SPECIAL REPORT

RIDING THE MOVIES

THERE IS NOTHING MICKEY MOUSE ABOUT THE HUGE EXPANSION OF HOLLYWOOD THEME PARKS

Brian D. Johnson March 11 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

RIDING THE MOVIES

THERE IS NOTHING MICKEY MOUSE ABOUT THE HUGE EXPANSION OF HOLLYWOOD THEME PARKS

Brian D. Johnson March 11 1991

RIDING THE MOVIES

SPECIAL REPORT

THERE IS NOTHING MICKEY MOUSE ABOUT THE HUGE EXPANSION OF HOLLYWOOD THEME PARKS

It is a cross between a roller coaster and a movie—a motion picture that physically moves the viewer. The passenger steps into an eight-seat vehicle modelled on the DeLorean time machine in the Back to the Future movies. A safety bar slides down. The vehicle lifts off through cold, white clouds of nitrogen gas towards a giant movie screen. Chasing a blitz of images, the craft seems to sideswipe buildings, skim rooftops and crash through a barrier into the ice age. Swooping and swerving, it hurtles down canyons, takes a shuddering dive into an icy river, flies over seas of lava and descends into a dinosaur’s mouth. The Back to the Future attraction, which opens to the public next month at Orlando’s Universal Studios Florida, is probably the most expensive amusement-park ride ever built, costing at least $40 million—much more than the 1985 blockbuster that inspired it. Designed by a team that includes film-maker Stephen Spielberg, it features Canadian Omnimax technology—a round, concave screen that stands seven storeys tall, so vast that its edges escape the eye’s peripheral vision. And it is the latest innovation in a billion-dollar battle for supremacy being waged by Hollywood theme parks.

Expansion: Attractions like Back to the Future offer an experience that Spielberg calls “riding the movies.” In the past decade, Spielberg, director of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and the Indiana Jones trilogy, established himself as the new force in the science of Hollywood fantasy—his generation’s answer to Walt Disney. Now, in the 1990s, he is among those exploring a new Hollywood frontier. Turning big-screen adventures into rides, stunt shows and backstage tours, movie theme parks play on the popular desire to get inside Hollywood. And they are undergoing a phenomenal expansion. Warner Bros. Inc. is currently building a theme park in Australia. The Japanese electronics giant Sony Corp., which purchased Columbia Pictures Entertainment last year, recently announced plans to construct a U.S. park called Sonyland, but details are still vague. And Euro Disneyland—a $3.4-billion park currently under construction near Paris—opens early next year.

Mousetrap: So far, the two major players have been the Walt Disney Co. and the entertainment conglomerate MCA Inc., both based in Los Angeles. Disney originated the concept of a show-business theme park when it created Disneyland in the L.A. suburb of Anaheim in 1955. Then, in 1971, it opened Walt Disney World in the central Florida city of Orlando. MCA owns Universal Pictures, which opened its huge Hollywood back lot to tourists in 1915, adding a tram tour in 1965. It has since expanded with a full-fledged movie theme park.

More recently, the two companies have created rival theme parks in Orlando that combine studio facilities with tourist attractions. In 1989, Disney, collaborating with Hollywood’s MGM, launched the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, an expansion of Disney World. Then, last year, MCA, in a co-venture with Britain’s Rank Organisation PLC, unveiled its $910-million Universal Studios Florida. The result has been a heated competition between Disney and MCA, a showdown between Mickey Mouse and E.T. And although the corporate duel appears to have lost its bitter edge, there is still a strong rivalry. Said MCA president Sidney Sheinberg: “What our people are trying to do is build a better mousetrap.”

In competing to perfect the technology of leisure, Disney and MCA have taken Hollywood escapism to its logical conclusion. Their theme parks are wide-open preserves for the Ameri-

can dream, sanctuaries of peace, prosperity— and unthreatening thrills. Mickey Mouse, Disney’s gentleman monarch, is always ready with a plush smile and a white-gloved handshake. At MCA’s Universal Studios Florida, visitors can catch a whiff of King Kong’s (simulated) banana breath or ride a train of bicycles to E.T.’s native planet. Safe, synthetic and larger than life, the Hollywood theme park serves as a simulated utopia, a pleasure dome where politeness reigns and America’s streets are forever clean and crime-free. It is a tightly controlled environment—even outdoors, where sound-track music is piped from landscaped gardens. “It’s the glorious mall-in-the-sky come true,” said Jeffrey McNair, a Torontobased consultant who helps to design theme parks around the world.

Recession and war have put a dent in themepark attendance. But the spring school break in March has traditionally provided a huge influx

of visitors—including thousands of Canadians. And even in hard times, theme parks are expanding at an extraordinary rate. MCA is about to unveil a $ 100-million expansion of its Los Angeles studio attraction. Among the new facilities are a heart-shaped pavilion dedicated to Lucille Ball and an E. T. ride housed in the world’s largest soundstage. With the 1990 takeover of MCA by the Japanese electronics conglomerate Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., prospects for expansion have also improved. Said Sheinberg: “I would really hope we have more opportunities for building new parks. Japan is an obvious site.”

Meanwhile, there is nothing Mickey Mouse about the scale of Disney’s empire. The company's overall revenues have risen by a staggering 70 per cent in just two years—and its theme parks raised more than half of the 1990 total, which topped $6 billion. Disney’s four

parks in Florida and California registered an estimated 44 million admissions last year. Tokyo Disneyland, a licensed park which opened in 1983, is also thriving.

Resorts: Orlando is the hub of Disney’s theme-park empire. The city has some 70,000 hotel rooms, more than any other urban centre in North America. On the outskirts, Disney owns a 31,000-acre spread—an area more than twice the size of Manhattan—of which 6,600 acres have been developed. Disney World now ranks as the most popular tourist attraction on the planet. It includes three separate parks. The Magic Kingdom, a variation on Anaheim’s Disneyland, opened in 1971. The Epcot Center, a collection of pavilions resembling a world’s fair, followed in 1982. And with the addition of the Disney-MGM Studios park in 1989, a complete tour of Disney World now takes three to four days.

resort. Four new hotels opened there last year, two are under construction, and seven more are planned. By 1993, Disney World will contain 19 hotels with nearly 16,000 rooms. “We have a very good financial position,” Disney’s ebullient chairman, Michael Eisner, told Maclean ’s. “I don't take anything for granted. The world’s changing so quickly. But if you’re the premier theme park, which most people say we are, you can probably weather it.” Eisner added that although the company is not slowing down its hotel construction, “we are watching our occupancies—we’re not crazy.”

Rivalry: Although Universal cannot compete on the same scale, as the brash newcomer in Orlando it has initiated a fierce rivalry with Disney. In the early 1980s, MCA assembled a 444acre tract of land just 15 km from Disney World. Hoping to take a King Kong-sized bite out of Disney’s business, the company explored the possibility of building a studio park with Paramount Pictures, which Eisner then headed. That deal fell through, and Eisner moved to Disney in 1984. Then,

beating Universal to the punch, Eisner went ahead with Disney-MGM Studios at Disney World.

Enraged executives at MCA charged that Eisner had stolen their ideas. “We were just stunned at what those bastards did,” MCA executive Jay Stein said last year. Eisner, however, provides a dramatically different account. Stein is “an out-of-control person,” he charged. “[He] accused us of stealing their new plans. I never even saw them. And I’ve never been on the Universal tour in California—I heard it was boring.” Added Eisner: “But they seem to have borrowed theme-park concepts from us, until it looks like a Disney park in a way—which is flattering. It doesn’t upset me.”

While building their Orlando park, MCA executives decided to make it bigger and better than Disney’s. “Hell, Universal’s got the greatest adventure movies and thrillers of all time,” Stein boasted, referring to such hits as Back to the Future, E. T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. “What has Disney got—a Three Men and a Baby ride? We’re going to kick their ass.” In one instance, the feud took a macabre twist: Universal’s early plan for its Jaws attraction featured a pair of mouse ears floating in the debris from a shark attack.

Make-believe: As it turned out, Stein had to eat his words. When Universal’s Orlando studio park opened last June, it fizzled badly. Three of its biggest attractions—Kongfrotation, Earthquake and Jaws—malfunctioned for the first two months, generating a storm of negative publicity. And Universal is suing the designer of the Jaws attraction, which is now being rebuilt from scratch. Ron Bension, who has succeeded Stein as president of MCA Recreation Services Group, told Maclean ’s: “What we built in Florida was so state-of-the-art—beyond state-of-the-art—that the rides were not ready when we opened.

That was a mistake, and we suffered a great deal because of it. But since August,” he added, “our attractions have been performing splendidly.”

Anxious: Now, MCA executives seem anxious to put the dispute behind them. “The attitude of the participants was well aired,” said Sheinberg. “Is there room for us to succeed? We’re comforted by the fact that when people visit both parks, they think ours is better.” For his part, Eisner calls Universal “a worthy competitor—they do good stuff.” But the Disney chairman added: “Their strategy to try to tie themselves into Disney through criticism or whatever turned out not to be effective, and they’ve changed directions.”'

As the underdog, Universal still has to prove that it has something Disney lacks. And although its executives have dropped the invective, they still boast of their superiority.

Said Bension: “We think that what we have to offer is 180 degrees different from what the competition has to offer. What we have is a very real motion-picture studio operation as opposed to a theme park. The issue,” he added, “is that we’re real and they’re make-believe.”

Indeed, as a working studio, Universal is more impressive. Its sets and soundstages are bigger, and its back lot more authentic. Both Florida studios have “New York” streets with false-perspective skyscrapers. But Disney’s looks unnaturally clean, while Universal’s has cracked sidewalks and scarred streets. In fact, when Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures recently filmed Oscar, a period gangster movie starring Sylvester Stallone, it shot interior scenes at Disney-MGM but moved to Universal for the Manhattan exteriors.

Disney-MGM and Universal are both trying to

lure Hollywood film-makers to Florida, where non-union crews offer substantial savings. But their Orlando studios function primarily as tourist attractions. And they are remarkably similar. At both, there is a soundstage tour, a flight-simulator ride, a 1950s-style diner, a replica of Hollywood Boulevard and a “boneyard” of old props. Both parks offer live stunt shows. At Disney-MGM, Indiana Jones runs from a giant boulder, pushes Arabs off rooftops and fights the Nazis. At Universal, in a spectacle based on TV’s Miami Vice, men with

machine-guns chase each other around a lagoon in high-powered speedboats. Both shows climax with fireball explosions.

Disaster scenarios are popular at the two parks, although Universal’s are more spectacular. At Disney-MGM, visitors ride a tram through Catastrophe Canyon, where a tanker truck explodes and a flash flood erupts. At Universal, a simulated earthquake rocks a subway station. There, too, a tanker truck explodes—after sliding through the ceiling—and a flash flood breaks through a wall. For sheer thrills, Universal outmuscles its rival. None of Disney’s creatures can measure up to King Kong, whose giant hand jostles passengers as they ride an overhead tram four storeys above a realistic reconstruction of a New York City block.

But there are some clever creative touches at Disney-MGM. Children love crawling and sliding around the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground, where blades of grass are as tall as trees. And Disney’s animation tour offers a brilliant touch of comic relief. It features a film in which former TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—the other Uncle Walt of 1960s television—explains animation techniques to a puckish Robin Williams. With Cronkite serving as his straight man, Williams is transformed into a jive-talking cartoon character. As one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, he high-fives Tinker Bell—“Hey, Tink, slip me some wing.”

With an irreverent wit, Williams cuts through the cult-like mystique that dominates the Disney empire. Unlike Universal, which has the ambience of a generic Hollywood studio, Disney World is a world unto itself, with an overwhelming sense of identity. It is like a city-state. It has its own highways, canals and manmade lakes, its own culture— and its own cartoon royal family. The Mickey Mouse logo is embossed on everything from manhole covers to bars of soap.

Orwellian: The upbeat atmosphere of the Disney parks is enforced with Orwellian discipline. All employees who deal with the public undergo a one-week indoctrination in Disney etiquette. “You learn to smile a lot,” said Natalie Chartray, 24, a francophone student from Montreal selling souvenirs outside the Canada pavilion. “We learn le Disney look and le Disney smile, and by the end of the week we were practically growing mouse ears.”

Disney World is strangely sexless, almost puritanical. Its service employees conform to a strict dress

code. Women may not wear dangling earrings, heavy makeup, ribbons in their hair or bright-colored watchbands. Men cannot have long hair,

beards—or even a moustache as modest as Uncle Walt’s.

The 75 Canadians employed at the Canada pavilion wear lumberjack costumes. Chartray wore a red-checked jacket, a long skirt and construction boots. “It’s not very feminine,” she said. “Canadian visitors often complain about the costume.” Some also complain about the pavilion’s fake totem poles and its restaurant, a mock-medieval cellar with an English-only menu presenting cabbage rolls, fried chicken and prime rib as Canadian cuisine.

Authenticity is not a high priority in theme parks. At Disney’s Epcot Center, the Future World complex of corporate-sponsored pavilions built less than a decade ago is already out of date. Exxon Corp.’s Energy pavilion celebrates fossil fuels with an optimism that now seems absurd. Inside, a massive gold-lamé curtain rises to reveal a wraparound movie—portraying the (pre-spill) glory of Alaska’s port of Valdez and the promise of the Middle Eastern sands.

Amid so much stimulation, some visitors fail to recognize the real thing when they see it. Epcot’s Living Seas pavilion features a huge tank containing some 5,000 fish, including sharks. An employee at a souvenir stand there said: “You wouldn’t believe how many people come up and ask me if the fish are real.” Diversity: Although Disney World offers extraordinary diversity, many attractions are variations on the same formula. A ride often begins with a pre-show designed to keep those in the lineup entertained—usually a movie or video. Visitors then travel in an “omnimover,” a chain of slow-moving vehicles, through a manmade landscape populated by mechanical dolls and creatures that are manipulated by a process known as animatronics. Almost invariably, the exit funnels the crowd into a souvenir store. “It’s pretty commercial,” said Debra Vickman, 34, returning home to Sudbury, Ont., after a trip to Disney World with her husband and two children, 8 and 6. “We had to lay down a few ground rules for the kids. I didn’t really travel all that distance to shop, but I guess that’s part of the experience.”

Theme shops, theme restaurants—and theme hotels—are all part of the experience. Recently, two new luxury hotels opened at Disney World—the Yacht Club and the Beach Club, both clapboard structures designed along classical Cape Cod lines. A sand-bottomed water park winds through their grounds like a river. Fronting on a lagoon with an artificial beach, the resorts seem very tasteful compared with Disney’s two new convention hotels across the water, the Swan and the Dolphin. They are both heavy, garish structures in an architectural style that combines Mickey Mouse whimsy with Mussolini monumentality. The Dolphin’s flanks are topped with two 30ton fibre-glass sculptures of pouting cartoon fish. The hotel’s pink walls are painted with an

almost indecipherable pattern of banana plants. Disney publicists diplomatically term the design “provocative.” Chairman Eisner calls it “entertainment architecture.”

Eisner’s plan to open seven more theme hotels in Disney World by the end of the decade reflects the surprising number of adults visiting without children. In fact, four out of five Disney World resort guests are adults. And its newest attraction, Pleasure Island, is designed for them exclusively. It is a complex of nightclubs and restaurants that stage a “New Year’s Eve party” every night. Disney employees manning the door of an “alternate” dance club try to look tough in black T-shirts. A boutique sells naughty lingerie with images of Jessica, the cartoon seductress from the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Outside, performers stir up the street crowd with dirty dancing. Disney does not get any sexier. But there are limits—Pleasure Island ushers in the new year at 11 p.m. Said Eisner: “Yes, there’s music and dancing and liquor, but there’s no unwholesome things going on over there—not that I’m aware of.”

Twists: Walt Disney’s vision has taken some strange twists since the Dumbo carousel first started up at Disneyland 36 years ago. Eisner predicts that future expansion at Disney World will include a fourth theme park, residential areas, a cultural affairs institute and a regional shopping centre “done in our way.” Asked if that will involve a theme, he replied: “Anything is theme. Not themed is theme. A brick wall is theme. So if architecture is synonymous with theme, yes, it will be well-themed.”

Meanwhile, outside the gates of Disney World, the theming of America proceeds at a dizzying rate in greater Orlando. Scores of smaller attractions have sprung up to tap the influx of tourists drawn to the Disney magnet. They include Gatorland, Fun World, Flea World and Sea World.

Orlando brings together wild extremes of American culture. It is the headquarters of Tupperware, the Doll House chain of striptease clubs and Martin Marietta Electronic Information and Missiles Group, which manufactures Scud-busting Patriot missiles.

Meanwhile, Universal and Disney conduct their own arms race with animatronics, pyrotechnics, special effects, lasers—and movie rides that send the audience hurtling towards the screen. If movies are larger than life, theme parks are larger than movies. They appeal to the popular desire to be in the movies, to break through to the other side of the screen. In a shrinking world of small-screen movie theatres, Nintendo wars and video rentals, theme parks deliver collective—and

gargantuan—thrills. With their mechanized monsters, look-alike stars and wraparound screens, they synthesize Hollywood fakery on an industrial scale. They simulate something that is itself a simulation. And nothing could be more authentically Hollywood than that.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON