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Universal versus Disney: The Unofficial Guide to American Theme Parks' Greatest Rivalry Paperback – December 2, 2014
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When an aspiring young director named Walt Disney came to Hollywood in 1923 to seek fame and fortune, one of his first stops was Universal City, home to Universal Studios. Universal Studios had been open to the public since it opened in 1915 and it's founder, Carl Laemmle, was the only studio chieftain who understood that the public was willing to pay to pull back the curtain and witness the creative process. And what the public wanted, Laemmle was happy to provide.
What Walt Disney and thousands of others saw was a city dedicated to making movies. Disney must have been amazed at the sight of dozens of movies of every genre being filmed right in front of the public. Always curious, he was able to secure a day pass that allowed him to go beyond the public areas within his first year of arriving in Los Angeles. He wandered around the backlot for three days before the security guards threw him out. Undeterred, Disney returned to animation and would find another angle to get him back on the Universal lot.
By the end of 1926, Universal was looking for its first cartoon to distribute and Laemmle asked Charles Mintz to find it. Mintz contacted Walt and Roy Disney to see if they had any ideas. The timing could not have been better since the brothers were already looking to replace the long running Alice's Wonderland cartoon series with something new. For Walt Disney, having his work distributed by a major studio would be a real coup.
Walt and his chief animator Ub Iwerks drafted some sketches of a cute comedic rabbit wearing short pants and Mintz named him "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit." The series was a success and over the next two years Walt Disney produced twenty-six cartoon shorts. In 1928, he lost the character and much of his animation staff to Mintz and Universal during a contract dispute. Once again Disney was not deterred and would come back even stronger with Oswald's replacement, Mickey Mouse.
When Walt Disney became a successful studio chief in the mid-1930s, he considered a tour of his studio on Hyperion Avenue but he felt the animation process would be too boring. He said, "You know, it's a shame people come to Hollywood and find there's nothing to see. Even people who come to the [Disney] Studio. What do they see? A bunch of guys bending over drawings. Wouldn't it be nice if people should come to Hollywood and see something? He toyed with the idea for years but nothing came of it.
Instead, he decided to do something completely different and opened Disneyland in 1955. Disneyland put the guest onstage in immersive environments based on the popular movies and television genres of the day. The backstage would remain hidden. In the process, Walt Disney invented the theme park industry.
A few years later, Universal Studios would be sold to entertainment powerhouse MCA. Lead by Lew Wasserman and Sidney Sheinberg, their team found an authentic way to satisfy the public's desire to go backstage that would not interfere with production. The result was an industrial tour that turned into a multi-million dollar business.
Disneyland appealed to one audience and the Universal Studios Tour appealed to a different audience. Everybody was making money and everybody was happy. Then came Wasserman's growing ambitions, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells at Disney, and Universal's constant changes in corporate ownership.
Circumstances would force Universal to move toward the Disney theme parks model of immersive fantasy environments with varying success. Even though Disney had the money and the creative heritage, Universal had one significant advantage. For many years at Disney, the theme parks were the tail that wagged the corporate dog. At Universal, the theme parks were a small flea on the back of the dog. This difference allowed a handful of ambitious people at Universal to gain a reputation as theme park innovators and they quietly reinvent an industry. Can the underdog become the top dog?
The driving force behind Universal Studios was Carl Laemmle, an immigrant from Bavaria, Germany. Like so many who came before, Laemmle moved to America in 1884 to find a better life. Like so many early Jewish immigrants, he did what he could with the education and resources available to him. He worked at a variety of jobs, always making a bit more money then he did at the previous job. He moved to Oshkosh in 1894 to work for the Continental Clothing store and rose to the position of manager in 1898. Laemmle had become financially secure but he was also restless.
When he traveled to Kansas City in 1905, Laemmle experienced motion pictures for the first time. While visiting Electric Park he took a ride on Hale's Tours and Scenes of the World. George C. Hale, a retired fire chief, developed the attraction. The show was set in a railway car that seated seventy-two guests. At one end was a screen. Projected on the screen was a ten-minute film whose point of view was that of a camera mounted on the front of a moving train. This was known as a phantom ride. During the show, machines would rock the rail car from side to side, fans would blow, and painted scenery would pass by the windows. There was a special mechanism mounted on the undercarriage to recreate the clacking sound of the tracks. Whistles, bells, and live conductors added to the illusion.
The show was very popular and the concept was licensed to others. By 1907 there were more than 500 Hale's Tours worldwide. According to Historian Graeme Baker of Cineroama, "Hale's Tours warmed up the public to moving pictures and demonstrated to venue owners that the market was prepared to bear the cost of higher ticket prices in return for theaters with themed entertainment spaces and quality interior and exterior design." The Hale's Tours began to loose favor almost as fast as it began and by 1911 the last one shuttered its doors.
The next inspiration came on a trip to Chicago in January of 1906. Carl Laemmle heard a barker at the corner of State and Polk sending out a siren call that attracted people to enter a new type of entertainment venue called a nickelodeon. The nickelodeon was the first venue to be specifically designed to exhibit motion pictures. After Laemmle paid his nickel, he entered the storefront theater and found some two hundred people sitting in the dark, watching a ten-minute program of films projected on a sheet. Although they were speaking multiple languages, the audience was entranced by what they were seeing on the big screen. Laemmle realized that this was the next big thing he was looking for.
The first nickelodeon opened in 1905 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. No longer did the movies have to share the stage with vaudeville acts. They were accessible to the masses and they would go on to change the way people spent their leisure time. Laemmle immediately saw the potential and power of this new form of entertainment and in 1906 opened his first nickelodeon in Chicago. There were very few theaters in Chicago at the time.He found a vacant building on Milwaukee Avenue and painted the facade white. He called it the White Front Theater and it was an immediate success. The 190-seat theater was in a predominately Polish neighborhood on the Northwest side that attracted primarily working class people. The demand was so strong that the theater would be open twelve hours a day.
Here was a technology that could entertain, inform, and allow people a chance to escape from the day's challenges. It was magic. Carl Laemmle immediately recognized that the intoxicating flickering images on the big screen could become addictive and like a moth to a flame, people would be drawn into an all consuming passion that they could never really completely satisfy. This was a chance for a savvy businessmen to make money and Carl Laemmle was certainly that.
The good times would not last long. In 1909, the New York based Motion Pictures Patents Company (MPPC) tried to impose a two-dollar license fee upon independent operators like Laemmle. The MPPC was a trust made up of the major players of the day including Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, American Pathe, Kodak, and others. Inventor Thomas A. Edison was the leader and claimed the fee was necessary to protect the patents that he and the others held. The trust wanted to control the infant industry.
Not one to be pushed around, Laemmle started his own movie company. He named it Independent Moving Pictures (IMP) and as a demonstration of his wry sense of humor and his true feelings about the MPPC, he adopted a playful impish demon as the logo for the studio. Laemmle opened his first movie studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
With the MPPC breathing down his neck, Laemmle decided to follow other early film pioneers and moved to Southern California as a way to escape. On May 20, 1912, Laemmle bought the Nestor Company studio at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street in Los Angeles. A few weeks later, on June 8, he and five other independent producers formed the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. The name of the studio was inspired by a Universal Pipe Fitting wagon that passed beneath Laemmle's window.
The new Hollywood facility had two stages. The largest was 300 feet in length and 70 feet in width. The second stage was 50 feet in length and 100 feet in width. As part of the deal, Laemmle also took control of El Providencia Rancho/Oak Crest Ranch in the San Fernando Valley. When he saw the ranch property for the first time his car got stuck in the mud and had to be pulled out by Jumbo, an elephant that was working on a film at the time. He officially opened up the ranch to the public to watch movies being made on December 3. He was the first movie producer to do so.
On July 10, 1913, Laemmle changed the name of the Oak Crest Ranch to Universal City in an attempt to generate some publicity. To create an even more exciting destination, in August he allowed fifty Chimallo Indians along with 100 horses from the Isleta reservation near Albuquerque, New Mexico, to move in permanently. Once the settled in, he began to offer bus excursions to the ranch from downtown Los Angeles starting in September.
Laemmle was not the only person fighting the MPPC. The United States Supreme Court ruled against the MPPC in 1912 and again in 1915. The Court stated that the MPPC was in violation of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. Due to this fatal blow the MPPC would cease to exist by 1917. It did not matter. It was too late. Although the financial center for the motion picture industry remained on the East Coast, the creative center had moved to Hollywood.
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But of course the book focuses on the growing rivalry between the two companies after Disney allegedly stole most of the Universal plan for their studio theme park. (I say "allegedly" but it seems cut and dried they did so.) I have always been interested in the workings behind the scenes at Walt Disney World and I found it to be just as interesting to read how Universal developed their park and all of the rides through the decades as described here.
Universal is a large company, of course, but it was hard for me not to root for them as the underdog in this rivalry. Disney mostly produces a quality product, but they are just as apt to use corporate clout to suppress competition as any other large corporation. And though they have always been on the cutting edge of technology it seems, this book reveals that they perhaps lost their edge by sticking to the old values and not vigorously pursuing edgier movies to make rides out of. Universal saw that opening and aimed for it. Good for them. Obviously they haven't put DIsney World out of business, but competition is a good thing.
I learned a lot from this book about Universal and the minds behind it, and almost as much about the park as if I had read a tourist guide, with all of the history thrown in. So I liked it on a few levels.
I found the book a fun read and learned a lot that I never knew about Universal. I certainly know that on my next visit I will be looking at things much differently.
A must have for theme park fans.
Universal Studios enjoyed much success and wanted to translate this into a tour of their Hollywood film base. While Disneyland, Marineland and Knotts Berry Farm were enjoying much success on the theme park front. Universal had no interest in this. In fact, Walt Disney sent some of his best men to help Universal get their Hollywood tour off the ground.
Things changed decades later in the 70's when the 'monster' attractions took off for Universal --- Jaws and King Kong. They now saw an opportunity to immerse their guests in their films the same way Disney had been doing for decades. The gloves finally came off when the then President of Universal accused then Disney Chairman, Michael Eisner, of stealing the film studio tour idea with the creation of Disney MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios).
Whether this was true or not, the fans are the ones who benefit from this gigantic game of one-upsmanship. Every time one does something on a grand scale the other has to top it --- and everyone wins. The only critique I have is that Gennawey spends far too much time on Universal and their growth and far less on Disney. Even so, this was a well-researched and very interesting read.
Universal vs. Disney: The Unofficial Guide to American Theme Parks' Great Rivalry by Sam Gennawey details the foundation and expansion of Disney's theme park rival. Universal's introduction to entertainment actually goes back to December 3, 1913, when Carl Laemmle opened his film studio to the public allowing them to see movies being made. In 1915, Laemmle expanded his lot Universal Studio even further and began to stage a fake disaster for those who took the studio tour. In 1958, Music Corporation of America (MCA) would purchase the Universal Studio lot and the studio tour would grow under the leadership of Lew Wasserman and his associates such as Jay Stein. The MCA team would regularly work to create attractions that could attract locals and repeat business whie making the best commercial possible. However, MCA saw their tour as an attraction that complimented not competed with Disneyland. With the expansion of Disney into Florida in the 1970's, the Universal team looked to build a production studio and studio tour that could again complement Disney theme parks. However, with the naming of Michael Eisner as Disney CEO, Disney announced their own movie theme park, which would become Disney-MGM Studios with attractions that seemed to duplicate Universal's plans for a Florida park. With Disney's own announced park, the Universal team began a quest to build a park to challenge Disney with partners like Steven Spielberg. The quest would not be easy as MCA changed hands through corporate sales. Gennewey discusses Universal's failures, delays and eventual success in building a theme park that could rival Disney with Universal Orlando.
I really enjoy Sam Gennawey books, and his books always come across as serious history to me. His use of footnotes and extensive research makes it clear that his books are a step beyond the typical book directed for Disney fans but are also books that could be used by academic historians. Universal vs. Disney is the kind of book that could be used in a theme park history course, and probably will be in the future. And it has the tone of an academic monograph. His writing is clear and easy to understand. My chief criticism of his writing is that his chapters tend to stop abruptly. I really wish he had provided a summary paragraph that captures the tone or theme of his chapters. It would provide the reader both a review, but a sense of closure and likely foreshadowing of what is to come.
One of the things that I really hoped for was a discussion of the Universal Orlando contract licensing Marvel characters. As a Marvel Disney fan this contract fascinates me since you can see Captain America at the competition and not on Disney property. Gennawey does give over five pages to the discussion of Marvel, but the majority of this information is about attraction development especially The Amazing Spider-Man: A Web Slinging 3-D Ride and not contracts. And the Disney purchase of Marvel and the limitations in place for Disney's use of Marvel properties is not detailed. I would have liked to see mention of the Avengers themed monorail for example. I assume that this conversation was limited by two things. First, Universal vs. Disney really is a book about the Universal theme parks. And honestly that felt like a good choice to me so Gennawey did not have to repeat material from books including his own The Disneyland Story. Since my knowledge of Universal and MCA history is quite small the book felt new and fresh to me. Second. I doubt that the details that I want about the Universal/Marvel contract are really available for public review.
As I mentioned, there is not as much Disney history as I expected. Disney's presence is always there throughout the book, but Disney is a supporting actor not the co-star of the book. Disneyland and Walt Disney World is discussed as a complimentary and different type of attraction; a theme park not a studio tour. And until Eisner's arrival at Disney, Universal was really not attempting to promote themselves as the same type of experience as what Disney offered. But Eisner really did serve as a catalyst for two entertainment companies. While his leadership was taking Disney to new places, the image of him as a villain was taking Universal into the theme park industry with the hope of challenging Disney and embarrassing Eisner personally. Eventually the Wizarding World of Harry Potter would finally reach a level of theming beyond Disney's high standards, forcing Disney to go to new places years after Eisner was no longer with Disney.
Mistakes were made. If Universal had the proposed Knight Rider/A-Team stunt show they hoped for, it would have had me through the gates years ago. Sadly the show would never be. And perhaps it was mistake on my part never visiting a Universal theme park. Universal vs. Disney has shown me a history of a theme park that started four decades before Disneyland opened. And I can truly say that I know understand how Disney both positively and negatively influenced the development of a non-Disney park.
Review Copy Provided by Keen Communications