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MCA to Build Major European Theme Park : Spain Likely Location for $500-Million Challenge to Disney Attraction in Paris

September 16, 1987|KATHRYN HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

MCA, the entertainment company bent on competing with Walt Disney Co. in the burgeoning theme park business, is preparing to build a major attraction in Europe--most likely on the coast of Spain, The Times has learned.

If Spain is selected, MCA will try to complete construction by 1992, when the Olympics are scheduled to be held in Barcelona, sources familiar with the project said.

The theme park would include a studio tour attraction, sound stages for motion picture and television production and resort facilities, the sources said. No budgets have been set, but the anticipated cost of the project is in the half-billion-dollar range, one source maintained.

MCA intends to enlist partners and separate financing to avoid encumbering its own balance sheet with debt. The sources said the Los Angeles-based entertainment company would presumably enlist Cineplex Odeon as a partner and film maker Steven Spielberg as a consultant in an arrangement similar to that of MCA's studio tour in Florida, now under construction.

Next week, MCA President Sidney J. Sheinberg and MCA Vice President Charles S. Paul, the company's key acquisitions executive, are expected to travel to Spain for negotiations. But Paul, reached by telephone Tuesday, said: "It is MCA's policy not to comment on rumors."

Near the French Border

MCA officials have not ruled out the Paris outskirts, where Disney is building its Euro Disneyland, sources said. But Spain appears to have the edge because of the availability and cost of land, as well as milder weather and Spain's eagerness to lure a major theme park operator after losing the Disney project to France in 1985.

Sources wouldn't identify the sites under consideration, but Barcelona appears a likely candidate because it is Spain's second most populous city, located on the Mediterranean Sea where winters are mild. Barcelona is less than 100 miles from the French border.

If the MCA project in Europe is launched, it will create yet another arena for competition with Disney, which has dominated the theme park industry until now. In the past year, Disney and MCA have squared off publicly over theme park projects in Florida and Southern California. The two giants--headquartered just a few miles apart--appear to have galvanized one another.

MCA, for example, has operated a studio tour for 23 years at its 420-acre headquarters in Universal City but dragged its heels on ground-breaking for a similar attraction in Orlando, first announced in 1981.

Then Disney broke ground in 1986 on its own Florida studio tour. In December, MCA announced that it had finally found a suitable partner in Cineplex Odeon, the Canadian entertainment company half-owned by MCA.

MCA and Cineplex expect to open their Florida attraction in 1989, the year after Disney begins operating its studio tour at nearby Walt Disney World.

Early this year, Disney disclosed its willingness to build a studio tour attraction in Burbank. Less than a month later, MCA responded with a plan to spend more than $100 million to upgrade its Universal Studios Tour.

Following Disney

High-level MCA executives went public in May with accusations that Disney offered to drop its Burbank project if MCA would abandon its Florida tour. Disney has refused to comment on those allegations, other than to say its Burbank proposal is genuine.

In Europe, it appears that the two giants may compete at greater distance, if MCA opts for Spain. Euro Disneyland is scheduled to open in 1992 on 4,800 acres in Marne-la-Vallee, 18 miles east of Paris. One source acknowledged that Disney's decision to build in France has only whetted other countries' interest in building a competing park. "There is no alternative to Disney, other than MCA," the source maintained.

Although the structure of MCA's proposed deal has not been set, the sources said the firm would follow Disney's lead in France, taking a minority position in ownership and collecting a management fee.

Disney has no ownership interest in Tokyo Disneyland, which opened in 1983, but as its management fee it pockets 7.5% of that park's gross revenues from admissions, merchandising and food sales.

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