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Todd James Pierce

Looking back on the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project -- Part I

JHM guest writer Todd James Pierce kicks off a brand-new series for JHM. Which discusses that 40-acre entertainment district that the Walt Disney Company once wanted to build right in the heart of beautiful downtown Burbank
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Most longtime Disney fans know that Disney’s California Adventure was not Michael Eisner’s first attempt at establishing a second Disney theme park in California. There was, of course, WESTCOT in Anaheim and Port Disney in Long Beach. But hardly anyone talks about Eisner’s first attempt to bring a second park to California. That project, the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot, was developed as a 40-acre park in Burbank, not far from the actual Disney studio. This story, now mostly ignored by Disney historians, goes something like this:

In the early-1980s, rivalries heated up between Universal Studios and Disneyland, when MCA (i.e. the parent company of Universal) developed plans to build “Universal City-Florida” in Orlando, a theme park that would compete head-to-head with Walt Disney World. MCA’s intentions were well known inside the outdoor amusement industry, but before they fully committed to their plans, Disney beat them to the punch, by announcing in May of 1985 that they would build their own Hollywood-inspired theme park in Florida, the Disney-MGM Studio Tour. To make the park more attractive to guests, the company acquired rights to use film properties held by MGM, UA and 20th Century Fox, such as "The Wizard of Oz," "Tarzan the Ape Man" and "Alien."

The early announcement of the Disney park—years before plans were finalized—was intended to do one thing: discourage Universal from developing its own park in Orlando. For a while this plan seemed to work. Seven months after the Disney announcement, a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel confirmed that “although MCA has not thrown in the towel officially, insiders are betting that the Disney attraction will negate the Universal City-Florida project—even though MCA has spent more than $40 million on [plans to develop] it.”

MCA executives, however, didn’t back down. To capitalize the project, they quietly talked with Florida Governor Bob Graham about state investment in the Universal park. Under Graham’s leadership, government officials made tentative arrangements to loan MCA $150 million from the state pension fund to develop a Universal theme park in Orlando. The loan would be secured by a first mortgage on the 423-acre parcel that MCA presently owned in the state. In essence, Florida was offering MCA an enormous low-interest loan to keep the Universal City project alive. Only once these plans were made public, Disney used its political muscle to scuttle the deal.

Former MCA Universal president Sid Sheinberg

This tactic infuriated MCA President Sidney Sheinberg. At a press conference, he lambasted Florida officials: “Disney’s ability to decimate you by acting in a predatory way is chilling,” he snipped. “Do you really want a little mouse to become one large, ravenous rat?" He concluded his rant by threatening to abandon the Universal project for good if the board that governs the state pension fund decided to rescind its investment offer for Universal City – Florida.

Over the following year, MCA repeatedly tweaked Disney about the possibility of a Universal park moving into Orlando. In March, 1986, MCA went so far as to place a full-page color ad in the Orlando Sentinel for the grand opening of its King Kong attraction ... an attraction that was opening 3,000 miles from Orlando, at its park in California. The ad could only serve one purpose: to taunt Disney. When a reporter asked about the ad’s meaning, MCA President Sidney Sheinberg said, “Let everyone wonder … Let Disney wonder.”

On December 10, MCA finally announced that it would indeed develop a theme park in Orlando, now called Universal Studios – Florida. The park would be similar to the Universal park in California. “But will include more attractions,” a spokesman added.

For his part, MCA President Sheinberg issued a statement saying that Universal Studios – Florida “will successfully compete with any other theme parks that might seek to mimic or capitalize on the highly successful experience we have developed”—referring of course to the newly announced Disney-MGM studio park.

For the public, Disney officials played nice, officially welcoming MCA to Orlando. “We look to every new attraction that draws vacation and convention visitors to Central Florida as an ally in bringing more people to greater Orlando in general,” a Disney spokesperson said.

But in private, Disney was already working on its next strategic move. The rationale went like this: if Universal was going to push its way into Disney’s territory, then the Mouse wanted to get in on Universal’s action in California.

A few weeks after the MCA announcement, Disney officials entered secret negotiations with the City of Burbank to acquire a 40-acre parcel for a new California theme park.

These talks started innocently enough. Burbank City officials contacted Michael Eisner to see if the Disney organization would help save a proposal to build a local Town Center mall, as key retail businesses (such as Robinson’s) had recently withdrawn from the project. After multiple phone conversations, on Jan 22, Eisner invited Burbank officials to lunch in his executive dining room. Burbank Councilwoman Mary Lou Howard recalls, “He (Eisner) told us right away he wasn’t interest in being involved in the Town Center, but he began to describe what he and Disney would like to do with the property.” Over a two-hour lunch, Eisner repeatedly drew pictures on napkins and even on the tablecloth to illustrate his ideas.

Assuming plans were finalized, this new Disney park—soon to be called the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot—would be built a mere five miles from Universal Studios Tour in California.

To most everyone in the industry, the point was clear: this was payback for MCA forcing its way into Orlando.

Come back tomorrow to read about Disney’s struggle to build a studio-based theme park in California.

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Published Wednesday, May 28, 2008 12:00 AM
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