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Why For did Universal Orlando sell off all of that property it bought from Lockheed Martin?

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Why For did Universal Orlando sell off all of that property it bought from Lockheed Martin?

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Paul G writes in to ask:

Why on earth are so many Disney fan websites so negative?  There are a good number of them that I don't even look at anymore because they spend so much time complaining about every last little thing.  They are so negative!  (thank you Jim for being one of the few who, while not being slavishly supportive, are at least still in touch with the realities of life and still passionate about your love of Disney).

Dear Paul G.

Look, to be fair here, I first have to admit that -- over the past 13 years that I've been writing almost exclusively for the Web -- I've written a number of stories about The Walt Disney Company that could be considered negative. So we're kind of "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" country here.

But as to why so many Disney fan sites seem to be going negative these days ... I think that there are a number of factors coming into play here. Chief among them being the way the Web works these days.

I mean, think about it, Paul G. What's driving the majority of conversations online these days? Social media platforms like Facebook & Twitter which make use of instantaneous communication. And sometimes when Disneyana fans are rushing to be the very first person to post a report on what a new ride, show or attraction is like, they're taking part in the soft opening of said ride, show or attraction. Which is typically when things are kind of rough around the edges, when all of the effects don't work, etc.

Case in point: The Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor attraction at WDW's Magic Kingdom. As Ron Schneider recounts in his excellent memoir, "From Dreamer to Dreamfinder: A Life and Lessons Learned in 40 Years Behind a Name Tag" (Bamboo Forest Publishing, July 2012), though this Tomorrowland attraction wouldn't officially be ready to open to the public 'til April 2, 2007, it did some playtesting back during the Fall of 2006. And at that time ...

... a few preview audiences are brought in each day to see a primitive version of the finished product. The screen resolution is only a fraction of what it will be in April, the animation is choppy and the scripts are almost verbatim those created by the Imagineering writers.

But the crowds laugh -- and those laughs are captured in the massive yellow 'Laugh Can' ; proof that, even in this primitive state, we're on to something good. The crowds are asked to fill out response forms at the end of each performance and, after a few breathless days, we're closed again.

Thankfully, Disney Operations comes to a preview performance and sees for themselves that we are definitely not ready to open, and we are now assured of spending the remaining three months of prep time undisturbed.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But the damage is done. The Disney Online Fans, tasting blood, have started posting reviews of our preliminary efforts. Their opinions are hopelessly uninformed and almost universally bad, since they cannot imagine that anyone but themselves cares about the quality of our show. We are trashed for the poor animation and the writing and especially for putting a Pixar show in Tomorrowland. In spite of repeated announcements at each performance that the preview is definitely not what the finished show will look like, they're certain that it will be no better. As if buying an annual pass endows one with knowledge of the future ...

And as a direct result of those prematurely negative reviews that got posted online while this innovative interactive attraction was still in technical rehearsals, the Disneyana fan community wound up gravely wounding "Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor."  To the point where once WDI had plans to turn this Tomorrowland attraction into a franchise (i.e. building additional versions of "Laugh Floor" for Disney California Adventure, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland), the WDW version of "Laugh Floor" wound up being a one-off. All because senior management at The Walt Disney Company saw the initial negative reaction that MILF got and then figured "Why throw good money after bad?"

Now what's particularly frustrating about the whole "Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor" experience is that -- with the possible exception of John Frost -- I'm pretty sure that none of these alleged online theme park experts who were so quick to condemn this Tomorrowland attraction then ever bothered to circle back on this show to report on how the final, finished version of this interactive attraction turned out. All that ultimately mattered to these bloggers was that they had been among the first to post online that "MILF" -- while it was still in technical rehearsal -- had gags that didn't work and/or glitches in its animation. NOT that the Imagineers eventually dealt with all of these issues and -- as a direct result -- wound up with a far stronger attraction which has been entertaining WDW Guests for nearly six years now.

But that's the way the Web is these days, Paul G. In this rush-to-judgement / I-really-need-to-be-the-first-to-post-something-about-this era that we now live in, there's no time for reflection. Only reaction. As one prominent Disney webmaster told me back in October at an "Epic Mickey 2 " media event that -- when it comes to breaking news -- " ... I don't have to be right. I just have to be first."

Of course, not all of us have the advantage that a Ron Schneider does. From his position of having worked in themed entertainment for over four decades now, Ron brings an awful lot of experience & insight to the table whenever he starts talking about why certain rides, shows and attractions work and why others don't. Which is why -- if you or someone you love is thinking about entering the themed entertainment game -- then I urge you to pick up a copy of "From Dreamer to Dreamfinder". Because there are life lessons to found inside of this 300-page Bamboo Forest Publishing book that you just won't find anywhere else.

Copyright 2012 Bamboo Forest Publishing.
All rights reserved

Next up, Craig H. writes in with a Universal Orlando-related question:

Hi Jim

First of all, I'm a huge fan of the podcasts you do with Len Testa.

As for my Why For, why for did Universal sell off most of its land before the days of Comcast? From what I understand, there was a rumor that Universal was interested in 4 gates in Florida but the plan ultimately fell through and they sold the land. I hope you can answer this!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Dear Craig H, 

Yeah, what Universal Orlando had in the works for those 2000-acres that it acquired from Lockheed Martin back in September 1998 really was pretty impressive. We're talking (at full build-out, mind you) two brand-new theme parks, seven or eight hotels, yet another Universal CityWalk-like nighttime entertainment district. And because this $3 billion project was to have been built right across the way from the Orange County Convention Center, Universal's thinking was that ... Well, given the sheer convenience of this state-of-the-art entertainment complex, the hundreds of thousands of people who annually attend events at the OCCC would have had no choice but to walk across the street and then sample what Universal was offering.

The green space out behind the South Concourse of the Orange County Convention
Center is some of the Lockheed Martin property that Universal Orlando planned on
turning into a new entertainment complex.

The only problem with the proposed site of this Universal Orlando expansion project is that -- between 1958 and 1996 -- this was where Lockheed Martin used to test its Copperhead, Hellfire and Pershing missiles. Which meant that this site was littered with decades of missile debris & toxic waste. And all of that hazardous material would first have to be cleaned up & hauled away before Universal could then get started on building its new multi-billion entertainment venue at what had once been known as Lockheed Martin's Sand Lake Road Complex.

Now what was kind of interesting about this clean-up effort was that Universal & Lockheed Martin partnered on the project. With Universal initially underwriting the costs of this rather pricey onsite work by selling off select pieces of the Sand Lake Road Complex. Take -- for example -- the 230-acre chunk that Universal sold off to Orange County in October 1998 for $65 million. Which then allowed the county to go forward with its planned $748 million expansion of the Orange County Convention Center.

And while the Environmental Protection Agency eventually recognized Universal & Lockheed Martin for the innovative way that they had worked with State, Federal and local agencies to streamline the hazardous waste clean-up process, in the end, the costs of these on-site clean-up efforts really began to mount.  

Take -- for example -- the $4 million that these two companies had to spend to clear toxic metals & industrial solvents out of the landfill at Site 5. Given that six such sites had been identified on the Sand Land Road Complex property .. Well, that then put the initial clean-up cost estimates for this project at $24 million. And then when you factored in the amount of time necessary to complete a hazardous waste clean-up project of this size, it would have taken at least until 2004 before Universal could even begin construction of this massive entertainment complex.

Make no mistake. Universal Creative really, really believed in this expansion project. To the point -- according to the plans that the Company filed with Orange County -- Universal eventually wanted to build two 18-hole golf courses, 10,000 hotel rooms, 700 time-share units and more than 2 million square feet of retail space on top of Lockheed Martin's old missile testing range.

Lockheed Martin's Missiles and Fire Control Center in Orlando, FL.

But then Vivendi, the French media giant who owned Universal Studios at this time, began having serious financial difficulties in 2004. And in an effort to make their corporation look that much more attractive to any would-be merger partners, Vivendi officials began spinning off / selling off any problematic divisions & projects. And even though Universal & Lockheed Martin were already four years & $40 million into their clean-up efforts at this point, the word came down to get the remaining 1,800-acres ready for sale. Which is why this primo piece of property was eventually sold off to Thomas Enterprises, Inc., a Georgia-based developer.

For the folks who worked at Universal Creative (i.e. the people who design all of the rides, shows and attractions for the Universal theme parks), losing the Lockheed Martin property was a real heartbreaker. By that I mean: Universal Creative saw this 1,800-acre site directly across from Orange County Convention Center as a way for the Universal Orlando Resort to finally become seriously competitive with Walt Disney World.

Of course, what's kind of ironic about this whole situation is that when Universal's next owner -- General Electric -- opted to sell off both NBC and Universal Studios theme park division to American cable giant Comcast in December 2009, Universal Creative found itself dealing with a group of executives who were genuinely excited about expanding Universal Orlando's entertainment offerings. Which is why -- over the past three years -- we've seen an explosion of growth & innovation at that Resort. Everything from the all-new Hi-Def 3D version of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Universal's Superstar Parade, the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride, the Universal's Cinematic Spectacular -- 100 Years of Movie Memories nighttime show, the Hollywood Drive-In miniature golf course and Transformers - The Ride 3D. Not to mention the 1,800-room Cabana Beach Resort that Universal Orlando will be opening in 2014 as well as USF's yet-to-officially-be-announced Krustyland expansion & Diagon Alley project.

So one has to wonder: If Universal Creative -- working with Comcast officials (who -- unlike the execs who ran Vivendi & GE -- genuinely seem to like / are enthusiastic about being in the theme park business) were able to do this with the 840-acres that the Universal Orlando Resort currently occupies ... Well, if Comcast officials had been equally enthusiastic / just as financially supportive of the Lockheed Martin project, what would Universal Creative have been able to do with the 1,800-acre Sand Lake Road Complex? After they cleared away all of that missile debris & hazardous waste, I mean.

Concept art for Universal Orlando's Cabana Beach Resort. Copyright
NBCUniversal. All rights reserved

Anyway ... That's it for this week's Why For column. Remember if you want one of your Disney or theme park-related question answered in a 2013 edition of this JHM column, please send your query e-mails along to [email protected]

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  • Great article. It's a pity they sold off all that land, imagine a whole Harry Potter world.  Maybe someone will obtain the license  for Dr Who as that seems popular in USA and Europe.

  • Jim, don't bash "negative" Disney reporting when it needs to be done. I will always appreciate you're efforts to remove the lamentable Mike Eisner from the controls of Disney Inc. Things are much better now than then, thanks in part to your website. In fact, I would be a more faithful reader if more Disney criticism were forthcoming. Obviously, such criticism should not be a steady diet, and also be well founded and accurate. Nevertheless, while Disney today is healthier than the Eisner period, it still shows some ugly and lazy elements.

    = the devastating after effects of Disney stardom on tween girl actresses.

    = buying, rather than creating properties to fill voids in the Disney portfolio - e.g. Tomorrowland and Star Wars. Marvel comics

    for the boy market.

    = "Eisnerizing" Pixar offerings like cars with movies like "Planes".

  • Is this Lockheed property adjacent to Universal Orlando?

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Not really, no. This 1,800-acre parcel was located out behind the Orange Country Convention Center about a mile-and-a-half / two miles (as the crow flies) from the 840-acres that the Universal Orlando Resort was built on.

    That said, Universal Creative was very, very excited about the development possiblities associated with this piece of property. Not only because of all those conventioneers who'd annually be attending events at the OCCC, but also because of the tens of thousands of tourists who'd be staying right nearby in hotels & motels out along International Drive.

    I do recall that Universal Orlando did have plans to eventually link the Universal Orlando Resort to the Lockheed Martin property with some sort of transportation system that could handle hundreds of tourists at the exact time. But (as I recall) Universal's lawyers expressed concerns about how this monorail-like system would ever acquire the legal rights to transport all of these people safely back and forth across I-4.

    Which (come to think of it) Universal's legal department must have eventually resolved. Given the number of Resort guests they regularly transport over to Wet 'n' Wild from the Hard Rock, the Portofino and the Royal Pacific Hotel.

  • I found it funny that anyone, behind the scenes or not, would blame the internet community for ruining MILF's future clonization.  The fact is it's a mildly entertaining attraction that works fine as a big C ticket.  The point is, it used a huge amount of Tomorrowland real estate which should go to a D or E ticket - that's most people's beef.

    The fact that it hasn't been cloned is a GOOD thing for the Company.

    EDITOR'S NOTE:  I get kind of tired of people trotting out the old "This attraction doesn't fit the theme of Tomorrowland" argument. As if "Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor" or "Stitch's Great Escape" was the very first rides, shows or attractions to be awkwardly shoehorned into this part of a Disney theme park.

    I mean, you do recall the"Dutch Boy Color Gallery" and the "Aluminum Hall of Fame," those very un-futuristic exhibits that were part of the Opening Day line-up at Disneyland's Tomorrowland back in 1955, right? Or the "Circarama, U.S.A" film or the "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" walk-thru attraction that really didn't fit the Tomorrowland theme at all.

    Disney theme park enthusiasts rarely if ever like to admit that Tomorrowland has always been a problematic part of the Disney theme parks. Which is why you'll often see shows like "If You Had Wings" & "Dreamflight" dropped into Tomorrowland to fill vacant spots in this side of the park. Just because some corporation agreed to sponsor an attraction at a Disney theme park and this was the easiest spot to drop said ride, show or attraction into.

    Because -- to be blunt -- if the Imagineers took the purists' approach to Tomorrowland (i.e. only futuristicly themed attractions can be built on this side of that theme park. No Disney or Pixar character-based rides, shows and attraction), you'd wind up with an awful lot of empty show buildings.

    On the other hand, if you talk with Imagineering veterans, they'll tell you that the easiest way to get  Disney Company management to cough up the money necessary to build a new ride, show or attraction for Tomorrowland is to tie your project to an already popular Disney or Pixar franchise.

    I know that the Disney theme park purists really don't like to hear this sort of thing. They wish that The Walt Disney Company was like it used to be back when Walt was still alive. But that ship has sailed, folks. Nowadays, Disney is a multi-national corporation just  like every other media company out there. Where a lot of their big budget business decisions are driven by which super-popular characters or franchises you have access to / can build projects around.

    And that's not going to change anytime soon, SpectroMan. So get used to it, okay?

  • (I can comment on my negativity and criticisms only)

    I still find it both awkward and alarming that Universal in the last 5 years has invested more money in improving existing elements, painting and improving dated effects when Disney has done little if nothing but think of future concepts and attractions and let their past hard work fall by the wayside. It seems like Disney is now riding the coattails of Universal, which was something unheard of a decade ago.

    My complaints as a longtime Disney fan are simply this: Fix what's broken!  If there is money leftover consider improving an existing attraction. The last thing Disney SHOULD do is spit-ball future attractions. Disney is starting to look OLD and getting new attractions and gigantic "DO-NOTHING" lands doesn't improve it's standing with customers and longtime fans. It just makes the older parks and attractions look that much older by comparison.

    Yeah, OK...so Universal really screwed them with HP... but they shouldn't try to compete. They should fix the aging aspects of the parks. On a good day the very worst of Disney still outshines Universal...but only marginally. If Disney ever wants to regain its edge it needs to makes the parks as they were...once upon a time. Disney is a brand built on "Nostalgia" and "Magic"! When you take those away you're left with a costly shell void of emotion and entertainment value.

    I have no qualms with Monster's Inc Laugh Floor...It's a great technological and entertaining addition. I do however take issue with broken down effects, rocks and tree limb themeing that's cracking and falling off, dull painted areas, ugly and obvious temporary patches (tarps) chipping paint, lame strobe lit apes, poor lighting, etc. My negativity is fueled by frustration. And my frustration lies with Disney not fixing darn near anything.

    Fix it Felix!

    If I have to sound off my complaints on an official Disney Blog, Twitter, Facebook or any community-driven fan site I will. Because chances are good I'm not alone in wanting Disney to fix their issues. Where else can park guests voice their opinions and concerns?

  • I didn't read much online criticism of Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor before I saw it, and I have to say that it is a pretty forgettable attraction.  Haven't been back to WDW in maybe 4 years, though I was an APer there for a while.  Would love to ride the People Mover again, and CoP is nice, but MILF I probably wouldn't wait for it if it meant missing almost anything else.  It's kinda juvenile, and from what I remembered, it uses screens and looks cheap when compared to Bug's Life and other similar shows.  I'm glad they didn't transplant it to Tomorrowland in Disneyland.

    I don't think that early impressions are any less accurate than later ones.  Sure, MILF was in a testing mode, but if it was spectacular, then guests would say it looks great and can't wait to see what it looks like finished.  Look at Carsland, it seems that everybody loved it right off the bat.  Also, why Monsters in Tomorrowland?  Because they look like aliens?!?  I would love to see a Star Wars Catina in Tomorrowland in Disneyland, or elsewhere, but "Monsters" aren't futuristic.  

    MILF is a C Ticket sort of thing, and I don't think it is very mature how the developers you quoted blamed it on bad internet press.  It's not a big lavish, or even modest dark ride, but a glorified show with screens.

  • There seems to be little good reporting anymore, and certainly research is rare.  You are right Jim,  the bloggers and on-line Disney folks should at least posted a review after the completion of the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor.  I think it is a great show, but I hate going to it.  I am always a nervous wreck that they are going to pick me as "that guy"!  One other note, please stop using MILF for Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor.  If you are not sure why, ask someone who has seen American Pie.  It is an acronym used in the film, and is definitely not Disney-esque.

  • I love Disney, and I heavily criticize.  Why do I heavily criticize?  Because I love Disney.  The people who criticize us?  Who criticize me?  How dare any of them say that Walt Disney is someone they look up to. Walt Disney is on our side; not on the side of accepting mediocrity. The name "Disney" has been engrained so much into society that some people believe that they can do no wrong. That somehow criticizing, say, Eisner and Pressler and the current lack of caring at WDW is akin to insulting Walt Disney. When in fact his own surviving daughter hated Eisner as a businessman.

    Tomorrowland at each resort is exactly the opposite of the original version; all the land is now is an extension of Fantasyland.

    I "love" Disney.  I "care" about Disney.  I care about its future.  "This" is why I criticize.

  • Did I miss something in SpectroMan's comments?  I don't see where he mentioned the theme of Monsters Inc. not fitting the theme of Tomorrowland.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: SpectroMan in his comment said that his chief complaint about Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor was that " ... it used a huge amount of Tomorrowland real estate which should go to a D or E ticket." Reading between the lines here, SpectroMan was saying (in a somewhat oblique way) that this Pixar-inspired attraction doesn't really fit the futuristic theming of Tomorrowland.

    Of course, your mileage may vary. But that's how I interpreted that comment.

  • Based on what I've heard and read, Walt Disney have been receiving massive criticisms because people nowadays are more particular with every movie coming out especially for cartoons where the target viewers are the children.  Criticisms does not happen on Walt Disney movies alone, though more people are expecting a lot better from them.

  • Just imagine what could have been if Universal got to build at that Lockheed Martin land. I hoping that with Disney purchase of LucasArts that this will motivate Universal to partner up with Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Sony pictures for a Mega Park on that land someday. Theirs a lot of legacy ip's that deserve to be theme park attractions. Stuff like Looney Tunes, Star Trek, DC Comics, James Bond, etc.  Now I know all of these are past and current attractions for other parks.  I heard your podcast about Project X for Universal before it became IOA. and parks like Six Flags and Cedar Fair handle of these properties. All I'm saying it would be nice to see premium dark ride attraction for these legacy ip's, then just the simple coaster or defunct attraction.    I just imagine a AAA Looney Tunes dark ride, something we haven't really seen with those characters. Especially now, with 007 making a billion in the box office, the reboot of Star Trek creating new fans for the series. If Universal expands to this land imagine the just do they can get with those brands.  It's just me dreaming, but I hope they're thing about that.  Great article. Loving hearing about the Universal Stuff. So little is written about it these days except when it comes Harry Potter.


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