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The spooktacular must go on



Life is full of not-so-little ironies these days.

Think back to Sept. 11. If that had been a typical Tuesday in Central Florida, it would have been the night Universal Orlando's entertainment staff began rehearsals with all of the extras hired to carry out the company's 11th edition of "Hallo-ween Horror Nights" at Universal Studios Florida. But, faced with the real-life horrors in New York City and Washington that morning, teaching would-be ghouls how to frighten tourists didn't seem all that important anymore. That night's rehearsal was canceled.

In the weeks since, Universal has moved cautiously. Some senior staffers suggested that, since the public is frightened enough, it would show incredibly poor taste to go forward with an event meant to spook people. Universal Orlando's management responded by asking the entertainment staff to go over the scripts for every single show scheduled to delete any inappropriate material.

But, beyond that, the horror events would go on. Canceling this Central Florida tradition (or even scaling back from its scheduled 19 evenings) was never really an option. Terrorists or no terrorists, Universal needs the popular seasonal spooktacular. The unfortunate events in Washington and New York City already have had a huge impact on the bottom line; "Horror Nights," it is hoped, would make up for some of the stunning losses.

In the week after the attacks, attendance at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure was so low that execs toyed with closing the parks on alternating days to cut costs. With attendance on the rise, that idea has been scrapped -- for now, at least. But just like Disney, Universal has been cutting hours for its full-time employees and telling part-timers not to report for work at all.

The real irony here is that the resort's parent company, Vivendi Universal, came through last month's debacle on Wall Street looking good. Indeed, during the week in which shares of Disney stock lost nearly 20 percent of their value, CEO Jean Marie Messier boasted that -- in spite of woes tied to the terrorist assault -- Vivendi Universal still expected to meet its goals for profit and sales for the year.

Of course, some of that confidence may result from the smashing success of Universal Studios Japan. When that park opened in Osaka on March 31, Vivendi Universal had modest expectations, hoping for just eight million visitors during its first year.

Imagine the surprise and delight when the one-millionth customer come through the gate 37 days later. If those attendance levels hold, the Osaka park could see more than 10 million visitors this year, making it one of the top attractions in all of Japan.

No wonder Vivendi Universal is anxious to expand into the international theme-park market. In July, it signed a letter of intent with Malaysia's Renong Corp. to build a $2.2 billion theme park/resort complex near Singapore.

With the Malaysian project in the works -- plus plans to fast-track three new attractions to quickly increase capacity in Osaka -- you'd think that Universal Creative, the folks who design all those rides and shows, would be thrilled.

Truth be told, this troupe of designers is kind of shell-shocked at the moment. You see, much of Vivendi Universal's design team relocated to Central Florida from Southern California only this past spring. They did so with the understanding that Universal Orlando, with a possible third theme park and the likely expansion of its two existing parks, would soon be the hub of Universal Creative's activities. But after Sept. 11, all bets are off when it comes to Universal and Florida.

The proposed revamp of Islands of Adventures' "The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad" has been tabled. Work on a new Nickelodeon-themed attraction for the Universal Studios park, which was due to break ground this fall, has been halted as well. Even fixes for the recently reopened "Poseidon's Fury: Escape from Atlantis" -- on which Universal spent $3 million for repairs, only to have guests complain that it's worse than before -- have been scrubbed.

The designers are now wondering if it was such a smart idea to leave Los Angeles. Faced with the real-life horrors of a work slowdown or layoffs, it's understandable that the Universal Creative team doesn't find any of the pretend zombies shambling around the studio particularly frightening. You want to really scare a theme-park designer these days? Drop by their office dressed as a pink slip.

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