New York Daily News, August 2002

    Universal Appeal
    Florida's number two amusement park isn't such an also-ran anymore.

    By Bruce Kluger

    Memo to Mickey Mouse: Look over your shoulder,
    Cheese Boy, Universal Studios is gaining on you
    fastat least in the balmy climes of Orlando,

    Although the Walt Disney empire’s 30,000-acre
    sprawl in the Sunshine Statewhich includes four
    theme parks and 28 hotelshas helped make
    Orlando the most visited city in the country,
    Universal Studios Florida, located 15 miles down
    the road, has been giving the mighty mouse a run
    for its money in recent years.

    The face-off began in the mid-nineties, when Universal, sensing a horse race in the
    making, began injecting $2 billion into a bold expansion plan. That strategy
    culminated two months ago with the opening of Universal’s Royal Pacific Resort, a
    1000-room, tropical oasis hidden among lush palmed coves and Balinese artifacts
    just off the highway. The addition of the hotel property now brings Universal’s
    current tally sheet to include two amusement parks (the cinema-themed Universal
    Studios Florida and the leafier Islands of Adventure) as well as three hotels, various
    nightclubs and enviable across-the-bridge access to CityWalk, a hopping
    promenade of restaurants, shops and carnival-type amusements.

    Not that Disney is particularly worried. Still head-shoulders-and-mouse-ears above
    even its closest competitors, Disney continues its Florida assault, claiming more
    acreage than the island of Manhattan. Its theme parks are still the area’s biggest
    draw, and its hotels routinely house ten times the amount of guests who check into
    a Universal property.

    And yet Universal perseveres, ever closing the gap between its yearly gate receipts
    and those of Disney. After the arrival of its Islands of Adventure in 1999, for
    example, Universal park admissions shot to 12.5 million visitors two years later, an
    impressive 30 percent increase from the 8,900,000 guests it welcomed in 1998.
    During this same time frame, the combined admissions at Disney’s two maiden
    parksMagic Kingdom and Epcotdecreased five percent. (One reason for this
    sag was the opening of the Disney-MGM Studios Park, which had begun siphoning
    guests from its other properties, racking up annual attendance figures in excess of
    8 million.)

    Yet while Disney still leads overall admissions by a considerable margin, Universal
    is steadily gaining, now controlling one-fourth of the combined Disney-Universal
    Orlando market, compared to just 18 percent in 1998.

    One reason for Universal’s successful climb in numbers has been its aggressive
    strategy in latching onto a variety of popular cultural franchises. While the Disney
    logo is still among the most recognizable in the world, its family of charactersfrom
    big bad wolves to little mermaids to lion kingsare still reflexively associated with
    the man who gave the world Mickey Mouse. Universal, on the other hand, has
    invited an eclectic batch of instantly recognizable entertainments to join the party in
    its parks, successfully expanding its cultural cache to appeal to an impressive
    range of tastes and demographics:

    Lights, Camera….Scream!: Those who go to theme parks to strap into thrill-ride
    variations on their favorite films have a generous batch of blockbusters to select
    from at Universal Parks. Movie fans can queue up for, among others, a Men in
    Black extravaganza, as well as an E.T. adventure, a 3-D Terminator 2 cyber-ride, a
    breakneck spin through Back to the Future, a “Kongfrontation” aerial tram, Jaws
    and Earthquake hair-raisers, and at least four separate amusements in a fully-
    operational Jurassic Park.

    Green Eggs and Toddlers: Although they won’t measure up to the height
    requirements for more grown-up fare, the smallest family members aren’t left out in
    the cold. Universal managed to grab dibs on a host of pre-schooler icons, with
    amusements that include a live concert starring Barney and his pals; a stage show
    featuring the men, women and creatures of TV’s Animal Planet; and the impeccably
    designed Seuss Landing, a cozy corner of the park that recreates the good Doctor’
    s storybook collection with a Cat in the Hat adventure, One Fish, Two Fish ride and
    a handful of perfectly Seussian playgrounds.

    Pen & Ink: Walt Disney did not corner the market on animation. Universal, unlike its
    main rival, boasts a cross-pollinated cartoon collection that includes SpongeBob
    SquarePants attractions, a Hanna Barbera pavilion (featuring the Jetsons, the
    Flintstones, and Yogi Bear), Toon Lagoon (with Dudley Do-Right and Popeye
    rides), and Marvel Superhero Island, home to the park’s newest and most popular
    attraction, a 3D Spider Man adventure.

    Other recognizable trademarks that appear throughout the Universal Studios
    complex are The Hard Rock Café, which operates both a branch of its popular
    restaurant franchise next to the parks, and a full-service hotel just down the river;
    and Nickelodeon, which offers tours of its on-site studio, and invites visitors to
    watch tapings of its programs, as well as participate in a version of its wildly popular
    game show, Slime Time.