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Theme Parks Reanimate Rivalry

After a two-year spending lull, Disney and Universal are investing millions on attractions based on 'Aladdin' and 'Shrek.'

January 21, 2003|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

An electric-blue genie is about to battle a slime-green ogre for the wallets of Southern California theme park fans.

Walt Disney Co. and Vivendi Universal are pouring millions of dollars into their respective theme parks to create attractions based on the popular animated films "Aladdin" and "Shrek."

The spending follows a two-year lull by the major companies that dominate the Southern California theme park scene and launches a period that will see more than $100 million invested in new attractions in the region over the next 18 months.

Disney was the first to strike, opening an $8-million production of "Aladdin -- A Musical Spectacular" in the Hyperion Theater at Disney's California Adventure on Jan. 17.

The park, opened two years ago as part of a massive hotel and shopping expansion at the Disneyland Resort, has suffered from smaller-than-expected crowds. Attendance at California Adventure dropped 6% to 4.7 million last year, according to Amusement Business, a trade journal.

But Disney hopes that the new show -- featuring the kinds of big-ticket special effects that long have been the hallmark of the company's attractions -- will help pull in visitors.

In the elaborate 45-minute performance, designed and produced by Broadway veterans, singers soar above the audience on a magic carpet. Aladdin's genie appears and disappears in great gusts of smoke. And a two-story serpent grows from below the stage.

"Content is what drives everything," said Michael Eisner, Disney's chief executive. "This is an example of it."

Producing the "Aladdin" show and designing its special effects equaled the cost of a mid-size theme park ride but will be far more expensive than the typical ride to operate. The show employs about 50 union actors from the American Guild of Variety Artists.

Much of the talent was cast in New York, requiring the company to provide lodging for the actors, a more complicated process than hiring a Cal State Fullerton student part time to dress up as a pirate and load visitors onto a boat at Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Universal Studios, meanwhile, plans to answer back this summer with Shrek 4-D, a theater-based attraction that Universal is building at its parks in Los Angeles, Orlando, Fla., and Japan.

Based on the green ogre from the popular DreamWorks SKG movie, Shrek 4-D will carry a price tag of $25 million to $30 million, according to industry estimates, and will feature 15 minutes of new three-dimensional animation from the producers of the film.

Theater seats that move, along with other elaborate special effects, are designed to make patrons feel as if they are within the story.

Mike Myers, who voiced Shrek, will reprise his role, as will the film's Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz.

And in a unique partnership with DreamWorks, the attraction will plug the gap in the story of Shrek; his bride, Princess Fiona; and his manic donkey sidekick. The show will include material that serves as a bridge between the 2001 film and "Shrek II," scheduled to be released in summer 2004.

The attraction also gives Universal a stable of animated characters easily identifiable by children at its parks, an area that has been a weakness when compared with Disney's offerings. "Shrek" earned $268 million in domestic box-office revenue, and the DVD remains a popular children's selection.

Yet Universal executives are hoping to reach more than just kids. Don Skeoch, senior vice president of marketing and retailing for Universal Studios Hollywood, said the adult humor that riddled the movie and will play through the sequel also should help sell the attraction to parents and teens.

Some analysts agree. "Shrek should be a sure-fire hit," said industry veteran Lance Hart, who operates Screamscape.com, which monitors theme parks. "Universal is thinking ahead and putting in a popular current character who will have a big sequel film that will keep the big green fellow in the spotlight for the next few years."

Disney, however, is looking beyond the desert to the Hundred Acre Wood in its bid to beat Shrek.

It will open the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ride at Disneyland in April. Other Pooh rides rank among the most popular attractions at Disney parks, said John Robinett, a theme park consultant at Economic Research Associates in Los Angeles.

"Winnie the Pooh is the top attraction in Tokyo and regularly has three- to four-hour lines," Robinett said.

Disney also is slated to have another big ride in place in 2004. Just steps from the Hyperion Theater in California Adventure, Disney is building the massive Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

The attraction will cost about $75 million, people familiar with the project say, and will send visitors crashing down a runaway elevator in a haunted hotel. It will be a near duplicate of a popular ride at one of the company's Orlando theme parks.

Although the flurry in theme park investment in Southern California is part of the ebb and flow of the business, it is coming at a time when the industry is poised for an upswing after several difficult years, Robinett predicted.

"The view this year is that we have in some sense put the Sept. 11 event behind us and that the economy is a bit better," he said.

Attendance at the two area Disney parks was strong during the holiday season. The resort set a one-day combined attendance record of 108,000 the Friday after Christmas but fell back once the school break ended, Disney executives said.

Early indicators point to a stronger 2003. Advanced vacation bookings for the resort -- which includes three Disney hotels, the two parks and the Downtown Disney shopping area -- had narrowed to only a 35- to 40-day time frame after the Sept. 11 attacks. It then held steady at that pace through 2002.

But now the window has started to widen again to 60 to 90 days, an indication that demand is picking up.

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