E.T. Elbows Mickey in Florida's Clash of the Theme-Park Titans

Mickey Mouse or E.T.? That's the question tourists are increasingly asking when they consider a vacation in central Florida.

After 25 years of basking in the Magic Kingdom's glow here, Mickey is receiving a not-so-subtle nudge from the E.T. Adventure down the street at Universal Studios Florida.

Competition among theme parks isn't new, but the clash between Universal and Disney is pushing this segment of the entertainment industry to spectacular new heights.

The stakes here are high. About $15 billion in tourist dollars - an amount equal to half the gross domestic product of oil-rich Kuwait - pours each year into this former swampland. Moreover, as the clash between the theme park titans heats up, vacationers stand to benefit.

"Each year each park is almost compelled to add a spectacular new attraction to bring people back," says Paul Ruben, North American editor for the Britain-based Park World magazine. "If not, those people will go somewhere else."

Theme parks nationwide collect an estimated $6 billion a year in gate fees. Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., has long been the benchmark, but crowds at regional parks, such as Six Flags, continue to grow. Every year, these megaparks strive to one-up the competition with Hollywood tie-ins and rides that are bigger, wetter, faster, higher, and more terrifying than the year before.

Here in central Florida, the degree of one-upmanship is unprecedented. Action-packed attractions like Universal's $60 million Terminator 2 mixes 3-D film footage, robots, and live-stunt doubles. Thrill rides are bigger and better than ever: Disney's Tower of Terror features an electromagnetically powered elevator that drops its occupants from 13 stories high - and at a speed faster than free fall. Ticket and accommodations packages, too, are increasingly attractive.

Universal, in its bid to siphon some of the tourism trade that has long gone to Disney, has launched a $2.5 billion expansion project. It has also pioneered partnerships with other area parks to compete with Disney's one-stop-shopping approach to theme-park entertainment.

But the beloved Mickey isn't slouching away with his tail tucked between his legs. Walt Disney World - with its three huge theme parks and 14 hotels designed to fit every price range - has long been the king of theme-park entertainment. And it intends to remain king.

Disney officials deny they are in a contest for tourism. But "I think the competition is very fierce," says Ady Milman of the Dick Pope Institute for tourism studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Universal, now owned by the Seagram Company, is in the process of filling out its 838 acres. It is building a new theme park - Islands of Adventure with Jurassic Park creator Steven Spielberg as adviser, four world-class hotels, an 18-hole golf course, and an evening entertainment zone, all connected by waterways. These opulent additions are designed to compete directly with Disney's elite hotels and Pleasure Island, a six-acre nightclub theme park.

"We are responsive to what our guests tell us in our research," says Tom Williams, Universal's president. "Every time a new park opened, like EPCOT, or MGM, it attracted 1.5 million new visitors. I predict it will happen again with Disney's fourth gate [Animal Kingdom] and our Island of Adventures."

Disney, celebrating its 25th anniversary here through December 1997, has its own expansion plans. Analysts estimate the cost to be near $3 million.

For one, it's opening Animal Kingdom, which looks like a Disney version of Busch Gardens, in spring 1998. The 500-acre park - five times as large as the Magic Kingdom - will feature "close encounters with great herds of wild animals" in their natural habitats.

"Disney is bullish on going forward," says Al Weiss, president of Walt Disney World.

Disney is also starting a cruise-ship line. Two ships will set sail in 1998. Destination: a Caribbean island that Disney has purchased. Disney will put together seven-day packages, beams Mr. Weiss, every bit as proud as a new father. (Three days in Disney World and four days at sea, or vice versa.) "The whole thing will be done with the Disney flair."

Neither park issues visitor figures, but Tim O'Brien of the Nashville-based Amusement Business Magazine tracks attendance at the top 50 American parks.

Disneyland is still the most-visited amusement park in North America, with 14.1 million visitors in 1995, says Mr. O'Brien. The three gates at Disney World are next - Magic Kingdom is No. 2 with 12.9 million visitors, EPCOT is No. 3 at 10.7 million, and MGM studios is No. 4 at 9.5 million. Universal Studios Florida is No. 5 at 8 million. O'Brien says that between 25 and 30 percent of the central Florida business is international, and that the attendance figures will likely continue to go up.

Park World's Mr. Ruben agrees. "The market is one of the results of peace breaking out," he says. "The international economy is geared toward peace. And a lot of the technology that was developed for war is now being used for theme parks to build attractions."

But the theme park war hasn't stopped at gobbling up acres of Florida swamplands. It is expanding to ticket prices, tour operators, and hotels.

Last spring, Universal joined with two nearby theme parks - Sea World and Wet & Wild - to offer a five-day Value Pass. For $79.95, tourists can mix and match visits to these parks as they like.

The Value Pass is an affordable alternative to the Disney five-day pass, priced at about half what it costs for a similar experience at Disney, tourism experts say. "I think the Value Pass is brilliant marketing," O'Brien says.

In June, Universal added Busch Gardens in Tampa as a Value Pass option. Universal also entered into alliances with 20 hotels offering rooms for $40 to $80 per night. These, again, directly compete with Disney, where the least expensive room is $69 a night.

Universal also formed its own travel company and took over the guest-services desks at these hotels - where guests can conveniently purchase tickets to attractions in the area. Universal's Mr. Williams says he would have "loved" to continue selling Disney tickets at those desks, but Disney wouldn't allow it.

"It's our policy that we won't let other attractions sell our tickets," explains Randy Garfield, senior vice president at Walt Disney Travel Company. "We work with the independent guest-service ... hotels who can objectively serve the needs of the traveling public."

Connie (who wouldn't give her last name), mans the guest-services desk at a Howard Johnson hotel here. She says guest-services desks that aren't run by Universal aren't allowed to sell its Value Passes. But Disney isn't much better, she adds. "They want to keep everything for themselves."

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