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'Mummy' Bound for New Ride

Vivendi is putting $80 million into the film-based attraction at Universal Studios despite uncertainty over its theme parks.

May 17, 2003|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

It's strapped for cash, and it wants to unload its theme parks, but Vivendi Universal isn't about to let Walt Disney Co. off easy.

The two entertainment giants have been in a ride rivalry for 13 years.

Vivendi says it's getting ready to fire its next volley with Revenge of the Mummy, an $80-million ride scheduled to open at its Universal Studios Florida in Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood in spring 2004.

The company says the new attraction -- an unusual fusion of high-speed technology, pyrotechnic effects and space-age robotics-- will be one of its most ambitious and technologically advanced to date. Just the fact that Vivendi's Universal Parks & Resorts unit is proceeding with the project when the future of its parks is uncertain makes Revenge of the Mummy unusual, especially since the industry has been so recently clobbered by the economy.

"The timing is curious," said Orlando-based theme park consultant Steve Baker. "It's extremely significant and shows great confidence in the business."

The war with Iraq, weak consumer confidence and the falloff in travel since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have brought a steep decline in tourism. That was underscored Thursday when Vivendi reported a 25% drop in theme park revenue in the first quarter. To slash debt, the French company has put its Universal theme parks, movie studio and television assets up for sale.

Universal executives began planning for the attraction 10 years ago, long before this downturn. They say they have to invest in new rides and shows to stay competitive and keep customers coming back.

"We have huge confidence in the business and we're long-term players," said Tom Williams, chairman of Universal Parks & Resorts. "We believe the timing of this is going to work out perfectly. We've seen an uptick in consumer confidence, which closely correlates with theme park attendance. The economy is improving."

For its part, Disney is opening an ambitious space attraction at Walt Disney World's Epcot theme park later this year. It plans to open a Himalayan-themed roller coaster at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom in 2006. And in Anaheim, Disney is building the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a $75-million ride set to open at California Adventure next year.

Now Universal Studios hopes to up the ante with the Mummy ride.

"It's Coke-Pepsi," Baker said of the competition between the two companies, "an arms race for sure."

The money going into Revenge of the Mummy comes on top of more than $60 million Universal has invested this year in attractions related to the animated hit movies "Shrek" and "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius." The 3-D Shrek attraction, based on the DreamWorks SKG movie, opens next week at Universal Studios Hollywood and June 12 at the Florida theme park.

Universal executives have high hopes for the Mummy ride, their most ambitious project since the $75-million Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride debuted in 1999 at Islands of Adventure in Orlando. The inspiration is one of Universal's most successful movie franchises, continuing a tradition of creating attractions from its library of hit films, including "E.T.," "Back to the Future" and "Backdraft."

The 1999 movie "The Mummy" and its even more popular sequel in 2001 have generated nearly $1 billion in box office receipts.

The ride was designed in close collaboration with the movie's director, Stephen Sommers, and his creative partner Bob Ducsay, who are at work on another "Mummy" sequel.

"It extends the ideas of the film into a different world," said Ducsay, executive producer of "The Mummy Returns." "It's a great complementary vision of the original motion picture."

Billed as "psychological thrill ride," the attraction will hurtle passengers through Egyptian sets, chambers, passageways and tombs in vehicles that will move both backward and forward. During the ride, which will last about five minutes, they'll pass through a "ceiling of flame" hovering inches overhead and encounter a skeleton warrior that will leap onto their vehicles.

"It's different than anything we've done before," said Scott Trowbridge, vice president of design and creative development for Universal Parks & Resorts.

To help create an authentic environment, from golden amulets to canopic urns containing the remains of Egyptian royalty, Universal's ride producers visited Egypt and the British Museum in London. Designers worked with a German robotics firm to develop some of the mummies.

"This is the DNA of the Universal brand," said Wyman Roberts, chief marketing officer of Universal Parks & Resorts. "Bringing movies to life is what we're really about."

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