If Walt Disney Co. won't build a $3-billion resort in Southern California, rival MCA Inc. will.
A surprise announcement this week from its rival, which operates Universal Studios Hollywood, may force Disney to reconsider its decision last month to scrap plans for a massive expansion in Anaheim and add impetus to the search for new ideas to revitalize the area around Disneyland.
Still, Orange County leaders consider MCA's announcement Wednesday that it would build a multibillion-dollar destination resort centered on Universal City as a positive sign.
"I think it's going to spur (Disney) on," said Stan Pawlowski, chairman of Commerce Bank in Anaheim and a co-chairman of a community group supporting the Disneyland expansion. MCA's proposal "is a vote of confidence for Southern California. The recession's over. Let's go!"
Former Anaheim Councilman Bob D. Simpson added: "Makes you wonder why it will work there and won't work here."
In scope, MCA's project sounds much like Disney's original vision for revitalizing its Anaheim property. Both entertainment companies drew up plans that call for spending as much as $3 billion to build an integrated complex of hotels, restaurants, shopping areas and amusements. MCA says its building plans will be spread over 25 years, while Disney had once hoped to open its first phase by the year 2000.
The major distinction is that MCA intends simply to add onto its existing Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, along with building more offices and sound stages to support its growing television and movie empire.
Disney, conversely, had planned to create a new theme park as the centerpiece of its Disneyland Resort. The theme park, to be built next door to Disneyland, would have been called Westcot and would have featured internationally themed attractions and rides.
Disney demanded, and received, commitments totaling hundreds of millions of dollars toward the public financing of elements of its resort, which was announced in 1991. Despite having won many assurances, the company officially backed away from its initial plans in January, saying the project could no longer expect to be profitable given the weakened California tourism climate.
Instead, Disney officials said they would start to develop plans for less expensive additions to the Disneyland site, with construction to be spaced out over a longer time.
Disney spokesman Michael Johnson said Thursday that the company would have no comment on MCA's plans. The companies have two major theme parks locked in a fierce competition near Orlando, Fla. Rivalry between Japanese-owned MCA and Disney, based in Burbank, is notorious.
"I'm still convinced they will do something in Anaheim," Simpson said of Disney. "Maybe this (MCA's plans) will be an incentive. Who knows?"
Several observers talked about the MCA expansion becoming a major lure to entice vacationers to visit Southern California, a role that has been the exclusive domain of Disneyland. Even if Universal City were the primary reason for a Southland trip, Disney would still benefit.
"It's not bad for Disney, because people who visit Southern California usually go to both Disneyland and Universal Studios. This would give them more reason to visit," said Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif in New York.
Anaheim Councilman Bob Zemel said: "Any attraction like that brings tourists and makes California a more positive tourist destination, (which) is great for Anaheim." Despite the intensive rivalry between the two companies, Disney is unlikely to change its plans simply to one-up its competitor, he said.
"I think it's important that whatever project goes in Anaheim is successful, and that ambitions don't cloud reality," Zemel said.
Jeffrey Logsdon, an entertainment analyst for the brokerage Seidler Co. in Los Angeles, suggested that Disney is "wishing MCA well, probably scratching their heads a bit."