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Orlando, Fla.--Will It Become Hollywood East? : Universal and Disney have committed a combined $1 billion for production facilities and studio tours

April 09, 1989|NINA J. EASTON

ORLANDO, Fla. — Rock 'n' roll blares and nearly a dozen Mouseketeers skip onto a Disney sound stage, past the neon diner counter, past a pink refrigerator labeled "Eisner." Twenty years ago, this would have been Circus Day at the Mickey Mouse Club. But times have changed, so: "It's Thursday, Party Day," exclaims 13-year-old Damon Pampolina, "and it's going to be a hot, hot, hot party!" No somber uniforms and Mickey Mouse ears for these hot partygoers; they're decked out in jeans and high-tops and colorful barrettes.

Ten miles up the highway, at Universal Studios, times also have changed at June Cleaver's household. The Beaver is divorced, with two children, and lives at home with his widowed mom. On "The New Leave It to Beaver" June still wears pearls, but she uses a Cuisinart, dates men and attends classes at the local college.

More than style and story line separate these two TV series from the classic originals they imitate: Both shows are in production a continent away from their Hollywood roots--in a town known more for souvenir shops than sound stages.

Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick predicts that will change. He has told his constituents that someday their city will become the Hollywood of the East. (In one speech, he even joked--or was it a joke?--that in 50 years, people will be referring to Hollywood as Orlando West.)

The local press has dutifully followed suit. Steve Martin's recent arrival on the set of Ron Howard's "Parenthood" prompted Orlando magazine to breathlessly boast that the city's "Hollywood East hopes have reached new heights. The future is upon us." Orlando's ambitions have also drawn attention from national news organizations such as NBC and Newsweek.

Others aren't so sanguine about Orlando's show-biz prospects. But Frederick's remarks are more than flights of fancy: His vision for Orlando is based on the very real $1-billion combined commitments that Disney and Universal Studios have made to building production facilities and studio tours in Orlando. There are also persistent rumors that Paramount is shopping for land in the area, but a Paramount spokeswoman declined to comment.

Alongside "The New Mickey Mouse Club," which will debut April 24 on the Disney Channel, the syndicated "Superboy" series is being produced at the Disney-MGM Studios (the company is leasing the rights to the MGM name) just a stone's throw from Disney World and Epcot Center. The feature film "Ernest Saves Christmas" and the TV movie "Splash, Too" were filmed at Disney's Orlando facilities, as well as TV shows such as "Win, Lose or Draw," "Siskel & Ebert" and a Carol Burnett special.

In February, the children's cable TV network Nickelodeon agreed to bring at least 450 hours of original programming annually to Universal's Orlando facility. Universal will begin production on the movie "Psycho IV" in Orlando this spring. And "Parenthood," an Imagine Ent. film to be released by Universal, is already shooting in town. "I probably will be back here," says "Parenthood" director Ron Howard, who chose Orlando as a stand-in for the story's setting, St. Louis, Mo. "The local talent pool will only improve."

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That's all great news for the locals, but can Orlando really ever rival Hollywood? "Not in my lifetime," is the common response from studio executives and public officials there. In his more serious moments, Frederick confesses, "I don't think anyone is expecting Hollywood to surrender its crown." Short-term, the mayor expects film and TV production to become one of his city's four largest industries, alongside agriculture, tourism and high technology.

The level of production in Orlando at this point is so tiny that it probably equals the volume flowing through just four or five blocks of Sunset Boulevard. Cathy Savino, who coordinates film production in three counties for the privately funded Economic Development Commission, predicts that the Orlando area will play host to $30 million in TV and film production this year.

In 1987, Florida captured $224 million worth of productions, compared to California's $4.7 billion, the bulk of which landed in Southern California. Ben Harris, chief of Florida's Motion Picture and Television Bureau, says his state will be doing well if, within the next five years, its share of production rises to $1 billion annually--that's still only one-quarter of California's current total.

Here's another telling fact: Universal, home to "The New Leave It to Beaver," now has four state-of-the-art sound stages. Sometime in the 1990s, that will grow to 11--still only one-third the number that Universal now has on its Southern California property. Disney has built three sound stages on its property and has plans for more (how many, executives are not saying).

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