Theme Park Battle: Goofy vs. King Kong

TALK about your Goofy competition! That's what Universal Studios faces - Goofy with a capital G - when it opens a theme park in central Florida on June 7, just a few minutes drive from the enormously-successful Walt Disney World.

Theme park enthusiasts are already debating the merits of competing attractions, starring such characters as Universal's ET, King Kong, and Jaws, and Disney's Mickey Mouse, The Muppets, and, yes, Goofy.

MCA Inc. (which owns Universal Studios) and Disney have long fought for the favor of viewers of the silver screen. Now the rivalry will intensify in theme parks near Orlando.

MCA needs to cut into the ability of Disney to so overwhelm tourists with attractions that they feel obliged to spend three to four days just visiting Disney World. Disney continues to build more hotels on its property, helping to retain those same tourists - and, in effect, keep them from the competition.

To counter this strategy, MCA is mounting a massive $100 million-plus national advertising and promotion campaign to tout its Florida venture.

MCA and Disney also will soon go head-to-head at the box office, with Universal's ``Back to the Future III'' being released just shortly before Disney's ``Dick Tracy.''

Some market analysts, such as Dennis McAlpine of Oppenheimer & Company, Inc., have worried that the lure of tourists to the two central-Florida theme giants will pull business from others. Mr. McAlpine, for example, believes that both Universal and Disney World ``may do well, probably to the detriment of the smaller attractions in the Orlando area.'' Indeed, a number of stock analysts believe that the Disney-MCA competition this year could hurt theme park enterprises far from central Florida, including Six Flags, Busch Gardens, Sea World (the latter two owned by Anheuser-Busch, a St. Louis brewery company), and Knotts Berry Farm in California.

Not all experts agree. Given the continual growth in attendance at theme parks, ``there should be more than enough business for all,'' says Peter Irish, an official with the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a trade group based in Alexandria, Va.

According to Mr. Irish, about 250 million people paid visits to amusement parks in the United States last year, with that number expected to increase this year. The number of major amusement parks in the US has remained static at about 600. But parents, he says, are now joining their urchins at the parks, which means more business. Overseas growth is substantial, with 40 major new theme parks on the planning boards in Japan alone.

Most theme parks, Irish says, should continue to capture good business, whatever happens in Florida. Of the 250 million paid admissions last year, says Irish, between 40 million and 50 million went to Disney; another 5 million went to Universal Studios' theme park in California. But that leaves some 195 million or more admissions at other attractions, he notes.

The recent decision by Time-Warner Inc. to purchase 20 percent of Six Flags, which operates a number of theme parks, is indicative of the new interest in theme parks. Such major parks as Magic Mountain (owned by Six Flags), Knotts Berry Farm, and Sea World continue to be upgraded, thus attracting new visitors.

Sea World, although it has had difficulty competing with Disney in Florida, continues to draw a far larger percentage of its visitors from overseas than does Disney, according to Mr. Irish.

The eyes of the investment community this summer will clearly be focused on Disney and MCA. Success in Florida would be a huge plus for MCA, which has often been looked upon as a potential takeover stock. For Disney, the parks remain crucial since they contribute about 65 percent of operating profits and well over 50 percent of revenue. Disney has one very successful film right now, it's Touchstone division's ``Pretty Woman.'' Unless ``Dick Tracy'' is an enormous hit on the order of Batman, the company's fortunes will presumably once again ride with Goofy and friends at the Magic Kingdom.

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