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Insider's Update: Hippity, hoppity, Oswald's on his way (to Japan)

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Published: April 5, 2014 at 5:24 PM

Easter's late this year, but it is coming, and Disneyland's getting ready with its latest seasonal overlay at Big Thunder Ranch. The "Springtime Roundup" runs through Easter, on April 20.

That's right: Easter is on 4/20 this year. I'll let you go with your own joke here.

If you're thinking: "Hey, I'd love to go visit a big animated rabbit at a Disney theme park, but I can see the Easter Bunny anywhere," (and who among us hasn't thought that? Put down your hands. That was a rhetorical question. Sheesh), Disney's now offering meet-and-greets with the original Disney animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unfortunately for theme park fans in the United States, Oswald's appearing only at Tokyo DisneySea. As if there weren't already enough cool stuff at the World's Best Theme Park to make Disney fans everywhere else in the world wildly jealous.

Oswald
Photo courtesy Disney

If you haven't heard the backstory (and since it's the weekend, I'll go ahead and tell it again), Oswald was Walt Disney's first commercially successful animated character. However, Oswald didn't belong to the Walt Disney Company because Walt created the character before there was a Walt Disney Company. Walt created Oswald when Walt was working as an animator for Universal Studios. (That's right, Walt got his start in the business with now arch-rival Universal.) So when Walt decided to go into business for himself, he created (the suspiciously similar looking) Mickey Mouse as his "star." For decades, Oswald remained the property of Universal Studios, even long after most people at Universal forgot that they owned Walt's creation.

Until 2006. That year, Universal's NBC network bought the rights to Sunday night games from the NFL, while Disney decided to move its Monday night series of games from ABC to ESPN. What does this have to do with Oswald? Gimme a sec. Broadcaster Al Michaels had been calling Monday Night Football on ABC for 20 years and wanted to go over to NBC to call the Sunday Night Football games, rather than move to cable on ESPN. But he was under contract to Disney/ABC and couldn't sign with NBC without Disney's permission. What could Disney get from NBCUniversal in return?

That's right: Oswald. So Universal traded the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Disney for the rights to Al Michaels. True story.

Now that we've brought Universal into the conversation, let's note that Universal Studios Hollywood has brought its Waterworld stunt show back up from a major refurbishment. Universal has turned over the production of the show from its previous contractor to the same contractor who has been producing the shows at the Universal Studios theme parks in Singapore and Japan. We haven't seen the new version yet (we're planning to get over there this week), but initial reports say that Universal's added even more action to the show, which continues to provide the go-to example of how even a, uh, less-than-beloved movie can inspire a great theme park attraction. (Avatar skeptics, take note!)

Over in Orlando, Universal Orlando has matched Disney's parking price increase. It's $17 to park at Universal Orlando now, but at least you get covered parking in a garage for that price. (Well, if you arrive early enough to avoid the roof, you do.)

Finally, it seems that rumors kick up every few weeks about what's next on the chopping block for replacement at the Universal Orlando Resort. So we'd like to direct your attention to a post we ran last year detailing what's likely to stay and what's likely to go at Universal Orlando. If you're too lazy to click, here's the updated endangered attractions list:

In Universal Studios Florida:

  • Fear Factor
  • Woody Woodpecker's Kidzone
  • Shrek
  • Twister
  • Disaster!

In Islands of Adventure:

  • Lost Continent
  • Toon Lagoon

If you're a fan of any of these attractions, go seem 'em soon, because they're likely to go away within the next several years. The only thing keeping these locations open now is the fact that, even with all that income from Harry Potter, Universal still can't do everything it'd like to do at once. Plus, a resort loses promotional value by debuting too many new things at the same time.

We know that Universal is building a fifth hotel on its Orlando property. And that a new King Kong attraction will go into the space between Jurassic Park and Toon Lagoon at Islands of Adventure. We know that Wet n' Wild will be redeveloped within the next few years. We also know that designers within Universal have thought about "blue sky" plans for a Potter phase three and a phase four, with a Forbidden Forest in the Lost Continent space and a Ministry of Magic next to Diagon Alley in USF. (*Update and clarification: Theme designers do blue sky concepts on lots of stuff all the time. But until permits are filed and contractors hired, these are just concepts, not plans.) I've heard Toon Lagoon's long been tipped as the site of a Lord of the Rings land, should Universal ever secure those rights. (And, in case you're wondering, Marvel is going nowhere until Disney puts enough zeros after a number on a check to pay for Universal to obtain the rights to another IP for that land and the money to retheme and expand its attractions.)

Universal needs a stronger collection of brands and characters to appeal to kids than the tired old IP in the Kidzone. Perhaps Universal will pour some resources into its Sprout channel and bring that branding to the Kidzone. Or, perhaps it will go in another direction in that area and maybe bring a copy of California's Super Silly Fun Land onto the site of the current Shrek theater, relying on the Minions to appeal to the kids. Either way, Kidzone as we know it is toast, long term. But any changes to that land, or the others on the endangered attractions list, likely will wait until the fifth hotel, the Kong project, and possibly Wet n' Wild, have been announced and, if not completed, at least moved a long way toward completion. That gives us plenty of time to talk about all the possibilities. ;^)

Readers' Opinions

From Doug Jenkins on April 5, 2014 at 5:30 PM
Why get rid of Toon Lagoon? It has 2 of the more fun rides in the whole park! They will be forsaking the smallest customers by doing away with this and Woody Woodpecker area.
Dudley DoRight rules!
From Robert Niles on April 5, 2014 at 5:37 PM
I think Toon Lagoon might be staying for a while, as Universal doesn't seem to be making any progress on the LoTR front. (Insiders, email me if I'm wrong!) But if Universal were to get the rights to LoTR, the toons are toast.

Still, if that doesn't happen soon, Universal at least should move to ditch the newspaper comic IP in the land, as it connects with no one under the age of 40 anymore. Personally, I'd love to see more Jay Ward IP in the land to replace the newspaper stuff, but Universal's not going to make that investment so long as it sees any realistic chance that it will be gutting the whole land for a reoplacement within the next 5-10 years. That really does leave this land in limbo for now.

From 75.69.20.247 on April 5, 2014 at 5:57 PM
The trade of Oswald makes me wonder if there is some IP or other property worth enough to NBCUniversal to 'trade' as part of a deal for Marvel park rights. Patents, characters, commercial property. Maybe NBCUniversal wants the A&E cable network?

They have gotten creative in the past...

From Rob Pastor on April 5, 2014 at 6:09 PM
The Parkscope insiders that post on Orlando United were saying today that Universal will start tearing down Woody Woodpecker, Curious George and Barney in Kidzone this fall. But they didn't have info on what the replacement would be.
From Robert Niles on April 5, 2014 at 7:31 PM
To the anoymous comment above: I have heard that Steven Spielberg almost was part of a trade for the Marvel Orlando theme park rights, before he decided to stay with Dreamworks (which has a distribution deal now with Disney) and not return to Universal.
From José María Sandoval on April 5, 2014 at 9:22 PM
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit looks great!
From 68.58.203.160 on April 5, 2014 at 10:00 PM
Does Universal have the right to continue building new Marvel attractions in IOA?

Could they legally retheme Hulk into an Avengers coaster or build a new Thor dark ride?

From Robert Niles on April 5, 2014 at 10:01 PM
No.
From Anon Mouse on April 5, 2014 at 11:13 PM
What does Universal have to replace all the existing characters in Kidszone and DreamWorks? Whether they are "tired" is irrelevant. Kids enjoy them. Disney has no problem with recycling old characters constantly. In fact, they are doing it in Tokyo. Oh well. It seems like Universal is left with few options. Sprouts is a cable channel. It isn't a particular character. Sprouts features shows like Dora The Explorer, which Universal has sold Dora products in the park, but I doubt they own or license the characters as a theme park attraction.
From Anthony Murphy on April 6, 2014 at 7:21 AM
I am a little concerned about the Lost Continent, what I give the best land in all of IOA. I mean, there is Mythos and while the Posiden thing is a little corny, it has some impressive effects.

I also am a big fan of Disaster. I was very impressed with it last year.

From Gabriel Schroll on April 6, 2014 at 9:24 AM
I must have missed the articles or news on Universal's fifth hotel. Can someone enlighten me? Does it have a name? A theme? Where is it going to be built? Any timeframe? Will it be another moderate/value-style hotel like Cabana Bay, or will it be another deluxe resort like the original three?

And regarding the Wet 'N Wild property redevelopment, does anyone know if that means it's going to remain a water park? Or will Universal consider razing that whole plot and perhaps put a hotel or another park there, with some kind of skybridge or themed overpass for pedestrians connecting it to the rest of their property across the highway?

Finally, I agree about getting rid of the newspaper area in IoA, but the water rides in Toon Lagoon are both great, not only for the fun of the ride, but for the impact on the landcape and aesthetics. I would really hate to see Toon Lagoon disappear in favor of LoTR.

From 75.146.54.21 on April 6, 2014 at 8:54 AM
My family and I would be extremely disappointed if Toon Lagoon went away. To us, it is the VERY HEART of IOA. The Popeye ride is the best water raft ride we are aware of for both theming and the ride. We also love Dudley DoRight - it could perhaps use a little more animatronic magic but nothing more.

Toon Lagoon adds an immensely appealing sense of whimsy and lightness to IOA. It could be freshened a bit with some new character/storylines, but PLEASE retain the basic structure / concept and the two rides that are among the best themed water rides in the world.

That is the biggest concern we have with the proposed Demolition list. We also do really like Disaster and Twister, but not as much as Toon Lagoon. Fear Factor, Sinbad, Barney and Curious George can go away. Woody Woodpecker is fun for little ones but could be rethemed if necessary. (Reducing the number of family coasters is a bad idea.) We like Poseidon, Mythos and the Lost Continent theming, but it probably ultimately will make sense to annex it into Harry Potter.

Jay S.

From Eli Grabelsky on April 6, 2014 at 9:36 AM
Why Toon Lagoon? Those water rides are amazing I would hate to see them go! Probably the best in Orlando.

As for middle earth, why not just tear down that bottom corner of the park (Hollywood and the Kidzone) and make LoTR there? Other than maybe the Horror-Make up show, what is there? Everything (including T2 3D) is outdated. When I went in October to the show (in the middle of a 90 degree day none the less!) it was 2/3 empty. The IPs in both areas need changing. Am I crazy?

From 200.140.33.76 on April 6, 2014 at 12:15 PM
Disney, please put Oswald at all Disney Parks well as Disney Cruises.
From Marc Ricketts on April 6, 2014 at 8:24 PM
The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio was founded 10-16-1923. Oswald shorts were produced by this company and distributed by Winkler Pictures through Universal. Margaret Winkler married Charles Mintz. Mintz wanted to renew the contract for Oswald at a lower rate, Walt refused, Universal owned the rights to Oswald, Mintz lured all the Disney animators except Ub Iwerks to his studio, and, as legend goes, Walt created Mickey on the return train from New York back to California. However, Walt Disney was never a Universal employee; they just distributed his company's films.
From Joseph Smith on April 7, 2014 at 6:38 AM
Or, Universal could invest in bringing its Woody Woodpecker IP and others back to relevance, perhaps on Sprout. Disney is a master at this: Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and now the Mickey Mouse shorts were done to make sure kids keep connecting with the Mouse, and not just see him as an unrelatable giant costume character once every few years.

You don't need to constantly rip out IP properties; they can be invested in. There was an article in Businessweek recently about how Marvel went into the movie biz (pre-Disney) to keep merch sales more consistent, as they were sick of the stock swings while waiting for Sony and Fox to make a Spider-Man or X-Man film. Universal should think similarly with its in-park IP properties for the benefit of Comcast as a whole.

Also, Robert, you seem to want it both ways: "tired IP" doesn't work for Toon Lagoon, but it's fine for Waterworld and Avatar? I don't think many kids today at Disneyland know Mr. Toad, but they sure seem to like the ride.

From 173.227.104.102 on April 7, 2014 at 9:56 AM
I still think Toon Lagoon would be awesome if they re-themed everything Ice Age...
From Tony Bartlett on April 7, 2014 at 4:47 PM
I'm surprised Universal never tried to lock up the theme park rights to the Dreamworks cartoons characters in the US. I mean they really could have used the Madagascar characters, How To Train your Dragon, other characters from the Shrek movies & more. They could have been plenty of walk around characters and Dudley Do-Right if it had to be rethemed could have been theme to Madagascar style ride. Imagine the backstory behind it that could have been created or the penguins from those movies. Toon Lagoon could have definitely been rethemed to those characters. Unfortunately I think another US park has the rights to those characters now. Smh.
From 24.218.30.249 on April 7, 2014 at 5:07 PM
Loved the Oswald story. Thanks for sharing!

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