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When Woody met Mickey: The day Universal's walk-around characters almost stormed WDW's Magic Kingdom

Jim Hill

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When Woody met Mickey: The day Universal's walk-around characters almost stormed WDW's Magic Kingdom

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Picture -- if you will -- a WDW Security Officer in her vehicle, frantically waving her arm and honking her horn, trying to stop a caravan of Universal characters as they sped past the toll booths on World Drive and then made their way to the Ticket and  Transportation Center.

That sounds like something out of a bad sitcom, right? Well, this unlikely event actually happened back on May 21, 1987. Back when the folks at MCA Inc. were looking to send Mickey a message that Disney's then-recently announced plans to construct a studio theme park in Central Florida weren't going to derail MCA's plans to build Universal Studios Florida.

The first indication that Universal wasn't going to back down came in March of 1986. Just a week ahead of the Mouse officially breaking ground on what-was-then-known as the Disney-MGM Studio Tour, MCA spent nearly $50,000 on a full page ad which ran in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and the Orlando Sentinel. These ads -- which were supposed to promote Universal Studios Hollywood's King Kong Encounter (which was due to start thrilling tram tour riders on June 14th of that year) -- pointedly included the phrase " ... plan on seeing us in Florida one day soon."

Copyright MCA Inc. All rights reserved

Thus began the game of one-up-manship between Universal & Disney. So if Mickey issued a press release stating that the Disney-MGM Studio Tour was going to built on 100 acres a mile southwest of Epcot Center and cost $300 million to construct, MCA would then follow up with a press release of their own. This one stating that Universal City Florida would be built on 423 acres at the corner of  Interstate 4 & Florida's Turnpike and cost an estimated $460 million.

The point that MCA executives were repeatedly trying to get across here with PR moves like this was that -- while Disney may have been the first entertainment company to enter into the Central Florida market -- Universal wasn't going to be cowed by a mouse. In fact, just six months after MCA had broken ground on its studio tour in March of 1987, Universal officials decided that it was now time to make some sort of dramatic statement on Mickey's turf that clearly got across the idea that MCA wasn't going to shy away from doing battle with Disney.

This is why -- in mid-September -- MCA's marketing department reached out to all sorts of Orlando area news outlets and let them know that, since Disney was building a studio tour of its own, Universal wanted to deliver a present to Mickey & Minnie: Two Universal Studios director chairs that were emblazoned with Mickey & Minnie's names.

Copyright Universal Studios Hollywood. All rights reserved

Mind you, what MCA officials wanted to do was hand-carry these director chairs into the Magic Kingdom and then personally deliver these presents to Mickey & Minnie. Not only that, but Universal also planned on sending along a contingent  of walk-around characters from their Hollywood theme park to help deliver these directors chairs to Disney's Big Cheese and his missus. We're talking about characters like Woody Woodpecker, Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, the Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, and celebrity lookalikes like Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy.

As you might expect, when Disney got wind of this publicity stunt, they did  everything within their power to dissuade MCA from following through. As John Hill (no relation) of the Orlando Sentinel reported on the day before Universal planned on invading the Magic Kingdom:

Disney spokesman Charles Ridgway said the Conan clan would not be admitted because the company prohibits people in costumes that distract from the entertainment in the park.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But MCA's marketing staff totally disregarded what Ridgway said. Again from the May 20, 1987 story in the Orlando Sentinel:

The company's characters plan to show up at the gates in full regalia at 9 a.m. sharp.

''I figure one of two things can happen,'' MCA spokesman Charles Munch said. ''They can let us in, or they can throw us out. We did not make a great deal of effort to tell them about it. I think they will play it up as a friendly visit.''

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And in the end, that's actually what Disney World officially decided to do. Except for that one Security Officer out on World Drive (who clearly didn't get the memo), Mouse House officials decided that the easiest way to defuse this potentially embarrassing stunt was to meet all these Universal walk-around characters as they arrived at the Ticket and Transportation Center. More to the point, have Mickey & Minnie on hand at the TTC so that these walk-around characters could then accept MCA's gift of those directors chair there. And thus prevent Universal's walk-around characters from having to get on the Monorail and then travel over to the Magic Kingdom in order to meet with Mickey & Minnie.

As John Hill of the Orlando Sentinel recounted in his day-after coverage, it was a pretty surreal scene that morning at Walt Disney World's Ticket and Transportation Center.

Woody Woodpecker chatted with Mickey Mouse in a language no one else could understand. Dracula bit Minnie Mouse on the neck. Groucho flirted with the girls and W.C. Fields looked for a drink. Charlie Chaplin was silent.

Copyright MCA Inc. All rights reserved

When the 10-car caravan carrying Conan the Barbarian and 11 other MCA characters and a retinue of reporters and publicists passed Disney's ticket booths, a security official swept across World Drive honking her car horn and waving her arms.

The convoy was led to the park's ticket gates, where the characters were allowed to present Mickey and Minnie with personalized director's chairs from the Universal Studios Tour in California.

Disney would not allow them into the park, citing a company policy that prohibits visitors in costumes because they might from the characters and entertainment in the park.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Conan and his clan said that was all right -- they had only wanted to say hello to Mickey and Minnie anyway. Dracula was particularly pleased.

''I've been wanting to bite a mouse for years,'' he said, in a thick Transylvanian accent as he leaned toward Minnie.

The characters clowned for the cameras for about 10 minutes. The companies' publicists said the visit was a success and predicted that both film studio and tours projects would make Central Florida a major motion picture production center.

Copyright Orlando Sentinel Media Group / Tribune
Company. All rights reserved

Sadly, there aren't a whole lot of photographs from this fateful meet-up. Mostly because Disney's PR flaks actively dissuades most of the photographers who were there on the morning of May 21st from taking any pictures. But Jody Watson Tracy of the Sentinel was able to squeeze off a few shots of Mickey with Woody before everyone from Universal and the press that came on-property with these walk-around characters were shooed back to their caravan and then escorted off-property.

Anyway ... That's a brief look back at one of the more bizarre moments in Orlando theme park history. Though -- given that the Universal Orlando Resort will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the grand opening of Universal Studios Florida later this year -- I'm hoping that, in the weeks & months ahead, that I can unearth some other fun stories about when Orlando's two studio tours used to actually duel.

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  • Such a strange story, thanks for sharing, Jim!

  • Of course, Woody Woodpecker and Mickey Mouse appeared together in Who Framed Roger Rabbit in June of 1988.

  • I remember that. It was on the news and it looked like chaos.

  • A similar thing happened during Disneyland Paris' 20th Anniversary, when characters from the nearby Parc Asterix bought a menhir (one of Obelix's rocks in the Asterix comics) as a gift to the park. www.leparcorama.com/.../459830_10151483859150258_222446180257_23956804_1977981413_o2.jpg

  • Great article. I love hearing about the history of Universal, as there's so much less written about it than Disney history.

  • Just started reading your site a little while ago. It's amazing. I"m hooked. Park and Characters Articles like this are my favorite. Great story about Woody and Mickey, and something I would die to have video of. Sounds like it was crazy back then.

  • Fun article, Jim! Too bad this all happened in the days when the Intrawebs didn't have as much social media and everybody didn't have a good camera in their cell phones - I'm sure photos and video would have been all over the place, regardless of what the WDW PR folks wanted.

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