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Universal Sues Designer of 2 Theme Park Rides : Entertainment: The suit says flaws in two attractions at its new park in Florida have kept the rides from working, cutting attendance.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Universal Studios, which hoped that its ambitious “Jaws” and “Earthquake” theme rides would help its 2-month-old Orlando, Fla., amusement park rival neighboring Disney World as a tourist attraction, has sued the rides’ designer, saying poor workmanship has kept the rides on the blink.

The 40-page lawsuit is the latest chapter in Universal’s high-stakes gamble to turn a once-swampy plain in central Florida into an attraction projected to draw more than 6 million visitors a year. The suit from Universal, which is a unit of MCA Inc., seeks unspecified damages from Ride & Show Engineering Inc. of San Dimas, and was filed Tuesday in Orange County Circuit Court in Orlando.

“We have suffered tremendously,” said Steven W. Lew, president of Universal Studios, Florida, referring to the malfunctioning rides. “They (Ride & Show) did not deliver on what they said they could deliver on. In the interim, we had to discover and correct problems at our own expense. I think we have been more than reasonable.”

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Ride & Show Engineering, a major amusement park designer that was founded six years ago, denied the allegations.

The company, which built the three-ton “Jaws” shark and “Earthquake--the Big One,” concedes the two attractions have worked only sporadically since the park opened June 7.

However, a Ride & Show official said Universal’s attendance problems may stem from the slowdown in tourism that has developed this summer amid consumer fears of a recession and higher gasoline prices stemming from Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. What’s more, Universal was singling out Ride & Show as a scapegoat, since it was only one of several ride contractors, said Mark Messersmith, director of marketing for the company, which helped develop the “Miami Vice” and “King Kong” attractions at Universal Studios in Universal City, as well as Disney World’s monorail.

He said complex rides often must undergo lengthy shakedown periods before they operate properly.

“We feel very strongly about the quality of the products we build,” said Messersmith. “But since they are not experiencing the kinds of attendance they expected, they are pointing fingers at us. . . . We are little guys. We are just a small vendor trying to do our job.”

Universal officials claim that the technical problems have cut attendance at the $630-million park, which is a joint venture of MCA Inc. of Universal City and the Rank Organization PLC of London. The park, with a first-year attendance goal of 6 million, competes for visitors with both Disney World and its nearby Walt Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park.

To attract more customers, Universal has been giving a free pass for every ticket purchased.

Ride & Show Engineering did not design a third major ride, “Kongfrontation,” which also opened late because of faulty computer software. Lew said Universal has no present plans to sue the designers of that ride.

The “Jaws” and “Earthquake” rides are each designed to accommodate about 1,600 riders an hour, Lew said.

In “Earthquake,” the ground appears to shake, to give riders the sensation of a major temblor. On “Jaws,” a three-ton shark emerges from the water and appears to grab and shake the boat filled with riders. The skipper of the boat overcomes the shark by throwing a grenade into the water.

Several analysts reached Wednesday, said they didn’t expect malfunctioning rides to present much of a long-term setback for the park. “If MCA can get things working, I expect their park to be a big hit,” said Paul C. Marsh, an analyst at Bateman Eichler, Hill Richards, a Los Angeles-based investment house.


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