Universal ups the ante with a 'macho' park

More thrill-rides for older kids give tourists an option to Disney

Some day, Americans will pay money to be shot out of a cannon. After all, we now wait in line to be shoved off cliffs.

When that day comes, the folks at Universal want to be the ones to send you hurtling skyward.

That's certainly the impression one gets wandering around its newest Orlando park, Islands of Adventure. In the business of thrills, bigger is always better, and almost every attraction boasts the kind of muscular, high-voltage experience guaranteed to toss one around like confetti in a snow globe.

The Incredible Hulk Coaster propels riders forward with the force of an F-16. The finale to the Jurassic Park River Adventure is an 8-1/2 story drop - the "longest, fastest, steepest water descent ever built."

All this hyperbole has a purpose, beyond delighting the hearts and roiling the stomachs of American teens. The theme park is part of Universal's $2.6 billion expansion aimed at taking on the Mouse that roared.

"They're now marketing themselves as a destination in their own right," as opposed to a one-day activity, says Karen Oertley, publisher and editor in chief of Amusement Business, a Nashville-based magazine. The test, Universal executives say, is whether their new park can get a family planning a vacation in Omaha, Neb., to say, "We want to go to Orlando to visit Universal," instead of that childhood rite of passage just down the highway.

To encourage lengthier stays at their complex, Universal has added the CityWalk nighttime entertainment complex, as well as the Portofino resort, due to open in September.

While Orlando is synonymous with Disney in the minds of most children, Ms. Oertley says Universal has already proved there's room for competition with its nine-year-old park, Universal Studios Florida. That park has won the Applause Award for excellence, but still loses the battle of bodies. Last year, 41 million people visited Walt Disney World, compared with 8.9 million "riding the movies" at Universal.

Now Universal is looking for a greater share of Florida's $17 billion tourist business.

To do that, Universal has combined technology with comic-book heroes (and dinosaurs) to create a park with enough flips to make gymnast Keri Strug jealous. The theme song for this park isn't a tinkling music box; it's a thumping techno soundtrack.

"Our competitor down the road is about nostalgia, which is wonderful and has its place," says John Haugh, vice president of marketing at Universal. But while Disney "is great for kids," he likens Universal to a family ski trip. "Some can go on a black [trail], some can go on a green, and some can go on a blue. At the end of the day, they've all had a great day even though they tried different activities."

Islands of Adventure might want to pay more attention to its bunny slopes. Seuss Landing offers whimsy for small children, but the rest of the park is decidedly more macho. "This will attract teens, because they're bored with Disney," says a mother from Syracuse, N.Y., waiting at Dr. Doom's Fearfall. "But if you've got a family with small children, it's not worth it."

The question of whether children would rather have their picture taken with the Cat in the Hat or Mickey Mouse has yet to be answered. But some experts believe this town is, in fact, big enough for both. "I think they complement each other. They each do what they do extremely well, but they offer a different experience," says Oertley. "What's good for Universal is good for Disney."

Haugh concurs. "If we only came in and just stole market share from Disney or Sea World that's not being a good citizen," he says. "When Orlando does well, we do well."

While Disney officials say they welcome their new neighbor, they won't comment on its potential impact.

But Islands of Adventure is the second new theme park in Orlando in two years, leaving some to wonder how many tourists one city can hold. (Another park, Sea World's Discovery Cove, is expected to open in 2000.)

And Universal also runs the risk of stealing visitors, not from Disney, but from its other theme park.

In the end, Islands of Adventure's success will be simple to measure, Haugh says. "We had one park and now we have two: Are we getting twice as many people through [the turnstiles]?"

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