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Behind the MCA-Disney Tour War in Florida : As rival projects near completion, Universal is claiming that its studio tour designs were unfairly 'borrowed'

April 23, 1989|ELLEN FARLEY

On May 1, the first tourists are scheduled to walk through the gates of the Walt Disney Co.'s new studio tour theme park outside Orlando, Fla. About a year later, tourists will be able to drive 12 miles from the Disney attraction to MCA's new Universal Studios-Florida tour.

One ride that neither tour will advertise could perhaps be called "Tour Wars"--a business-competition roller coaster that the two companies have been on for almost five years. It has been expensive and not much fun for the executives involved. In fact, it has been downright bitter--turning former friends at the top levels of Disney and MCA into corporate adversaries.

The fight involves two of the world's largest entertainment companies and three top, high-profile executives: Michael Eisner, the chairman of the Walt Disney Co.; and at MCA, President Sidney J. Sheinberg and Chairman Lew Wasserman. The stakes are equally high profile--a combined $1 billion is being invested in Florida alone.

Disney, according to one source, is spending $550 million on the Disney-MGM Theme Park. (MGM is not a partner in the tour. Disney has licensed MGM's name and some of its entertainment properties.) That's an increase from the $300 million that Disney originally announced it would spend. The company has refused to disclose any new figure.

MCA, parent company of Universal Studios, says that $500 million is being spent to build its tour, up from the originally projected $200 million.

The Universal Studios Tour in the San Fernando Valley's Universal City has been unchallenged as a studio tour--nobody else has one in operation. And MCA apparently expected no competition in 1981 when it bought land near Orlando for its second studio tour.

In 1985, MCA was shocked when Disney Chairman Eisner announced that his company would build a Florida movie studio and tour at the already successful Disney World.

MCA claims that Disney co-opted its plans for Universal Studios-Florida in an attempt to delay the MCA project or drive it from Florida altogether. Said MCA President Sheinberg: "When it came to our horrible realization that they (Disney) were going to do what they were going to do, there was a horrible sense of personal and corporate betrayal. "

Disney rejects the MCA contentions.

As MCA's version of the story goes, Eisner may have become aware of MCA's plans for a tour in 1981 when MCA sought a financial partner for its expansion into Florida.

At the time, Eisner was president of Paramount, the first company that MCA wooed as a potential financial partner. Sheinberg, citing "very strong personal and business relations" that existed between the two companies, said, "It would have been unthinkable that we would have discussed this first with any company other than Paramount."

Eisner and Barry Diller, then chairman of Paramount and now chairman of 20th Century Fox, were Sheinberg's "two best, most trusted friends," an MCA source recalled.

Basic to MCA's allegations is a July, 1981, meeting at which the company first presented its Florida plans. It was at this meeting that MCA says Paramount executives saw the plans for MCA's studio tour.

Although Eisner and other Disney officials refused to give interviews for this article, a Disney spokesman in response to a written Times inquiry about MCA's contentions denied "categorically: (a) that Disney ever stole, borrowed or misappropriated anyone else's ideas for the Disney-MGM Studios--or that Disney will ever do so, or would have to do so; and (b) that Michael Eisner saw or discussed any plans or drawings of anyone else's studio tour proposals before or after he came to Disney."

To back its claims, MCA has now revealed for the first time its 1981 tour plans (previously shown only to potential backers), pointing out what it calls remarkable similarities between the Disney tour and MCA's original design for Universal Studios-Florida.

Further, Jay Stein, MCA Recreation president and the company's chief tour executive, says his company was forced to completely restructure its Florida tour and design new attractions in light of the similarities. The restructuring added "tens of millions to the cost," Stein said. "It isn't just the redesigning. It was the addition of new attractions and shows, expanded streets and restaurants, that were not contemplated in 1981. It all relates to the fact that Disney took what we had, and we had to fish or cut bait."

Stein and MCA Executive Vice President Barry Upson maintain that 65% to 70% of the elements on Disney's tour are "borrowed" from Universal's '81 plans.

They say that the most striking similarities exist between Disney's Catastrophe Canyon, an adventure ride segment on its backlot tram tour, and parts of MCA's original plans that include an earthquake ride. (MCA tour designers originally developed the concept of an earthquake attraction for the Florida tour; the company recently opened a quake ride at its tour in Universal City, but the features of this one differ from the company's first ideas.)

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