By NOLA L. SARKISIAN
It’s billed as an ultimate thrill ride, the most technologically advanced, the most sophisticated and the most expensive live-action film ever produced (at least when you consider that it’s only 12 minutes long).
But does star Arnold Schwarzenegger have enough muscle to reverse the fortunes at Universal Studios Hollywood, which is coming off a slow year in 1998?
Schwarzenegger reprises his role as a killer robot from the future in “Terminator 2:3D,” a three-dimensional movie combined with live-action entertainment that debuts May 6. It’s the first major new attraction at the park since the summer of 1996, when “Jurassic Park The Ride,” a $100 million attraction, helped boost attendance 15 percent that year.
“Typically, a major ride addition will provide theme parks with a 5 to 10 percent annual jolt in attendance for the first year and, depending on the ride, like ‘Terminator,’ it could be more,” said John Robinett, senior vice president of Los Angeles-based Economics Research Associates, an entertainment and leisure consulting firm.
Robinett is bullish on Universal’s newest attraction.
“‘Terminator 2’ is considered the best show in the industry,” he said. “It has the best combination of audio-animatronics, live entertainment and special effects in a live setting. It’s the benchmark for the industry in terms of show production.”
If visitors agree, it will be good news for Universal. Last year, attendance at the park fell by 5 percent, to 5.1 million visitors.
Universal wasn’t alone; 1998 was one of the worst years in recent history at U.S. theme parks, with attendance falling by an average of 1 percent the first decline since 1991. Southern California theme parks were especially hard hit. At Six Flags Magic Mountain, attendance fell 9 percent and there were 8 percent fewer visitors at Disneyland.
“Everybody slipped last year,” said Tim O’Brien, an editor at Nashville, Tenn.-based Amusement Business, an industry trade letter. “There’s still very much of an appetite out there. More money is being put into theme parks now than at any time.”
Although Universal is spending heavily on a campaign to promote the new attraction, park officials refused all comment on “T2.” Asked if that were a bit unusual, park spokesman Eliot Sekuler replied, “Yeah, it’s unusual.”
Universal has pouring big bucks into its theme park since 1990, when a $100 million expansion was built following a devastating fire on the studio’s back lot. The rebuilt park featured a streamlined Back Lot Tram Tour, a quarter-mile escalator that allowed access to other studio areas and a new attraction based on the hit film “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.”
Other new attractions included “Backdraft” in 1992, the $60 million “Back to the Future The Ride” in 1993 and “Waterworld A Live Sea War Spectacular” in 1995.
Nonetheless, Universal has been criticized for not pumping enough money into its local park for renovations and new attractions. Much of the blame is given to Japanese-based electronics maker Matsushita, the company’s former owner. Montreal-based Seagram Co. Ltd. bought an 80 percent ownership stake in Universal Studios in 1995 for $5.7 billion.
“Universal is happier having Seagram as a parent rather than Matsushita,” Robinett said. “They didn’t understand the constant need to reinvent in the entertainment business. They were very conservative about letting Universal try new things.”
“T2” could be a step in the right direction. The hefty $60 million to $70 million price tag is evidence of the importance Universal is placing on its new addition. The ride opened at the park’s sister facility in Orlando in 1996 at a cost of $62 million and is still the No. 1 attraction there.
Although Robinett believes “T2” will be a hit, he cautions that the drawing power of new attractions tends to erode after one to three years.
“Often the impact depends on what’s going on,” he said. “If the weather is bad, if the economy is bad, then it can fall quicker.”
Of course, there’s no forecasting the weather or summer tourism. The drop in attendance at local and national theme parks last year has been blamed largely on the Asian economic crisis, which devalued Asian currencies versus the dollar and discouraged Asians from travelling here.
The T2 attraction combines live actors with 3-D images beamed on three 50-foot-high screens. A Schwarzenegger lookalike rides onstage on a custom-built Harley Davidson “Fat Boy,” and rides off only to appear again on screen. The show was created by director James Cameron, creature specialist Stan Winston and Landmark Entertainment Group.
“The Florida attraction still gets standing ovations. And it has acceptance from kids to teen-agers to adults,” said Landmark Chairman Gary Goddard. “People will come back to this again and again, because there’s so much information to absorb.”
Despite the time gap between the 1991 movie “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” and the attraction based on the movie, the Terminator series still carries enough pull to attract an audience.
“Anytime an attraction is based on a hit film, there’s a built-in audience recognition and likelihood that people will respond to the brand name,” said Dean Lamanna, the West Coast bureau chief for Amusement Today, an industry trade publication.