Two for the road

In this corner, we have the Walt Disney World. With its four theme parks, three water parks, scores of shops, restaurants and 19,000 on-site hotel rooms, there's no denying Disney is the king of Central Florida tourism.

And then we have the challenger: Universal Orlando. With only two theme parks, a single water park (Wet 'n' Wild), a handful of shopping and dining spots at its CityWalk complex and just 1,400 hotel rooms, Universal doesn't seem to pose any kind of threat.

Ah, but don't underestimate Universal. Though it's a distant second, Universal is a fierce competitor. And if the company's expansion into the international arena is any indication, they're going to keep the Mouse running outside of Orlando as well.

Sure, there have been a few minor slips. Like that day in the summer of 1999 when the robotic T-Rex in the "Jurassic Park River Adventure" ride at Islands of Adventure sprang a leak. It dribbled hydraulic fluid over boatloads of tourists, resulting in thousands of dollars in dry-cleaning bills for Universal.

Then there's the ride that's always rumored to be "coming soon" but never seems to open: "Sylvester McMonkey McBean's Very Unusual Driving Machine." Though the tracks for this Seuss Landing ride have been in place since IOA opened in the spring of 1999, no tourist has ever been able to take a trip out to Sneech Beach.

And another IOA attraction evidently needs fine tuning. Universal just hired Landmark Entertainment Group -- an independent theme-park contractor -- to rework "Poseidon's Fury: Escape From the Lost City," a special-effects extravaganza in the park's Lost Continent section. Why? Though it features a finale that flabbergasts guests, some apparently still can't follow the storyline.

But Universal is not relying on fixes. It recently renewed its multiyear pact with Nickelodeon, keeping the headquarters of the nation's No. 1 cable network (for three years running) at Universal Studios Florida. Among other things, this means "Slime Time Live" -- a two-hour block of weekday afternoon programming -- will continue with broadcasts from Universal Studios' green slime geyser plaza. Universal execs view the show as an extended daily commercial, making Universal a mecca for every kid who dreams of being slimed on national TV -- which means every kid.

Universal currently offers a walking tour of Nickelodeon's local production facility, followed by a visit to the Gak Kitchen and Nick's Game Lab. But under the contract renewal, Universal must start construction of a new Nick-themed attraction by 2002. What and where it might be, Universal reps aren't saying -- but with any luck it'll feature the three Nick characters with the least Disney-like names: the Angry Beavers and Sponge Bob Square Pants.

Next year also will see the opening of Universal's third on-site hotel, the 1,000-room Royal Pacific, completing its Orlando master plan with lodging that caters to the high end (Portofino Bay Hotel), the middle (Hard Rock Hotel) and the budget-minded (Royal Pacific).

Speaking of the Pacific, more than 30,000 guests poured through the gates when Universal Studios Japan opened March 31 in Osaka. Universal's arrival there is an obvious challenge to Disney's supremacy in Asia, where the Mouse first staked its claim with Tokyo Disneyland in April 1983. Disney hopes to tighten its grip on this corner of the globe with the fall opening of Tokyo Disney Seas, as well as the 2005 opening of Hong Kong Disneyland. But if Disney thinks it has a lock on the People's Republic of China, they should think again.

Universal's been in China for almost three years now. No, their Universal Studio Experience Beijing isn't a theme park. It's just a 20,000-square-foot entertainment complex on the lower level of a shopping center in China's capital city.

But it aims to introduce Chinese consumers to the Universal brand name through interactive exhibits that illustrate Hollywood history and the film production process. The Universal Studio Experience Beijing also features a restaurant, Club California, where customers can sample American cuisine. And -- surprise! -- a gift shop sells Universal Studios merchandise.

It's a modest presence but with an ambitious goal: to soften the ground should Universal decide to put a bigger project into place.

Universal's also adopted a "take no prisoners" attitude in Europe. That's why the company bought 37 percent of the Disneyland Paris rival Port Aventura in Barcelona, Spain. Universal now manages and has ambitious plans for this theme park, including building two hotels and importing attractions such as Orlando's "Men in Black: Alien Attack." The park's new name? The not-so-humble Universal Studios Port Aventura.

So which project concerns the Mouse the most? The park in Osaka? The storefront in Beijing? The takeover in Barcelona?

None of the above, actually. The one project that reportedly keeps Mickey up at night is whatever Universal has planned for the 2,051 acres along International Drive it acquired from Lockheed Martin back in 1998.

Might that become a third theme park? A series of hotels? Another night-time entertainment district? Universal's being tight-lipped -- except to say they hope to have something there by 2007.

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That's what has Mickey looking over his shoulder these days. The Mouse is concerned that Universal -- good ol' reliable No. 2 -- may be moving up fast.

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