Global grudge match

Question: Why did Disney seemingly go out of its way last month to upset Hong Kong government officials -- who are, after all, the Mouse's financial partners in the Hong Kong Disneyland project -- by announcing plans to build a second theme park in mainland China?

Answer: Because once again the Mouse is playing catch-up with Universal Studios.

Last week, when Universal Studios unveiled its own plans to build a theme park in Shanghai, China, Disney's double-cross suddenly made sense. Mickey really didn't have a choice. Either the Mouse takes on Universal in China, or the Mouse gets its lunch eaten, again.

Which may happen anyway. Eye Drive spies whisper that Universal Studios also has something in mind for China's capital city. Our sources say the company will unveil plans for a new theme park near Beijing later this year. Universal wants their new Chinese showcase up and running by spring 2008, which would be in time to (hopefully) make loads of money on tourists pouring into that nation to attend the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in 2008.

And then there's the rumor that Universal Studios is talking with officials in Malaysia about building a theme park and resort in that nation, along with plans to aggressively expand its Port Aventura theme park at Universal Mediterrâ?¡nea outside Barcelona, Spain. According to Eye Drive deep throats, Universal also has its sights set on Central America and Australia in the not-so-distant future.

Oh, how we long for the good old days, when Universal Studios and Disney World slugged it out over bragging rights to the best high-tech attractions or the fastest roller coasters here in Orlando.

The international battle actually began in March 2001, when Universal Studios opened the company's first overseas theme park in Osaka, Japan. The park -- featuring exact duplicates of many of the more popular attractions at Universal Studios Florida -- is a huge hit with Japanese tourists. Even though that nation is still in the depths of a decade-long depression, Universal Studios Japan still racked up 11 million visitors in its first year. That's the fastest any theme park has ever reached that attendance milestone.

Six months later, Disney upped its own ante in Asia by opening Tokyo Disney Seas, a $2 billion addition to the Tokyo Disneyland resort. Even though Tokyo Disney Seas was entirely financed by the Japanese consortium that owns it, and not by Disney, the Mouse still benefits from the name recognition generated by the high-tech park. The move significantly helped expand the Disney brand in the Asian marketplace.

Nevertheless, Universal Studios Japan still came out on top, attendance-wise, that is.

Which is why the staff at Universal Creative (the folks who actually create the rides and shows for all the Universal theme parks) are now thinking that it's high time for their corporation to go toe-to-toe with Walt in other international markets.

The Mouse would love to be aggressively branching out beyond Japan, and into other areas of the international theme-park market right about now. But before the company can even think about growing globally, it must take care of all the problems it has with its existing international parks.

Take a look at the new Walt Disney Studios theme park at Disneyland Resort Paris, for instance. That park just opened back in March but it has already proven to be a bit of a dud. By midafternoon, most guests are headed for the gates, complaining about the meager assortment of attractions.

In the spirit of piling on, here's another black eye for the Mouse: Hong Kong government types were reportedly so upset with Disney's Shanghai plans that they threatened to pull the plug on future ventures. Disney, realizing their mistake, pledged that they would not embark on any other theme-park project in China before they made Hong Kong Disneyland a success.

Which -- given that it took Disney almost a decade to straighten out all the problems it had with Disneyland Paris -- pretty much means that Universal Studios has mainland China all to itself, at least for the next five to seven years, or however long it takes for Disney to get its international act together.

Eye Drive is going to go out on a limb here and predict that Universal Studios will use the lead time to try and get a stranglehold on the Chinese market, a very large, very lucrative piece of the international theme-park puzzle.

Let the grudge match begin.

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