Welcome to a new weekend column on MiceChat called “You’ve Got To Be Kidding.” As the name implies, this column is parody. It’s good to have a bit of fun from time to time and we think most of you are really going to enjoy Mike Jacka’s wicked sense of humor. Mike will be checking in with us a couple times a month. Please give him a warm MiceChat welcome.
I am proud, honored, and humbled to be joining the MiceChat family. But I am doubly excited because the timing could not have been better; I’ve got a real blockbuster here for you – one I’m not sure you are going to believe. Big changes are coming to Universal, and all because of the lessons it has learned from Disney.
I was able to secure an interview with an insider whose identity, for obvious reasons, must remain secret. Meeting in the basement of Universal’s Frankenstein Parking Garage on a dark, foggy 2:00 am morning, the gentleman (who prefers the alias Edgar Neubauer) filled me in on what’s really happening.
He had first gotten my attention with this comment. “Did you notice what Universal buried in their recent press release about price increases?” Like everyone else, I had been caught up in the furor that accompanied the flurry of announcements a while ago. And like everyone else, I had missed the hidden gem.Obscured by the jargon and buzzwords of the last paragraph was this sentence. “In response to the changing environment of synergies and opportunities, Universal Studios Hollywood will begin implementation of temporary reductions in efforts toward ensuring timely completion of current updates and expansions as it reimagines a new future for the park.”
Yes, deep within the business speak and confusing syntax, Universal seemed to be announcing delays in Simpsons’ Springfield, Fast and Furious Supercharged, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. During our meeting, Edgar let me in on the secret of what was really going on.
“Universal keeps very close tabs on Disney’s strategies,” Edgar started, “And we have been very confused by some of the actions they keep taking. The big question we had was how Disney was able to continue raising prices without offering any high-profile additions in exchange.” When I asked about DCA, he acknowledged the large investment in park upgrades, but noted, “They had no choice. You can only charge so much for people to come in and shop and eat. You see, Disneyland is the real issue. They keep making cosmetic changes and minor updates, and there are constant rumors and hints of major attractions, but nothing concrete ever happens.”
(In an interesting side note, he discussed the scare Universal had when DCA first went on line. “For Islands of Adventure, we had spent a fortune on landmark attractions and here came Disney building a park based on little more than a collection of locations where people could spend more money. We were convinced we made a big mistake. Some panicked and you began seeing plans to change Islands of Adventure. The world will never know how close it came to seeing ‘Islands of Adventurous Shopping and Eating’. And the less said about new tag lines like ‘Ride the Hollywood’ and ‘Ride the Florida’, the better.”)
According to Edgar, it was Disney’s announcements for the 60th anniversary when Universal started to catch on. “We assumed there would be some significant hoopla and ballyhooing about huge updates and new attractions. Well, we saw hoopla and ballyhoo, but it was all for parades, fireworks, and water shows. And that was when we finally recognized that they had hit on a perfect model: rumors, glitz, and fancy announcements. In other words, people were willing to pay for anticipation, and Disney didn’t really have to do anything else.”
Edgar went on to say that this was the moment when Universal realized they were perfectly poised to use the same approach. “With everyone waiting for our new projects, we had the market cornered on anticipation. Which meant we were already there; we didn’t have to rush anything to completion. So, every big project is now in ‘slowdown’ mode. And, if we do this correctly, we can stretch that anticipation out for a very long time.”
Instead, Universal will refocus its energies on new projects. As Edgar put it, “Fireworks, parades, and water.”
First out of the gate will be the new parade “Universal Studios Hollywood Forever”. Edgar describes it as “a nighttime parade highlighting the greatest hits of Universal Studios Hollywood including favorites from throughout the park’s history such as E.T. Adventure, Backdraft, The Adventures of Conan, Back to the Future, Fear Factor Live, The Land of the Giants Prop Stop, The Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show, and just about anything else you remember. The parade will feature floats and live performers covered in thousands of electronically controlled lights, all synchronized to a new piece of music called ‘The Universal Hoedown.’ ”
Edgar was also excited about the new lighting projections that will be used during the parade. “For example, the parade will include the old Ice Tunnel. Projections will be used to make it appear the walls have turned into ice. Then, the projections will start spinning and it will seem like the entire street is caught in an avalanche. We expect people to literally be rolling in the aisles.”
And what about the fireworks show? “Of course there will be fireworks,” Edgar says. “The show will be called ‘Paint the Night Sky with the Magic of Universal Studios’, and we’ve already commissioned new songs including ‘Imagine…Universal in the Sky’ and ‘Remember…Universal is Great, Too’.” Edgar said that everyone is really excited because they realized they have such a big canvas available. “Sure there’s the sky, but we also have the park and the upper and lower lots. In addition, we don’t even have to worry about the neighbors – we own the city. So the fireworks show will use the sky, the park, and even some of the buildings outside the park’s boundaries. It will be the most immersive experience possible.”
The effect that most excites Edgar is the use of the escalators between the upper and lower lots. “Throughout the show we will be coordinating the fireworks with projections on those escalators. People in the lower lot will see mist creeping down the hill, roaring waterfalls, and even lava flowing down until there is a volcanic eruption shooting lava back up the hill. And people in the upper lot will have their own show. They will see projections on the lower lot buildings showing pools of mist, water crashing into the rocks below the waterfalls, and, of course, the volcano responsible for all that lava.”
Edgar said that Universal was particularly proud that this would result in different fireworks experiences throughout the park. “Disney just has a hub and a street. Let’s see them top this.”
It took a while before I could get Edgar to focus on the final addition – the water show. “You know”, he said, “That’s been a bit of a problem. When Disney opened that show in the middle of DCA, well…they really got it right. Our struggle is that, in the Hollywood park, we don’t have a good central viewing area for such a show – particularly one that, because it requires some attractions to close, helps drive people to the show. But then it finally hit us – what better place to have a water show than in a show already named after water. And so, we will be introducing ‘Waterworld of Universal’s Colors’.”
The details of the show still seem sketchy, but Edgar acknowledged that it would “use water screen technology to project famous movies from Universal’s past (as well as upcoming, sure-fire blockbusters) combined with music, pyrotechnics, and dancing fountains. For the grand finale, the Universal globe will be projected against the water screens. Suddenly, in a blast of fire, water, and lights, the Universal plane will come crashing through.” He added, “We’re still trying to figure out how to work in the jet skis.”
As our long discussion came to an end, Edgar provided one last comment. “We watch Disney closely. You can see how they are impacting our decisions. And, if nothing else, you can bet dollars to Lard Lad’s Donuts that we will continue to raise our prices every time Disney does.” Then he paused for a moment, looked off into the distance, and added, “Now if we could just figure out what to do about that stupid snowman.”