The Theme Is Impudence

Disney may have defined the modern theme park, but Universal has developed its own, somewhat edgier approach—and it seems to be working.

Disney has always been a family-friendly brand, and nowhere is it family-friendlier than at its theme parks. That’s the way Uncle Walt wanted it, and that’s how it has remained.

But Universal Orlando? Well, that’s another story.

Every time I go there, I find myself struck by innumerable little things that I somehow know—down in the depths of my pop-culture heart—wouldn’t fly with the Mouse. I’m not talking X-rated stuff, you understand: Spider-Man doesn’t grope Mary Jane and E.T. never drops the F-bomb while phoning home.

But there definitely are examples of PG (or possibly even PG-13) edginess that make me think, “Toto, we’re not at Disney anymore.” And this difference between Disney and Universal has recently taken on an economic significance in light of reports that Disney’s attendance was flat this past summer while Universal’s soared.

Take, for example, Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue, the high-energy Universal attraction in which Beetlejuice and other famous monsters put on a rock ’n’ roll show. When I recently visited Universal, Beetlejuice was in top un-Disney form.

“Talk about a couple of tails from the crypt,” said the show’s leering star, apropos of two go-go ghouls. He also quipped, “My Dolly Parton watch is busted.” And speaking of breasts, when the Wolfman started to go after the ones belonging to the Bride of Frankenstein, my un-Disney detector really started pinging.

It was pinging at Shrek 4-D, too, where the Magic Mirror announced, “Please do not eat, drink, talk or puke”—thereby rushing into gastrointestinal territory where the more decorous mirror in Snow White has always feared to tread. Meanwhile, at the Disaster attraction (which shows how movies are made), an actor selected an audience member to film a gardening scene and then asked the volunteer, “Is it all with legal plants?”

There’s also, of course, The Simpson’s Ride, which takes its cue from the TV show’s subversive sense of fun. A message from Itchy and Scratchy showed the cartoon mouse dismembering and otherwise abusing his feline nemesis, after which Homer feverishly pursued a giant beer.

The above indiscretions are all from Universal Studios Florida. At Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the un-Disneylike pickings are slimmer, since that park tends to focus on entertainment for the very young and on action-packed rides that are more about thrills than impudence.
But even there, my un-Disney detector was far from silent. At The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, for example, I heard the voice of Moaning Myrtle in the restroom: It’s not what Myrtle said that was especially un-Disney, it was where she said it.

The throngs of Potterheads cuing up for absolutely everything at Harry’s new world surely must account for much of Universal’s recent success. But I also suspect that Disney is somewhat boxed in by its famous squeaky-clean brand.

Over the years, parents have gradually become more broadminded about what to let their kids see and do. Universal seems to realize that, while Disney either won’t or can’t change.

I happened to find a very clear statement of the edgier Universal spirit at its Horror Make Up Show, a goldmine of theme-park effrontery, thanks partly to the faux gore that gives the attraction its name. When an actor lurched onstage with a knife seemingly stuck in his chest and a bloodlike substance dripping down his shirt, my un-Disney detector went nuts.

“This isn’t the Magic Kingdom,” the actor later explained to the chuckling crowd. “I don’t have to be nice.”

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