Seeing green 


Just hear those sleigh bells ringaling, jing-jing-jingaling too ...

Oh, I'm sorry. Did you think those were actually sleigh bells sounding from Universal Orlando and the Lake Buena Vista area? Sorry to spoil your fantasy, but those were cash registers. Lots and lots of cash registers.

It's Yuletide 2000, where two huge Central Florida resorts are doing battle for your holiday dollar. Though their theme parks might be slathered with artificial evergreen garland from Thanksgiving through mid-January, there's no mistaking the real green that gets both Universal and Disney excited.

What makes this holiday season particularly intriguing is that, for the first time, Universal's a real Christmas competitor. After raking in all that dough in October thanks to "Halloween Horror Nights," Universal was usually content to sit back and let the Mouse hog the rest of the holidays.

No more. Thanks to the continued success of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (which had grossed more than $214 million as of last weekend), both of Universal's Orlando theme parks are riding Jim Carrey's green coattails to record attendance this month. Tourists and locals have flocked to Islands of Adventure for the short but slippery slide down Mount Crumpet, while at Universal Studios Florida, crowds have lined up to peek at the props and sets that were used to make the movie.

This seasonal surge has not gone unnoticed. Right now Universal execs are wondering how they can turn "Merry Grinch-mas" into an annual event. This time next year, "Grinch" will undoubtedly be available for sale on video and DVD. So the public is sure to still want to get in on the "Who-libration" then.

But how to keep it fresh into 2002 and beyond? One option is the obvious Hollywood solution: a sequel. The problem is that director Ron Howard and his writers had a hell of a time stretching Seuss' simple story into a feature-length film. The only significant addition to their $140 million production was a lame back story about how the Grinch had been teased as a boy. Since there's no story left to tell, what's the point in producing "Grinch II?"

Plus, sequels can be tricky things. Witness Disney's big holiday-season release, "102 Dalmatians." Compared to the 1996 live-action blockbuster, the follow-up has been a real dog at the box office, generating just over $50 million after five weeks of release -- not even close to covering "Dalmatians'" $80 million production costs, not to mention the millions more poured into promoting the film.

So Universal honchos are aware that a "Grinch" sequel might not be such a smart idea. But something they are reportedly considering is a "Grinch" simulator ride that could be open at the Florida park as early as Christmas 2002.

Picture this: Visitors would wander into a massive ride building themed to look like the Grinch's lair high atop Mount Crumpet. Once inside, they would be strapped into an eight-passenger version of the Mean One's sleigh. Universal would then employ the same high-tech tricks they use in "Back to the Future: The Ride" and the "Amazing Spiderman" to re-create Carrey's wild slide down the mountain. After they've safely arrived in Whoville, guests would -- of course -- exit directly into "The Grinch: The Ride" gift shop.

Of course, Islands of Adventure isn't the only Orlando park that might offer its guests a souped-up sleigh ride. Come Thanksgiving 2001, visitors to Disney-MGM Studios also might get a shot at climbing aboard Santa's actual sleigh. At least Santa as portrayed by Tim Allen.

That's right. Disney has decided to put yet another sequel into production, this one a follow-up to Allen's 1994 Touchstone comedy, "The Santa Clause." And what's the title of this soon-to-be-in-production opus? "The Santa Clause 2: Escape Clause."

Disney usually promotes its live-action features at Disney-MGM with a "making of ..." exhibit featuring sets and props from the film. But this time around, Walt Disney Imaginering -- just like all those former Imagineers who currently work for Universal -- is campaigning for a simulator that would take WDW visitors on a ride with Allen.

To date, Mouse House executives have shown no enthusiasm for the idea. They're more concerned about finding ways to turn Disney's Animal Kingdom into the sort of Christmas cash cow that Epcot, the Magic Kingdom and Disney-MGM have become. Unfortunately, that park's mostly African and Asian settings don't offer all that many opportunities to pile on the artificial snow.

Mind you, it's not like Disney hasn't tried. In Animal Kingdom's Camp Minnie Mickey, carolers stroll along the birch-lined lanes, and youngsters are invited to try their hand at ornament making as well cookie decorating. There's also an odd little show in which Disney characters sing their way through the 12 days of Christmas. But that's about it for now.

One idea that apparently caught the attention of CEO Michael Eisner was to use the park as a backdrop for a living nativity -- an outdoor pageant that used to be a Disney Village Marketplace tradition until the mid 1990s. Such a display could be in place as soon as Christmas 2001. What's more, given all the live cattle, sheep, donkeys and camels that would have to be on hand to greet the blessed one, the show seems like a logical addition for the park.

If only they could also figure out a way to cage Universal's green beast.


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