ORLANDO, FLA., JUNE 6 -- If this were the movies, it would be the ultimate summer horror flick -- "King Kong vs. Mickey Mouse."
But this is real life -- as real as it ever gets in Orlando, home to more artificial landscapes than anyplace else in the world -- and if Kong won't literally rampage down Main Street in Disney World, his creators are banking that his arrival in Florida at least will squash some of Disney's business.
Kong is one of the main attractions at Universal Studios' new theme park, which opens here Thursday, and if you believe his handlers, the giant beast can hardly wait to get his hairy fist around the lovable rodent's scrawny neck. And Disney's purse ($29 a day admission at Universal, $31 at Disney).
If Kong and his hot banana breath -- exhaled onto those who take a tram ride through Manhattan -- isn't enough to convert Disney fans, there's always E.T., the Flintstones, Woody Woodpecker, the Ghostbusters (complete with a back-lot kitchen that manufactures Slime), Yogi the Bear and six or seven killer sharks from Universal's don't-go-near-the-water movie, "Jaws."
Over at Disney World, a mere 12 miles down the freeway, the mood isn't just subdued, it's ho-hum. So great is Disney's grasp on Orlando that it doesn't even consider Universal competition -- just another addition to the collection of tourist attractions that have sprung up in its shadow.
"We consider Walt Disney World as an entity," sniffs Charlie Ridgway, a Disney promoter since Walt opened the original out in Anaheim, Calif. "You can't compare it as a theme park. It's not just one park, it's a multifaceted experience."
In Disney-speak, it is described as the "total Disney experience."
Universal is too new to town to be so smug. But a bit of bravado never hurt the new kid on the block.
Jay Stein, president of Universal Studios Florida, wears a T-shirt showing Mickey dangling over an open-jawed great white. One rumor sweeping the park has it that a pair of mouse ears floats to the surface at one point on a ride around a shark-infested lagoon.
And despite Disney's scale, comparisons are inevitable -- mostly to Disney's third and latest theme park, Disney-MGM Studios.
Publicists guiding tours through Universal's New York note that its replica is full size, while while Disney's version of the Big Apple is only three-quarter size.
"We have 15 rides, shows and attractions, and Disney-MGM has half a dozen" says Steven Lew, chief operating officer.
Indeed, Bigger Is Better does seem to be central Florida's motto. Orlando's statistics that show it as the nation's fastest-growing city and the world's biggest tourist attraction are published and hyped to every one of the 10 million tourists who visit here annually.
This is a place where "theme" is a verb. Universal's arrival brings the number of theme parks, entertainment centers and wildlife attractions to 15, and adds one more gem to Orlando's treasure of artificial rain forests, mermaid pools, and fake wild West towns. Even the wilderness areas are man-made here. But then, that may be because most of the state is man-made, dating back to the days when Florida's pioneers, the bankers and real estate brokers, drained the swamps, subdivided them and marketed lots as paradise to dreamers up North.
In central Florida, where the theme parks are clustered in what used to be mosquito-infested scrubland and marsh, it seems that the only type of terrain that does not seem to be "themed" here is Florida's itself -- although Universal has corrected that oversight somewhat with the construction of an attraction that will be used as a set for a new TV series, "Swamp Thing."
Disney, of course, has raised theming to an art form. No need for a Caribbean vacation. Disney's taken care of that with its Caribbean Village, featuring different colored huts, each with a "special decor that makes it Aruba or Jamaica or Martinique or Barbados or Trinidad," according to the literature.
And if you don't want to drive to one of Florida's real attractions, the Atlantic Ocean, you can swim in computerized wave action at Disney's own fake beach.
Disney is not so blase about competition that it is sitting still. It has added the Muppets and a Dick Tracy song-and-dance revue to the roster at MGM-Studios. Plans are underway to "theme" five new resorts here, including a miniature New Orleans, a backwater bayou, a New England seaside and the Mediterranean coast.
"It's not just the shape of the buildings," Ridgway says by way of explaining why tourists would prefer Disney's version of New Orleans to the real thing. "Everybody who works there plays the part. They're part of a cast, and people don't do that in a real city. Then you have the cleanliness, the colors, the music, the attention to detail. You don't have those things in a real city."
Disney's New Orleans also doesn't have the homeless.
"Yes, and that's another reason," he says.
Perhaps in an effort to out-snob the old pros down at Disney, Universal claims to be not a theme park but the real thing. A real live movie studio, bigger than Disney's (200 acres to Disney-MGM's 100), where visitors can see the movie business's version of reality.
Of course the bicycle trip to E.T.'s planet, the Kongfrontation, the Ghostbusters ride and the "Jaws" voyage are there in full theme park fashion, to tantalize visitors, Lew says, like toys in a toy box.
Lew expects to draw 6 million visitors a year to Universal's park -- er, back lot. (Disney, by comparison, attracted 23 million in 1985, the last year it released attendance figures, which was before Disney-MGM opened).
So who has the best toys?
Stephen Johnson, 8, who met Mickey years ago, dropped by Universal for a sample this week. He rode the E.T. bicycle and hugged Lassie, then stopped in the evening for a few snapshots with Woody Woodpecker and Yogi the Bear.
Johnson said he liked Universal all right, but he liked Disney World too.
His all-time favorite right now? "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," he replied promptly, and with a grin.