sense," said Stein, who began his career in the MCA mailroom and became president of the company's recreation division in 1973. Miami, New Orleans, New York and Orlando were among the cities considered. he said.
What Stein hadn't counted on, however, were soaring interest rates and a recession that delayed the project, initially estimated to cost $40 million to $50 million.
Eventually. Sidney Sheinberg, MCA's president, insisted
that Stein find a financial partner. The project appeared to take a back burner
at MCA in the early 1980s
as Stein shopped the idea around. He took it first to Paramount Pictures Corp., whose president was current Disney chairman Michael Eisner, and then to Disney.
MCA's delays exacted a high toll: Disney announced in
1985 that it would build its own Orlando movie tour in partnership with MGM.
Similarities between blue-prints for Universal and Disney- MGM prompted MCA
executives to charge that Disney filched
Disney has said for years that MCA's charge is unfounded.
Stein, however, is embittered. He even dismisses the idea that the two parks are in competition. Universal's attraction is nearly twice the size of Disney's and, even with Disney-MGM's plans to expand, Stein is unfazed.
"If this were a fight," he said, "they'd stop it."
Corporate grandstanding aside, the Orlando park - more elabarate and sophisticated than MCA's California attraction- will set the pace for the company's expansion of studio tours in Europe and Japan.
The site of the European venture - either near Paris, about 20 miles from Disney's European park, or near London - will be announced later this month. Stein said."
But if the Orlando park proves unsuccessful, MCA's plans in Europe and Japan will be delayed not shelved entirely, Stein said.That would be a major setback the company. which has spent a fortune developing its Orlando prototype and is counting on theme parks eventually to provide revenue of $1 billion annually.
That's almost 30 percent of MCA's 1989 revenues of $3.4 billion. The company's park revenue last year was $143 million.
MCA's decision to dive into the theme-park business is
a natural one for a large entertainment company, said Harold Vogel, who follows
MCA for Merrill Lynch,
Pierce, Fenner and Smith Inc., a New York brokerage.
Besides, it's a highly profitable business, Gould of Dean Witter added, in some cases generating margins twice that of the movie industry.
The stock market has reacted positively to speculation
about Universal Studios Florida, Gould noted. In the past six weeks, MCA's stock
has shot up about 20 percent, to roughly $60 a share, after speculation about
the park and MCA's recent purchase of Geffen Records.
MCA is "building two other legs under the entertamment stool, with recorded music and the parks" becoming increasingly large pieces of the company, Gould said.
Stein hinted that the recreation division might eventually build parks with different themes. "We've got other expansion plans and other themes that would be unrelated to movies and television," he said without elaborating.
To realize its plans in Florida, however, MCA will have to do more than feed off traffic generated by Disney. Most tourists. because of a shortage of time and money, will go to either Universal Studios or Disney-MCM, but not both parks, tourism-industry experts said.
As a result, MCA is fighting to entice tourists to their park both through advertising and positive publicity.
The advertising campaign - including newspapers, television stations and billboards - will cost MCA $110 million this year.
On the public-relations front, MCA has tried to sway opinion against Disney by responding swiftly to what it views as Disney blunders.
Last summer, for instance. Disney forced several South Florida day-care centers to remove Mickey Mouse and other trademark characters from their walls. In short order, MCA artists were rushed in, painting over Mickey and friends with Fred Flintstone, George Jetson and other characters from the Universal park.
Earlier this year, after Disney cancelled its Valentine Heartbeat concert. MCA swept in again. A couple who had hoped to be engaged at the Disney concert were given a limousine ride and catered dinner. The gesture generated reams of positive press when the marriage proposal occurred in front of Universal's Schwabs Pharmacy.
Stein denies that MCA's responses were calculated. He
laughed. "We're just a company
with a heart of gold."
Designers' ideas took fine-tuning
By Susan G Strother of the Sentinel Staff
There was a problem with King Kong.
Once visitors encountered the big ape on the Roosevelt Island Tramway, the ride featuring the growling creature seemed to have little else going for it.
"We thought, 'what could top running across Kong?' " recalled
Peter Alexander, a designer at Universal Studios Florida. "Then we thought, 'He could pick you up, shake you around and then throw you down.' "
And so it was, over lunch three years ago at the Rive
Gauche cafe in Sherman Oaks,
Calif.. that the hook for the "Kongfrontation" ride was born: The tram carrying visitors would appear to do a free fall at the hands of the big ape.
In the 20 years that the idea for Universal Studios Florida has been kicked around the MCA headquarters in Universal City, Calif.. dozens of plans were developed and ultimately trashed.
Gone are rides or shows based upon the A-Team, Gremlins and Conan the Barbarian. In their place are attractions based upon more recent hits, including E.T. - The Extraterrestrial. Ghost-busters and Jaws.
The cost of the attraction, now at $630 million, fluctuated as well In the early 1970's the price of the park was estimated to be about $40 million to $50 million, or equivalent to what a single ride within the attraction costs today, said Jay Stein, president of MCA's recreation division.
Over the years, Stein's support of the project was unflagging, even when soaring interest rates caused corporate support to wane.
Ultimately, the park's designer created a prototype that MCA plans to use as the basis for similar movie-themed attraction dome-shaped theater, in Europe and Japan.
In addition to Stein, the designers include Alexander and Bob Ward, both of whom had experience at Walt Disney Co., and Barry Upson and Terry Winnick, who are architects by training.
Together the men have smoothed the kinks in Kong and
ensured the rushing water in
Earthauake recedes without harm to guests. They have hashed out plans on note pads and envelopes at MCI headquarters and in Stein's living room.
As Upson. a burly man who wears a yellowed bear tooth
on a necklace, explained, "Our basic M.O. has been to show people how movies
That has meant separating the interesting from the not-so-interesting. Movie-making, as anyone who has witnessed it will attest has more than its share of tedium.
For instance, a show based upon post-production through which programs are edited and music and graphics included - would seem sure to put audiences top sleep.
But the idea took on life, Alexander said, when it was tied to Murder, She Wrote, the popular TV mystery. Now in the finished show, the audience acts as the "producer", adding sound effects and deciding who the murderer is.
The change in some rides has been nothing short of dramatic. Originally the designers, working with movie producer Steven Spielberg, had planned a rollercoaster ride based on Back to the Future.
But they found a roller coaster moved to quickly to tell the story very well. They decided to make "Back to the Future" a simulator ride and put the movie's trademark DeLorean automobiles on a movie platform.
To test it, they took foam mock-ups of the gull-wing cars to a dome-shaped theater in Canada. There, they sat in the "cars" in the dark, "sort of like when you carve up a refigerator box as a kid," Ward said.
Alexander said: "We felt pretty stupid."
MCA transformed a marsh on Kirkman Road into a $630 million studio that it hopes will One of the sharks used in the 'Jaws' movies sits in the 'boneyard, where props are stored near production sets.
Size: 256.6 acre
Cost: $630 million
Ticket price: $30.74
Parking price: $3
Dining: Four waiter-service restaurants, plus cafeteria, food court and specialty food trucks through out the park
Shopplng: More than 30 shops and boutiques.
Major attractions: King Kong Kongfrontation; J a w s; E.T Adventure; Earthquake: The Big One; Ghostbuster: A Live Action Spooktacular; Phantom of the Opera Horror Make-up Show; Murder She Wrote Post-Production Theater; Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies; Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera; Screen Test Adventure Studio; Animal Actors Stage; The Boneyard prop exhibit; Lagoon stunt show; and backstage production tour, which includes Nickelodeon and Quest studios.
Coming Attractions: Back to the Future.
DISNEY/ MGM STUDIOS
Size: 135 acres
Cost: more than $500 million
Parking: 4,500 spaces
Ticket price: $32 86.
Parking price: $3
Dining: Two waiter-service restaurants, plus cafeteria, food courts and specialty food trucks thoughout the park
Shopping: More than 20 shops and boutiques.
Major attractions: The Great Movie Ride; Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular; Monster Sound Show; Backstage Studio Tour, which includes Catastrophe Canyon, Special Effects Sea Battle and Let's Make a Deal; Magic of Disney Animation; Star Tours; SuperStar Television; Dick Tracy Live Stage Spectacular; Here Comes the Muppets Stage Show; Sorcery in the Sky Spectacular; and Honey I Shrunk the Kids Shooting Stage.
Coming Attractions: Muppet Vision 3-D; Honey I Shrunk the Kids Adventure Zone and Disney Channel auditions.