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Did Disneyland inspire the Universal Studio Tour in Hollywood? Or was it actually the other way around?

Jim Hill

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Did Disneyland inspire the Universal Studio Tour in Hollywood? Or was it actually the other way around?

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What with James Cameron's tour of Disney's Animal Kingdom on October 17th (which was then followed by this Academy Award-winner's visit to Universal's Island of Adventure on October 18th), the Web has once again been a-buzz with stories about how The World of Avatar is supposed to be Mickey's answers to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. More importantly, how Disney's now-decades-long grudge match with Universal shows absolutely no sign of abating.

(L to R) James Cameron, Joe Rohde and Thomas Staggs on a walk-thru of Disney's
Animal Kingdom. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Well, while it is true that things have been a bit testy between these two media giants ever since February of 1985 (which was when Michael Eisner revealed his plan to add a studio tour to WDW's assortment of attractions. Which would then put the Mouse in direct competition with that movie-based theme park which Universal had been planning on building in Orlando since back in 1979). But these two mega-corporations weren't always mortal enemies. In fact, there were times over the past 90 years when relations were downright cordial between Disney & Universal.

Mind you, that's probably because - back when he was still living in Kansas City - Walt Disney used to be a newsreel stringer. Which meant that - when there was some local event worth noting (EX: hundreds of  Shriners parading up Petticoat Lane as their annual convention drew to a close) - Walt would then grab his camera and then get some footage of the event. Which -- being the enterprising young man that he was -- Disney would now try to sell to Kansas City theater owners so that they could then add a little local color to their nightly presentation.

And Walt was able to do this enough times (i.e. selling live-action footage that he'd shot around town. Most notably to the movie theaters that were affiliated with Selznick Studios & Universal Pictures) that he actually had some business cards made up which stated that Disney was the official Kansas City rep for Selznick & Universal's newsreels.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which obviously wasn't true. But given that Walt was hoping to someday make a name for himself in Hollywood, a town whose currency is hype & hyperbole ... I guess we can overlook the fact that this then-22-year-old inflated his resume.

Now let's jump ahead to August of 1923. When Walt is actually out in Southern California, actively trying to break into the biz. And since the only way that a new kid in town like him will ever get a really-for-real movie producer to look at his work is by "accidentally" bumping into them on the studio lot ... Well, that's what Disney decided to try & do.

So clutching his completely bogus official-Kansas-City-rep-for-the-Selznick-and-Universal-newsreel business cards, Walt catches the trolley for the San Fernando Valley and soon finds himself outside the gates of Universal Studios. Where - after presenting his business card and slinging a fine line of bull at the guard who is manning that gate - Walt is then given a lot pass. Which basically allowed this future movie mogul to wander the length & breadth of Universal City.

Copyright Universal Studios, Inc. All rights reserved

Now let's pause for a moment here to put ourselves in Walt Disney's shoes: You're a kid just in from Kansas City. You're always dreamed of someday making the trip to Hollywood and then getting the chance to make movies. And you've just now managed to con your way onto the lot of one of the biggest, busiest studios in town.

Harrison "Buzz" Price (i.e. the Disney Legend who - in his role as a research economist - helped Walt pick the site of Disneyland in 1953 and Walt Disney World in 1963) once told me about a conversation that he had with the Old Mousestro while the two of them were on the Disney corporate plane in the early 1960s. If I remember correctly, Buzz and Walt were flying out to the East Coast to take part in some meetings related to the 1964 New York World's Fair when they had this chat.

Anyway ... Over a couple of Scotch Mists, Disney started reminiscing about his early, early days in Hollywood. In particular, Walt began talking about the days that he spent wandering around Universal City.

Copyright Universal Studios, Inc. All rights reserved

And - yes - I said "days." According to what Disney reportedly told Price, Walt spent three days exploring the Universal lot until the guard at the front gate finally got suspicious and made him surrender his pass. And while Disney did spend a lot of time while he was on that lot knocking on doors, trying to get producers & executives to look at his "Alice Comedies" proof-of-concept reel, Walt also spent much of those three days wandering from set to set, looking in on Universal's various production teams as they worked.

And as Price listened to Disney describe it was to be walking down one of Universal's western sets and then turn a corner & suddenly find yourself in 15th century Paris, on the massive outdoor set that Universal's artists & craftsmen had just built for Lon Chaney's "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" ... Well, it then occurred to Buzz that those three days that Walt spent exploring the Universal lot obviously had a strong influence on the look & feel of Disneyland.

Of course, what's kind of ironic about this particular story is that - back in early 1955 - when the bankers were quizzing Roy O. Disney about what the Company's contingency plans were if Disneyland failed to catch on with the public, Roy reportedly replied with "We'll just shoot our movies & TV shows out here. We'll also rent the place out to other production companies. They can shoot their westerns in Frontierland and medieval adventures out in front of the castle. We'll figure out a way to make some money off of this place."

Construction of Sleeping Beauty Castle nears completion in the Spring of 1955.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So if Disneyland hadn't succeeded, it might have then become the Anaheim equivalent of Universal Studios. Which - come to think about it - is actually what happened in April of 1962. Which is when Walt allowed director Norman Jewison and a film crew from Universal to spend two weeks shooting in & around the Happiest Place on Earth for the Tony Curtis comedy, "40 Pounds of Trouble."

But I'm kind of getting ahead of myself here ... So let's get back now to Walt Disney and his ties to Universal Studios. Which - as the 1920s continued on - just got stronger & stronger.

To explain: After the "Alice Comedies" had kind of run their course, Walt created a new cartoon character -- Oswald the Lucky Rabbit - which he hoped to then build a new series of animated theatrical shorts around. Disney and his team created a prototype "Oswald" cartoon, "Poor Papa," which Charles Mintz (i.e. their "Alice Comedies" producer) was then able to get screened for Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And Laemmle - who was anxious for Universal to have a cartoon series of its own that could compete against the then-hugely popular "Felix the Cat" and "Koko the Clown" animated theatrical shorts - agreed to take Oswald on. But only after Carl had given Charles & Walt extensive notes about how to they could improve the appeal of this character (EX: make Oswald younger & less sloppy and fat). The second Oswald cartoon, "Trolley Trouble" sealed the deal. Mintz & Disney then signed a deal with Laemmle which promised that they'd produce 26 "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" cartoons which Universal Pictures would then release.

And throughout much of 1927 & 1928, Walt Disney was reportedly very happy with this deal. Not only because the "Oswald" series quickly became a hit with moviegoers. But also because the animated shorts that Walt and his team were producing were being released by a major studio like Universal Pictures.  Which -- to Disney's way of thinking --  meant that he'd finally made the big time in Hollywood.

But then - of course - this all came crashing down in the Spring of 1928, when Walt (buoyed by "Oswald" 's box office success) traveled to New York City with the hope that he could then persuade Charles to not only give the Disney Brothers Studio team a raise but also increase the production budget of the next round of "Lucky Rabbit" cartoons. But Mintz had another idea in mind. For he actually proposed a 20% reduction in the amount of money that Disney & his crew was spending on each "Oswald" cartoon.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

When Walt balked, Charles advised him to take a look at his contract. Which then revealed that it was Universal - not Disney - who actually owned the rights to the Oswald-the-Lucky-Rabbit character. What's more, Mintz had secretly hired away most of the animators that worked for Disney Brothers Studio. Leaving Walt with very few cards to play in this genuinely awful situation.

Of course, as any Disney history buff can tell you, it was directly after this meeting in NYC with Mintz - on Disney's long sad train trip back to Hollywood -- that Walt initially dreamed up Mickey Mouse. So this story has kind of a happy ending. Kind of.

But from a history point of view, where this tale gets interesting is that - while Disney despised Charles Mintz for his underhanded dealings in the "Oswald" situation - he bore no ill will against Carl Laemmle & Universal. After all, Walt had willingly signed the contract for that cartoon series. More importantly, it was Disney's own fault that he hadn't read the fine print and learned that it was Universal Pictures, rather than Disney Brothers Studio, that retained all rights to the Oswald-the-Lucky-Rabbit character.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But as Walt was famous for saying: "You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you." And the hard lesson that he learned in the Spring of 1928 helped shape the way that The Walt Disney Company deals with intellectual property. Even today, Disney's attorneys are famous for the convoluted contracts that they craft. Which then virtually guarantee that the Company retains the rights to any & all characters which the Studio's employees create.

Of course, back when he was working in the 1920s & 1930s, Walt had absolutely no idea that the characters - more importantly, the films that his studio was creating -- would have the shelf life that they enjoy today. Believe it or not, Disney actually assumed that the animated features which his Company was producing would be like all of the other movies that Hollywood was producing at this time. In that they could only be released theatrically once ... And after that ... Well, that was pretty much it.

According to Neal Gabler, the author of "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination," what changed Walt's attitude on this matter was 1930's "Dracula" and 1931's "Frankenstein." Or - rather - the huge amount of money that Universal Studios made when they repackaged these classic horror films as a double feature and then sent them back out into theaters in 1938.

Copyright Universal Studios, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, Walt didn't look at that "Dracula / Frankenstein" double bill and then - all on his own - come up with the idea of putting past Disney hits like "Snow White" and "Pinocchio" back in theaters. According to Gabler, it was an WWII-era encounter with a Universal executive that actually set those wheels in motion:

While coming back on the train from one of his Washington trips in 1942, (Walt) had met Nate Blumberg, the head of Universal Pictures, who had told Walt how Universal had mined its old film library for pictures they could reissue and advised the Disney Studio to do the same. Walt (then) prodded Roy on this matter, asking him to consider re-releasing Snow White and possibly some of the other features for Christmas in 1943. Roy finally agreed on Snow White, though the Company missed the holiday season and opened it instead in February 1944.

And it was this one change in attitude, thinking of the films that Walt Disney Studios produced not so much as dairy products (i.e. things that had a limited shelf life, that you used once and then discarded) but - rather - as long-term assets which then allowed the Mouse Factory to make it through the late 1940s & early 1950s. When television suddenly arrived on the scene and the movie game changed forever.

The poster for the 1944 re-release of "Snow White and the
Seven Dwarfs." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

And helping Walt through this extremely tumultuous time in the entertainment industry's history was Jules Stein, the head of the Music Corporation of America AKA MCA. So when the Old Mousetro began thinking about getting into television in 1952 (to help finance the construction of Disneyland), it was Stein who helped open the doors for Disney at CBS, NBC and ABC. And if the stories that Company old-timers have told me are true, Jules not only brokered the deal for American Broadcasting executives (which - in exchange for producing a weekly "Disneyland" TV series for ABC - Walt got $500,000 in cash as well as $4.5 million in loans which he could then use to fund the construction of his project in Anaheim), Stein also got MCA to kick in a little seed money for that theme park as well.

And Walt never ever forgot about how helpful Jules had been, the key role that this Hollywood mover-and-shaker had played when it came to moving Disney Studios to the next level. Not to mention how personally helpful Stein had been towards the Disney family (EX: when Roy E. Disney graduated from Pomona College in 1951, Jules had the then-president of MCA, Lew Wasserman, call around and find Walt's nephew a job in the industry. Which is how Roy E. wound up at a page at NBC).

Which is why - after MCA had merged with Decca Records in 1962 and thus became the owner of Universal Pictures as well as of that studio's 423-acre backlot - Walt was pleased to get a call from Jules. Asking him to come over the hill so that these two studio heads could then go for a stroll around the Universal lot.

Copyright Universal Studios, Inc. All rights reserved

Now as Buzz Price told me this story, as Jules walked with Walt around the backlot, he explained that he wanted to pick Disney's brain. You see, MCA was toying with the idea of reviving Universal's studio tour (which had been such a moneymaker for the Company back in the 1920s). And since the success of Disneyland had now made Walt the world's leading authority on what tourists would really respond to, Jules wanted to know: Did the backlot have the makings of an attraction? Did Disney think Southern California visitors would pay for the privilege of visiting Universal City and then see how movies & TV shows are really made? Or are people in the oh-so-sophisticated 1960s just too jaded now to be sucked in by that sort of Hollywood hokum?

And it was at this point in their walk that Walt supposedly told Jules about his own visit to Universal Studios nearly 40 years earlier. How he had spent three days exploring the backlot, looking on in various sets. He made a point of saying that this early Hollywood escapade had been one of the big thrills of his life. Which was why Disney was certain that the public would still love to get the chance to walk through Universal's gates and then see what went on behind-the-scenes.

Of course, to get some sense of how many people would really be interested in visiting a Universal Studios Tour attraction (more importantly, what they'd be willing to pay to get in), Disney suggested that Stein reach out to Price's firm and have this research economist run the numbers for MCA. And given that the backlot was looking pretty ratty in spots during their walk-thru, Walt then told Jules hire a designer to unify Universal's looks. Spruce the place up a bit. Or - at the very least - give the studio tour a strong starting-off point as well as a big finish.

Copyright Universal Studios, Inc. All rights reserved

And Stein followed each and every one of Disney's suggestions. Turning to Albert Dorskind (i.e. the longtime MCA executive who had noodging upper management for years about how they should revive the Universal Studios Tour), Jules ordered Albert to reach out to Buzz Price's company and commission a study. Stein also had Dorskind hire Harper Goff (i.e. the future Disney Legend who not only designed the Nautilus for Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" but also helped Imagineer Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A. area & Jungle Cruise attraction) to develop a distinctive look & transportation system for this proposed Universal our.

And two years and $4 million later, the Universal City Studio Tours officially opened for business in June of 1964. For the princely sum of just $2.50 for adults and $1.50 for children, you could climb aboard the Goff-designed Glamour Tram and then head out for a 90 minute-long adventure. Which - at that time, anyway - included a walk-thru of a faux version of Doris Day's dressing room. Not to mention a chance to dine-with-the-stars by grabbing a quick lunch at the Universal Pictures commissary.

As for Jules & Walt, they stayed friends 'til the day that Disney died in December 15, 1966. With Walt being a big support of Jules' philanthropic efforts (which explains that Mary-Blair-designed mosaic which you'll find decorating one of the waiting rooms at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute). And Stein ... Well, given that he was such a big believer in Disney's magical touch, Jules was always calling Walt with new projects that he thought the Old Mousetro should take on. Like the time Stein phoned Disney and suggested that he buy the then-abandoned Ellis Island complex and turn into an off-shore Disneyland for New Yorkers.

But Walt didn't always listen to Jules' suggestions. In fact, Disney deliberately ignored Stein's advice when it came to the subject of EPCOT. When Jules learned of Walt's plan to build a futuristic city as part of his Florida Project, Stein immediately got Disney on the phone and told him flat-out not to go ahead with that aspect of Disney World. That if the bureaucratic red tape which Jules had to deal with on a daily basis because Universal City had been incorporated were any indication, Walt was in for years of headaches & heartache.

But as it turned out, Disney didn't have years. He had months. And Stein ... Well, while he tried to keep the lines of communication open with Disney Studios after Walt died ... To be blunt, Jules just didn't have the same sort of long-term friendship / good working relationship with Roy O. that he did with Walt. And when Disney's brother died in December of 1971 and Stein retired from Universal in 1973, relations slowly began to deteriorate between the two companies.

Mind you, Disney Studios and Universal Pictures could still occasionally work together. But only at times when one or more of these media giants felt threatened. Take - for example - when Disney & Universal jointly sued Sony in 1976. All because these two studios saw the Betamax video recorder as a direct threat when it came to maintaining the long-term value of their film libraries.

Copyright Sony, Inc. All rights reserved

But perhaps the strangest times that Disney & Universal came together was in 1984. Which was when the Mouse - as it found itself under attack from greenmailers like Saul P. Steinberg & Irwin Jacobs - began searching for safe harbors. Which - in this instance, anyway - meant quickly finding a way to make Walt Disney Productions a far less attractive target for acquisition.

And one of the easiest ways to do this was by merging with a competitor. In effect making Disney too big to buy. Which was what Ron Miller & Card Walker were trying to do when they reached out to Lew Wasserman (who was now Jules Stein's successor) and asking him if MCA  / Universal would be interested in acquiring Walt Disney Studios.

As Connie Bruck recounts in her 2003 book, "When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence," Wasserman was interested in acquiring Disney. And this deal came within inches of actually happening. Only to then be derailed at virtually the last minute due to Lew's stubbornness:

Copyright Random House, Inc. All rights reserved

"All the terms were done," said Barry Diller, who had learned what happened from one of the principals. "But the Disney family said that Ron Miller [a Disney executive] had to be president. Sid [Sheinberg] said to Lew, 'It's fine.' Felix [Rohatyn, the investment banker advising MCA] said to Lew, 'Do it - a year from now, you'll get rid of Miller, and make Sid President.' But Lew said 'No. Sidney is president.'

"It was Lew's inflexibility that caused him to blow deals he should not have blown," Diller added. "He and Jules [Stein] had built the best company - they should have owned the world. And had they made this deal with Disney, everything would have been different."

Now contrast this with what happened just one year later when Ron Miller was out and Michael Eisner was now in charge of the Mouse House. Within three months of coming to power at Disney, Eisner announced that Walt Disney World would soon be adding a studio tour to its already large assortment of attractions.

Concept art for the 1985 version of the Disney MGM Studio Tour. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And why would this news upset the folks at Universal?," you ask. Because - as I mentioned at the very top of this article - MCA / Universal had been trying to get a clone of their Hollywood studio tour built  in the Central Florida area ever since 1979. What's more, Michael Eisner (while he was working at Paramount Pictures back in 1981) had allegedly sat in on a meeting where Universal executives had gone into great detail about the sort of theme park that they were planning on building in Orlando. So the new head of Disney not only knew what the competition was planning on building, he knew how to top them.

Which is why Universal - for a while, anyway, in early 1985 - took a "If you can't beat them, join them" approach. Executives from MCA  / Universal Studios Recreation Group actually reached to Disney and suggested that the two companies join forces on this studio tour project. Which (on paper, anyway) did make sense. Given that Disney (at that time) didn't have a library full of films which would appeal to adults. Whereas Universal did. More to the point, MCA / Universal had over 20 years of experience at that point when it came to running a studio theme park attraction. So the Imagineers could immediately tap into that expertise.

The way I hear it, Disney listened politely to Universal's offer and then opted to go with MGM/UA instead. Mostly because MCA  / Universal was looking for some sort of on-going, royalty-based arrangement. Whereas MGM/UA would license its name to Disney (more importantly, give WDI access to 250 titles in its film library) for 20 years at a ridiculously low rate. Starting at $100,000 a year and then slowly climbing to $1,000,000 in the final year of this licensing deal.

Copyright HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
All rights reserved

"And how did Universal react to this news?," you query. Well, as Kim Masters recounted in her 2000 book,  "Keys to the Kingdom : The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else," Sid Sheinberg (i.e. MCA/Universal's then-president and COO) clearly missed the good old days when people like Jules Stein & Walt Disney were the kings of Hollywood. When the competition between studios was cordial, not quite so cutthroat.

In "Keys of the Kingdom," Masters quotes Sheinberg as saying that the Disney studio tour attraction was " ... a rip-off of a concept that we worked hard to develop." More importantly, that "... Michael Eisner had been exposed to a lot of very confidential information and knew (exactly) what our plans were." But the crew at MCA / Universal ultimately wound up getting snookered by Disney because " ... we were trying to behave by a code of chivalry that I guess was out of date."

There's a lot of story still left to tell here, folks. Especially when it comes to the brutal PR battle that erupted between Universal & Disney in the mid-to-late 1980s when it came to who was building the best studio theme park in Central Florida. More importantly, who stole the ideas for what attractions from whom.

But rather than end things on a down note like that, I'd prefer to circle back on a better time & place in our narrative. To be specific, the strong friendship / good working relationship that Jules Stein & Walt Disney had (which is actually commemorated as part of that Mary Blair-designed mural  at the UCLA Eye Center by the dedication tile depicted above). More importantly, the part that Walt played in the revival of the Universal Studio Tour. Which can be directly traced back to those three days that a certain 21 year-old spent exploring the magical movie kingdom which Universal City's backlot used to be back in the 1920s.

Which brings us now to the obvious question: Did Disneyland inspire the Universal Studio Tour in Hollywood? Or was it actually the other way around?

Your thoughts?


Editor's note: My apologies for JHM being a bit light on content last week. But after that freak Nor'Easter, I initially thought that I'd be able to knock out this how-Walt-influenced-and-impacted-the-Universal-Studio-Tour story in just a day or so. But six days later ... Well, there's still a ton of material that I wasn't able to fold in here. Which brings me to my question: Would you guys be interested in more stories that look back on the Disney / Universal theme park wars of the late 1980s / early 1990s? If so, please let me know. And I'll then see if I break this "War And Peace" -length narrative into a more Web-friendly format.

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  • Please, more. 2am and I can't sleep, I'd rather read something with business and moral value.

  • "helped Walt pick the site of Disneyland in 1963"?

  • I'd love to hear the tale of the "theme park wars".  The more detail, the better!

  • Sure...bring it on!  I love your "theme park history" types of stories.

  • Yes, more please! Would love to hear about the themn park wars of the 80's &90's.

  • defintly more for always wanted to know exactly what caused Disney and Universal to become the bitter rivials not to mention Disney and universal helping each other out  from time to time. this i have to know more.

  • Disney completely botched its version of the studios park. It just didn't work. The tram tour was a big disappointment. The movie ride was dumb and outdated. Now, they introduced Pixar to mixed effect. They couldn't decide if it was a working studio or pale imitation. The only thing in its favor was its attendance that surpasses Universal Studios. But if you went there expecting Hollywood, all you got was a facade.

  • I love stories like this! Please, keep them coming.

  • Is there any history to Disney and Warner Brothers they have so much in common could you please elaborate on that subject. Also is it true that Disney once had the chance to own Hanna Barbara.

    I mean I know almost everything about Disney and it can't possibly be true that Disney could have once had the chance to own Hanna Barbara and if they did what idiot passed on such a crucial acqusition

  • I would love to hear more about the nineteen-eighties studio wars. Thanks, Jim!

  • "Would you guys be interested in more stories that look back on the Disney / Universal theme park wars of the late 1980s / early 1990s? If so, please let me know."

    More, more, more please!

  • Jim, this is the stuff you do best, man.   Great article.

  • Jim!!! This type of stories are amazing!!!! Keep 'em coming please!!!

  • Loved it loved it loved!!!

  • Yes, I'm definitely interested in that time period of Disney history, so please share!

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