MCA, Cineplex to Challenge Disney With Studio Tour Venture in Florida

Times Staff Writer

MCA said Tuesday that it has formed a 50-50 venture with Cineplex Odeon Corp. to build an oft-delayed studio tour attraction in central Florida. Construction is scheduled to begin early next year, with completion expected in 1989.

The announcement appeared to set the stage for a head-on battle with Walt Disney Co., which says construction is “on schedule” for its own studio tour at Walt Disney World a few miles away. Disney’s $300-million attraction is scheduled to open in late 1988.

With its announcement, MCA ended a five-year search for a partner to help finance the project, budgeted at various times from $175 million to $290 million.

MCA President Sidney J. Sheinberg declined Tuesday to divulge the new budget.

Toronto-based Cineplex, which operates one of the nation’s largest movie-theater chains, sold 50% of its stock to MCA seven months ago for about $159 million. Cineplex formed a much smaller venture with MCA one year ago to build an 18-screen theater complex on MCA’s 420-acre headquarters at Universal City, where MCA has been operating a studio tour since 1964.


In 1981, MCA announced that it would build a Florida version of its tour on a 423-acre tract in Orlando acquired for $13 million. The tour was initially scheduled to open in 1984. The plans were delayed first by soaring interest rates, and then by MCA’s inability to enlist a partner.

The entertainment conglomerate held a series of discussions with Lorimar in 1983, then tried last year to arrange financing from the $8-billion Florida Retirement System Pension Fund. But the pension fund failed to secure broader authorization from the Florida legislature to participate in the MCA proposal, and the plan collapsed.

Analysts predicted that MCA would abandon the project after Walt Disney Co. vowed to break ground on its own studio tour in 1985. But even the Disney project was delayed, if just by six months. In March of this year, Disney said construction would begin in July.

‘Ravenous Rat’

MCA’s Sheinberg and Disney Chairman Michael Eisner have sparred in newspaper articles over the two projects. Last year, Sheinberg told Florida newspapermen that Disney’s power in central Florida appeared more in keeping with a “ravenous rat” than the benign Mickey Mouse.

On Tuesday, Eisner did not return a reporter’s call. Instead, the company issued a statement saying, “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 and to Walt Disney World in particular. We therefore welcome anything MCA does to benefit Orlando as a benefit to Disney.”

In its announcement, MCA said Tuesday that it might begin producing television shows or movies at the new facilities as early as 1988. The complex will be designed to handle as many as 6 million visitors a year when it opens in 1989, the company said.

By contrast, the Universal Studios Tour in California said it expects to draw 4 million paying customers this year.

Few other details were forthcoming. Sheinberg, in a brief telephone interview, said the venture did not want to disclose much because of the competition with Disney. The MCA president said MCA would contribute the land at a “fair value” as part of its 50% investment in the new venture.