Universal's Park To Rival Disney

New Florida studios hope to woo visitors from MGM attraction with movie disaster rides

UNIVERSAL Studios' Grand Opening here June 7 will be one major disaster after another - if all goes according to plan. Visitors to the new $630 million attraction, a combination amusement park and film studio, will experience an 8.3 earthquake (while trapped in a subway), a shark attack on their pontoon tour boat, and an eye-to-giant-eye confrontation with an annoyed, four-stories-high ape who has banana breath - for starters.

``We truly create real moments in film and television that you participate in,'' says Robert Ward, vice-president of design and planning at MCA, who helped conceive many of the rides in the 444-acre Universal Studios Florida (USF).

Universal is the latest addition to the central Florida entertainment mecca that Walt Disney began with Disney World in 1971. Central Florida attracted some 12 million out-of-state visitors last year; Orlando has more hotel rooms than any other city in the nation. USF hopes to attract 6 million visitors its first year - if it can woo them from Disney.

Orlando is a place where people can be in a near-panic to have fun. Crowd control is state-of-the-art, lines are legendary, and no opportunity to sell merchandise is unseized. The ride mentality is so persuasive that the airplane trip home strikes one as the apex of Disneyesque art. (Why, it feels just like a real plane!)

None of the ``ride the movies'' attractions were operational during press tours late last month. Construction crews were working around the clock to finish in time for Thursday's gala opening - adding another track for the ``E.T.'' ride's bicycles, completing the damage to the ``Earthquake'' set, cuing the motion of hydraulically operated ``ride vehicles'' to a big-screen cartoon chase in the Hanna-Barbera attraction. (Parents, beware: The only exit is directly through the gift shop.)

King Kong was having the last of his 7,000 lbs. of (synthetic) fur sewn on, and the East River was still being waterproofed in ``Kongfrontation.'' On the set, though, there was lots of evidence that Kong had been at large - a knocked-over elevated train, a bashed-in building. Water geysers from broken hydrants and propane flames from fireproof buildings will be added later. ``We have a flame you'll feel,'' says Susan Wach, the enthusiastic project coordinator for the ride.

Kong has been outside, too, perhaps: That would explain the construction debris, the scraped earth, the scaffolding, heavy equipment, and yellow-tape barriers around the ``New York'' back lot (just like New York, actually). San Francisco's ``Ghirardelli Square,'' complete with sign outlined in light bulbs, feels right. So does ``New England'' - right down to the brick sidewalk patched with asphalt, a plausible detail to this Massachusetts resident. Was that intentional?

The line between fantasy and reality is constantly being erased and redrawn at USF: Real algae and bird droppings are scrubbed off the lagoon so as not to obscure painted-on algae and bird droppings. Wallpaper made to look grimy in the Irish pub is washed to keep it clean. Sidewalks with manufactured cracks may be replaced if they develop real ones.

Walk-through tours of the ``disaster'' shows here indicate that many will draw their drama from the illusion of a ``routine'' tour gone awry: The ``Ghostbusters'' host will hastily consult a supervisor when ghosts ``unexpectedly'' appear on the five-story movie-set reproduction. (Who ya gonna call? Exactly.) In both ``Jaws'' and ``Kong,'' guests will be wiping their brows after one narrow escape only to face an even narrower one.

Not every attractions is for young children. Universal warns parents about PG-13 material in an Alfred Hitchcock retrospective (film clips filled with mayhem and a realistic 3-D effect) and a makeup and special-effects show.

``What we represent here is film and television product,'' says Mr. Ward. ``It's like flipping around the dial on a television set any evening of the week.''

None of this comes cheap: Half-price admission tickets during the preview period were $15.95 for adults and $12.95 for children aged 3-11. The year-old Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park costs $31 per adult for a one-day pass. It's smaller and tamer than USF, but more pleasant to this reporter. The Art Deco theme is winning, from the massive turquoise ticket booths to the elaborate, black-and-white tiling in the restrooms. Universal lacks a similar theme. Disney seems cooler, with more greenery and places to sit. USF's giant rides (2,000 guests an hour on ``Earthquake'') lurk in warehouse-sized buildings whose broad sides reflect lots of humid Florida sun.

Comments from visitors at USF were positive, though many guests had received complimentary tickets. ``They've still got some bugs to work out,'' said Ron Tyson, sitting on the curb with his two preschool daughters. But on the whole, ``I'm very impressed,'' he said. The ``Murder, She Wrote!'' show, in which visitors see how sound, music, and images are shaped into the final product ``really made you think,'' he added.

``I could see it getting really crowded,'' said 20-year-old Justin Green, at USF with his date. He had enjoyed the MGM park with a discount ticket, but doubted whether the experience was worth paying full price. His favorite attraction here was the ``Phantom of the Opera'' horror makeup show.

MCA vice-president Ward says the difference between USF and Disney is that between ``visiting a working production facility as compared to a theme-park attraction.'' There are strictly amusement rides here, yes. But the streets were designed and laid out with cameras in mind.

Moviemaking on USF's back lots may be a big draw. The film business is notoriously ``hurry up and wait,'' with long setup times and delays. But even the most mundane activity seems to have glamour: ``It amazes me,'' says Ward, ``how much [passersby] love seeing people unload trucks!''

Other USF attractions include:

Audition opportunities for children to appear on Nickelodeon's cable-TV shows.

Shops galore. You can buy everything from a King Kong canteen to a Jaws sailor hat to a signed and numbered Flintstones animation cell.

Restaurants galore - Mel's Drive-In from ``American Graffiti,'' Schwab's Pharmacy (customers may be ``discovered'' by roving talent agents), even a guitar-shaped Hard Rock Caf'e.

Animal Actors Stage, with Lassie, Benji, and Mr. Ed look-alikes fetching, doing pratfalls, and rescuing each other.

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