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Who started the theme park war between Disney and Universal? This guy

October 24, 2016, 9:26 PM · How did we get from Disneyland, 60-some years ago, to the multi-billion-dollar theme park industry today? If you want to know that answer, you can't look just at what the Walt Disney Company has done for the past six decades. No, to understand truly the modern theme park business, you need to look up the road at what Universal has accomplished, as well.

That's the lesson in Sam Gennawey's latest, JayBangs: How Jay Stein, MCA, & Universal Invented the Modern Theme Park and Beat Disney at Its Own Game. It traces the career of Jay Stein, who literally worked his way up from the mailroom at MCA [Universal Studios' former, long-time owner] to become the head of MCA's Recreation Division, the forerunner of Universal Parks & Resorts. Jay was the driving force behind the creation of Universal Studios Florida, and his competitive spirit continues to animate the creative and business battle between Universal Orlando and the Walt Disney World Resort that rages today.

If you're wondering about the unusual title, "JayBangs" were what his colleagues called the moments in a theme park attraction that elicited a physical reaction from the audience — moments without which Jay never would approve an attraction to be built.

"It was that moment when the guest would be stunned, shocked, surprised, emotionally moved, dropped, splashed with water, or blasted with air, heat, or cold," Sam wrote. And they are the moments that should by now be very familiar to anyone who's ridden Jaws, Earthquake, Kongfrontation, or any of the Universal attractions that followed and honor that tradition.

Sam's book reads as a never-ending collection of war stories from Jay and many of the people who worked for and with him over the years. They start with Jay's battle to carve space for the Studio Tour on the Universal City lot, through a contentious relationship with former Disney chairman Michael Eisner and the Walt Disney Company as Universal looked to expand in Florida, leading to the opening of Universal Studios Florida and Jay's sudden decision to walk away — at the height of his career — when MCA was taken over by foreign owners.

I talked with Sam today about how he got to know Jay Stein and what theme park fans can learn from his story.

Robert: In the book, you write about Jay reaching out to you via email. Was that the first contact you'd had with him? How did that develop into interviewing him for the book?

Sam: When I was doing the background research for Universal vs. Disney, the thing I was learning was that Jay Stein was the primary player. At that time, I was really dealing with a lot of the creative guys — Terry Winnick, Gary Goddard, Peter Alexander and so forth — and as I was talking with each one of them, they would say, 'Oh, are you talking with Jay? Nah, he wouldn't talk with you. He won't talk with anyone.' I tried contacting him [and got nothing], so I went ahead and wrote "Universal vs. Disney."

Then in January, he wrote me and that's why I put that [email] as the opening statement in the book. So we exchanged some emails; we talked on the phone a little bit. He was very skeptical about the whole idea of a book. He's very much from the MCA culture, where the star is the star and you [the corporate executive] stay in the background. That's what a proper MCA person does, so he never thought that anyone would be very interested in that sort of thing.

Robert: Why did Jay want to talk, after all these years?

Sam: Apparently, he was handed the book [Universal vs. Disney] from Terry Winnick's widow during his memorial ceremony and he was disappointed, I think, that some people within the book took more credit for their contributions than they did, and it became very important for him to make people recognize that it was a very collaborative process in creating the Universal parks. He felt that, at this point, if he didn't speak up, "Universal vs. Disney" would have been the de facto story of the park.

He invited me up his house in Montecito, and I went up there a couple days and interviewed him. After that, we kept writing and talking and then he started hooking me up with everybody else, as well. Ron Bension [who followed Jay as President of the MCA Recreation Division], Dan Slusser [former Senior Vice President and General Manager at the parks] — basically, if you were at the top of the food chain at MCA before it got sold to Seagram's, and you're alive and have your senses with you — I talked with them all. Even [former MCA President] Sid Sheinberg participated, too.

When he left the business, he left the business. He did rather well when MCA got bought out. He was living in a rented house, next door to Kevin Costner, his landlord, on the Ventura coast. And he was very happy with that. He had not visited Universal Studios Florida until two-and-a-half, three weeks ago, but his 10-year-old granddaughter really wanted to see Harry Potter and that was the first time that he went back in 25 years. Imagine that.

Robert: What did you see in Jay's story that drove him to become so competitive with Disney?

Sam: It was MCA. It was the whole MCA culture. I think he's very pleased with Comcast's care-taking of the parks. They have the same sort of vicious revenge motivation. [NBCUniversal President and former Disney executive] Steve Burke is passed over by Paul Pressler [who succeeded Burke as head of the Disney Stores then took over the Disney theme parks]. First, [Comcast] wanted to buy Disney, and didn't do it. Then, they bought Universal and [Burke] is just slapping them around and showing them how you do it right. It's the whole MCA thing, which is that you eat everybody up and that you are the dominant player.

In this particular case [back before Universal Orlando], what Universal had going on in Hollywood and what Disney had going on in Anaheim seemed to work out really well for both parties and they were pretty happy with it. When it came to Florida, Universal would have been just happy to do the same sort of thing — build another movie studio with a tour built around it and supplement what Disney was doing. Jay would have been quite happy with that.

Robert: But then Michael Eisner goes ahead and builds Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World.

Sam: The entire story between the two companies is that Michael Eisner pissed off [late MCA chairman] Lew Wasserman, and Lew Wasserman just wanted to remind Michael Eisner that he was the more powerful guy. In a weird sort of way, Eisner created the enemy he never needed. Nobody decided at all that they were going to compete. And he woke up that giant he didn't really need to have [against him].

Robert: Let's talk about the bombshell on page 93. How did you react when he first told you about that? [No, I'm not going to tell you what it is — you'll have to buy the book! Or, you probably could infer it from the exchange below.]

Sam: That was great. That one, he was like, 'I'm going to take this to the grave.' That was [our] first meeting. By the second meeting, he saw that I was genuine; he saw how the writing was shaping up, and that's when he revealed it. I was able to confirm with [former MCA business and legal affairs VP] Tony Sauber and Robert Finkelstein, who wrote the foreword to the book. I just thought, 'Wow... you know, that makes real sense.'

Then I wanted to confirm [late Disney president] Frank Wells' discontent with [former Disney Attractions president] Dick Nunis, so I started checking around with my other Disney historian friends. And, to a person, they agreed, 'Oh yeah, Wells just didn't really like Nunis.' And it made sense, because fundamentally Jay was a Hollywood guy. He was going to be a showbiz guy. He just got this [job running the Studio Tour and theme parks] because if you're offered to be a president of a division at MCA at 26, you're probably going to say yes. Wells understood him. They were cut from the same cloth. And Dick Nunis, of course, wasn't. I just thought, wow, that would have changed everything.

I think, personally, it would have been very tough for Jay to leave MCA. But if he could have run all the Disney parks, I think we would have jumped at the chance.

Robert: It kills me that the history of the theme park industry might have changed due to a future member of the Kardashian clan.

Sam: "It's nothing, Frank. It's Bruce Jenner. He does this all the time." [Sam laughs at his quote from the book. For context, Bruce — now Caitlin — Jenner was flying a helicopter over the house where Jay and Frank Wells were meeting that day, annoying Wells to the point where he left before making any deal with Jay.]

Robert: After reading the book, if there's another word to describe Jay in addition to 'competitive,' it'd be 'clairvoyant.' Not only did he see where Universal needed to go, years before they went there, he also saw the mess that Universal management was about to become, starting with the Matsushita [Panasonic] take-over (which eventually led to Seagram's and Vivendi before finally becoming part of NBC and Comcast). Talking with him now, did you get the sense that he's comfortable with the decisions he made or did you see someone who'd wished he'd done things differently?

Sam: He knew the way that the MCA guys operated and that Japanese weren't going to get it. He just knew that they [Matsushita] had a corporate culture that would never work for MCA.

Jay was clairvoyant. He knew the way that the business inevitably was going to be. He knew it was going to be about intellectual property. He knew that you had to be able to exchange the technology more frequently to make it financially worthwhile, that Disney always burdened itself with too much expense and there was a smarter way of doing it. And he predicted the way that theme parks are designed now, which is that you generally have a small corporate staff working for you, using a lot of outsiders — that whole project-management model, which was very not-Disney, but Universal set that path and now Disney follows that, as well.

Robert: After reporting and writing this book, where do you see Jay Stein among the people who made this industry what it is today?

Sam: I agree with Gary Goddard. Walt's the first breath [of the industry], and realistically, Jay's the next breath. He really did invent the modern theme park. The type of experience that we today are going to, and in which parks are investing billions and billions of dollars, is not based on Walt Disney's vision — and I can say that. I've studied it so hard. All theme parks are becoming Jay-type theme parks, not Walt Disney-type theme parks.

Comcast is now committed to following the same sort of playbook that Jay followed — it all comes back to Hollywood revenge. This business is basically big, rich guys pissing all over each other. The business was that way then, and today it's the same thing. It's Steve Burke saying, 'Wow, you hired the same guy who succeeded me because he sold Frozen merchandise? [Bob Chapek, the former Disney Stores boss who now runs Disney Parks and Resorts]' That's the theme park business now — it's still part of show business.

Want the book?

Replies (11)

October 24, 2016 at 10:00 PM · That's the reason why I'm moving to the smaller non-IP driven theme parks. To me Knott's, Efteling, etc. are more Disney than Disney is now.
October 25, 2016 at 5:58 AM · Great interview, Robert! I'm definitely going to get a copy of that book!
October 25, 2016 at 7:40 AM · This will irk Disney fans who don't want more IP in the parks, but Universal was never about original ideas. The writing is on the wall. I'll have to read page 93. Disney is about Imagineering and unique rides. It does seems like original attractions at Disney go on to become movies. Universal is having a brain freeze with its recent management change. Harry Potter has its limits.

It amazing how the theme park industry is so driven by Hollywood. No wonder smaller company struggle while bigger companies rake in millions.

October 25, 2016 at 9:00 AM · Anon, seems to me Disney is all about Imagineering and then cutting them off at the knees by slashing budgets. But I don't think that's what pg 93 is about.

Sam has a column (irregularly) on another site where he writes about what I believe pg 93 is about. (Damn. That sentence sucks.)

October 25, 2016 at 9:05 AM · Terrific stuff, Robert. These titles are must read stuff for people like us. And Anon Mouse's spot on comment about Hollywood's influence on the theme park industry can be extended to include the comic book business as well. Look at the presence of the major studios and (video game developers/publishers) at an event like San Diego Comic Con. Same audience, apparently; count me among them. Thanks again.
October 25, 2016 at 11:17 AM · @Mark: Since you don't know what's in page 93 either, what are you correcting me for? I was just giving my thoughts on the article.
October 25, 2016 at 9:25 AM · I definitely will buy the book. Fascinating stuff. But bottom line: Give people they want to spend their money on, and they will. I know, I live in Orlando.
October 25, 2016 at 12:44 PM · Tokyo Disney Sea did not follow the IP, outsourced model that is presented in this article (Indiana Jones and The Little Mermaid were the only IP attractions there). Unfortunately even the great TDS is moving into this way of thinking (I'm looking at you Finding Dory and Toy Story).
October 25, 2016 at 2:29 PM · TDS had plenty of IP in it, including Indiana Jones and The Little Mermaid from Disney. Some additional IP was park original (SEA) and others were public domain (Sindbad, Jules Verne). But I wouldn't call TDS an IP-free park by any measure.
October 25, 2016 at 5:06 PM · It's quite a stretch to say that Universal "beat Disney at its own game", considering that Disney is still, by far, the worldwide attendance leader in the industry. That's the kind of hyperbole that might sell more books.

Maybe they beat Disney in some ways for some years, for example in more cutting-edge ride development. Today I'd say that Disney is outdoing its rival in that area, as well (compare the new Pirates ride in Shanghai to the new Kong ride in Orlando, for example). Universal has been stuck in a holding pattern of 3D/simulators for too long.

Plus, Disney no longer undercuts Imagineering with budget slashing (they are spending billions on Pandora and the upcoming Star Wars lands). Granted, that may be due to the competition from Universal. But, whatever the reason, I don't feel today that Universal is outdoing Disney.

Overall, although I'm a fan of both companies' parks, I think Disney still offers the most complete theme park experience. From nostalgia to technologically advanced rides, to parades, fireworks, meet and greets, water parks and themed restaurants, they offer the best package deal.

October 29, 2016 at 11:12 AM · I never expected this to be such an interesting book, but Gennawey really captures some fascinating stories and fills in the blanks beautifully. I found Jay to be a wise businessman; I think there was a lot of influence by his own father, who is mentioned a couple of times in the book as it pertains to Jay's work ethic. A phenomenal work ethic it was, and how cool to be working at something with such passion. I can't believe all of the drama he went through to reach his goals! It truly is something that feels like it is torn from the pages of the Hollywood screenplay from the old days! This is a very satisfying read.

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