Someone could turn the epic clash into a theme park attraction and call it "Tour Wars." The fight -- between the world of Disney and the company that runs the fa- mous Universal Studios Tour -- is already five years old, and it isn't over yet. In fact, it may have barely begun. Just outside Orlando, Fla., at Disney World, the Disney-MGM Theme Park opened May 1. About 12 miles down the road, if all goes according to plan, MCA's new Universal Studios-Florida Tour will open a year from now. The trouble? MCA claims Disney took its idea, virtually copied its plan for a Florida studio tour -- a contention Disney denies. Pitted against each other are two top entertainment executives who once were friends: Michael Eisner, the chairman of the Walt Disney Co.; and at MCA, President Sidney J. Sheinberg. And the stakes are high -- more than $1 billion is being invested in the two parks alone. "My feeling is that Orlando is not too small to handle both tours," said financial analyst Lisbeth Barron, who covers the entertainment industry for McKinley Allsopp, a New York-based investment banking firm. Barron believes that the Disney tour could attract 5 million customers in its opening year and that Universal Studios-Florida could draw 4 million its first year. But peaceful coexistence seems out of reach at the moment. "This is not the same as two companies competing for a movie or TV slot," Sheinberg said. "{The studio tour business} had been something we had developed over 25 years. This business doesn't exist anywhere else in America to my knowledge." The Universal Studios Tour in the San Fernando Valley's Universal City has been unchallenged as a studio tour -- nobody else has one in operation. And MCA, parent company of Universal Studios, apparently expected no competition in 1981 when it bought land near Orlando for its second studio tour facility. But in 1985, Disney Chairman Eisner announced that his company would build a Florida movie studio and tour at the already successful Disney World. MCA claims that Disney took its plans for Universal Studios-Florida in an attempt to delay the MCA project or drive it from Florida altogether. Says MCA President Sheinberg: "When it came to our horrible realization that they {Disney} were going to do what they were going to do, there was a horrible sense of personal and corporate betrayal." As MCA's version of the story goes, Eisner may have become aware of MCA's plans for a tour at a July 1981 meeting when MCA presented its plans to Paramount executives because it was seeking a financial partner for its expansion into Florida. At the time, Eisner was president of Paramount, the first company that MCA wooed. Sheinberg, citing "very strong personal and business relations" that existed between the two companies, says, "It would have been unthinkable that we would have discussed this first with any company other than Paramount." Eisner and Barry Diller, then chairman of Paramount and now chairman of 20th Century Fox, were Sheinberg's "two best, most trusted friends," an MCA source recalls. Although Eisner and other Disney officials refused to give interviews for this article, a Disney spokesman, in response to a written inquiry about MCA's contentions, denied "categorically: (a) that Disney ever stole, borrowed or misappropriated anyone else's ideas for the Disney-MGM Studios -- or that Disney will ever do so, or would have to do so; and (b) that Michael Eisner saw or discussed any plans or drawings of anyone else's studio tour proposals before or after he came to Disney." To back its claims, MCA has now publicly revealed its 1981 tour plans, previously shown only to potential backers, pointing out what it calls remarkable similarities between the Disney tour and MCA's original design for Universal Studios-Florida. Jay Stein, MCA's chief tour executive, says his company was forced to completely restructure its Florida tour in light of the similarities. The restructuring added "tens of millions to the cost," Stein says. "It isn't just the redesigning. It was the addition of new attractions and shows, expanded streets and restaurants, that were not contemplated in 1981. It all relates to the fact that Disney took what we had, and we had to fish or cut bait." MCA says it is spending $500 million, up from the originally projected $200 million. Disney originally announced its tour park would cost $300 million, but according to one source is spending $550 million. The company has refused to disclose any new figure. (MGM is not a partner in the tour; Disney has licensed MGM's name and some of its entertainment properties.) Stein and MCA Executive Vice President Barry Upson maintain that 65 to 70 percent of the elements on Disney's tour are "borrowed" from Universal's '81 plans. They say the most striking similarities exist between Disney's "Catastrophe Canyon," an adventure ride segment on its back-lot tram tour, and parts of MCA's original plans that included an earthquake ride. Disney's promotional literature says "Catastrophe Canyon" tram riders "will find themselves looking up canyon walls, a vacation experience never before offered Florida vacationers. But the setting is as ominous as it is unusual. Ground tremors quickly swell into a full-fledged earthquake. A power pole falls onto a railroad tank car, starting a fire. A bridge on which the car rests collapses. Explosions soon follow and fire is everywhere. Flames soon climb up the side of the hill toward a large oil-storage tank at the top of the mountain igniting an enormous fire ball." Finally, "a giant wall of water comes rushing down the hill toward the tram, a major league flash flood ..." MCA's 1981 plans, illustrated in a slide show and large color renderings, show a tram in "Hollywood Canyon" on a back-lot Florida tram tour. As tremors shake the tram car, power lines snap and the ground beneath cracks. A dam in the "Hollywood Hills" above also cracks, sending down a wall of water. Later, a bridge beneath the tram collapses and the tram pulls into an oil field (a scene from the John Wayne movie "Hellfighters"). A truck slides on oil, crashing into a tank and causing a fiery oil well explosion. According to Universal's former vice president for shows and attractions, Terry Winnick, the ideas for an earthquake, dam break/flash flood and oil well explosion were created by a handful of MCA tour designers and executives, including himself. None of the designers involved worked at Disney before or after the Universal tour was developed in the mid-'70s, says Winnick, who is now an independent theme park consultant with Universal Studios-Florida as one of his clients. By the time MCA began showing the plan to potential financial partners in 1981, "We had six or seven years of hard, hard work in," Winnick says. Asked why MCA chose to disclose the old tour plans, given that its focus now is on its new attractions and new tour, Stein says, "I just think that when you work as hard as we did in trying to get this program and studio tour off the ground -- and this is a project that I have worked on for 20 years -- then you see someone come along and take your ideas and ... incorporate them in their project and say that this was their idea, {that} this was conceived by the {Disney} Imagineers, that just makes me angry." In light of Disney's "Catastrophe Canyon," MCA scrapped its "Hollywood Canyon" fire and flood, and put its earthquake in a different setting. When it opens, MCA's new tour will be vastly different from the one in California, and from the 1981 plans. Among the 15 new attractions MCA has designed for the Florida tour are a special effects show and ride based on "Ghostbusters"; Steven Speilberg-designed "ET" and "Back to the Future" rides; and a "Murder She Wrote" theater in which guests will act as executive producers, choosing good guys, bad guys, plots and sound effects, among other elements. "The point is," says Peter Alexander, vice president for shows and attractions at Universal-Florida, "if we could use our imaginations and come up with something totally different, why couldn't they?" According to MCA's records, the company presented its Florida plan to Paramount executives on July 29, 1981. For about two hours, the group viewed a slide show that moved through the planned tour's attractions, street by street. The slide show was supplemented by blueprints, color renderings and live presentation by MCA staffers that covered such minutiae as the rate of return on investment through the year 2004 and the probable impact of a future gasoline shortage on a family of four planning a car vacation to Florida. Exactly who was at the presentation is not clear. There is no dispute that Sheinberg hosted the meeting and that Paramount Chairman Diller and Arthur Barron, then executive vice president of Paramount and now a semiretired Gulf & Western executive, were there. While Disney denies that Eisner ever saw any plans during this period there is some uncertainty among those who attended about Eisner's presence. Peter Kingston, then an MCA development executive and now president of South Pasadena-based Day Ray Products, said, "Michael Eisner was very definitely there. That's the only time I've ever met the man. He asked very intelligent questions. I was very impressed by his grasp of the subject and equally his interest in the subject. He wasn't there to waste his time." Diller would not comment on who was there, beyond confirming his own presence. Barron said through a spokesman that he wasn't sure if Eisner was there. Sheinberg and Stein said they believe that Eisner was there but cannot actually recall his presence. Sheinberg said that in those days he saw Diller and Eisner "all the time," and he added, "It's tough to remember when you saw people that you saw all the time." Stein's agenda shows Eisner as having been scheduled to be present. But there is no written record of who actually attended. "Whether he {Eisner} was there or not and shown these materials or not, his company wound up doing exactly what we were doing in large part in 1981," Stein said. "He cannot dissociate himself from the responsibility that his company did wind up doing what we were supposed to do." Sheinberg added: "You're going to have to work awfully hard to convince me that he {Eisner} didn't know about this {MCA's plans}. That's ridiculous. He was a member of the inner circle at Paramount." When Paramount turned down MCA's partnership proposal a few weeks after the presentation, the rejection didn't dampen corporate or personal friendships. MCA believed that its proposal had been squelched by the late Charles Bludhorn, then chairman of Paramount's parent company, Gulf & Western. MCA subsequently approached, without success, a number of entertainment industry and financial powers including RCA, Taft Entertainments, Lorimar Productions and the wealthy Bass brothers of Texas. "I think there was a kind of feeling 'why is MCA looking for a partner if this is so good? ... why don't they do it themselves?'" Sheinberg said. "We had simply decided that we did not want to expand {into Florida} all on our own credit." Fast-forward almost four years to February 1985. It has been four months since Michael Eisner left Paramount to become Disney chairman. At his first meeting with Disney stockholders, Eisner announces his intention to build a studio tour in Florida. Sheinberg was quick to complain to the media that Eisner had been privy to Universal's plans. Eisner responded, in a Los Angeles Times story, that the presentation to Paramount had occurred "many, many years" ago. He also said that "when I arrived at {Disney}, the studio tour was already on the drawing boards and had been for many years." Leaving aside any question of unfair copying of ideas, Sheinberg was outraged that Disney was going to do a Florida movie tour at all, "given the fact that they had been privy to all of this confidential information," he said in a recent interview. "These kinds of disclosures are made in the strictest confidence. They are not made on the assumption that one day it is going to come up and bite you." Ironically, before Disney announced its plans for a Florida studio tour, Sheinberg and MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman saw Eisner's arrival at Disney as the possible answer to MCA's problem in finding a partner. Sheinberg said that shortly after Eisner took over as chairman, he wrote a note to Eisner and Disney President Frank Wells, "at Mr. Wasserman's suggestion," proposing a meeting that would include discussion of a tour partnership. Eisner and Wells rebuffed the invitation. Sheinberg recalled: "Ultimately, we were informed that they might want to do one of these tours themselves and they did not want to be accused of somehow, whatever the word was, stealing or acting improperly, if we had a meeting and they later decided to go on their own. That signal really surprised us, to put it mildly. It was our first indication that they were off on a plan to do this." On May 24, 1985, Eisner wrote a letter to Sheinberg and MCA Chairman Wasserman. The letter was partly a denial that Eisner was involved in killing a deal to recruit a Florida partner for MCA. But the other part was an explanation and a truce offering. Eisner's letter spelled out his reasons for rejecting a Disney/MCA tour partnership, listing Disney's advantages in Florida, including "our land, existing infrastructure, marketing commitment, hotels, monorail, research and development organizations ... and sources of financing." The Disney chairman's letter also sought to reassure the MCA executives that "we do not want to hurt you." "If differences remain," he wrote, "let us keep them private as befits our companies as members of the same industry." MCA corraled its tour partner -- Cineplex-Odeon, a theater-chain company that is half-owned by MCA -- in December 1986, enabling the company to break ground in Florida in March 1987. (Cineplex last month sold its 50 percent stake for a large profit to a British entertainment conglomerate, the Rank Organisation.) Eisner reacted quickly. "They {MCA} invaded our turf and we're not going to take that without a fight," he said in a Business Week story that month. A few weeks later, Disney announced a plan to build a retail/entertainment complex in downtown Burbank, near Disney's studios and near Universal Studios. The move struck at MCA's heart, according to a former MCA executive. "If Disney drew off just 10 percent of MCA's tour attendance here, that could almost wipe out the tour's entire profit margin," he said. MCA fought the Disney/Burbank plan vigorously. Without identifying itself as corporate sponsor, it funded a group called Friends of Burbank to campaign against the plan, and also fired off two lawsuits against the City of Burbank, Disney's partner in the proposed venture, accusing the town of giving Disney a sweetheart deal. Disney later dropped the plan, saying it was financially unfeasible. Curiously, as the Burbank skirmish was heating up in July, 1987, Sheinberg and Eisner met about combining attractions in Florida. "We did have meetings designed to see whether or not we couldn't combine these attractions when it became patently clear what they {Disney} were going to do," Sheinberg said. Both sides agreed not to reveal details of those meetings, he added. However, sources at MCA said that Disney offered to give MCA a royalty but no active partnership in a combined tour and that MCA turned down the offer. By July 1988, Sheinberg was quoted in Manhattan inc. magazine as calling Eisner an "egomaniac" with "a failure of character." Sheinberg claimed he was misquoted but allowed that some of his comments were "ill-advised" and may have been interpreted "in many people's minds" as "sour grapes." Given MCA's strong feelings about Disney and MCA's history as a litigious corporation, some observers wonder why the company hasn't sued Disney. Said Sheinberg: "I can't make a statement on the specifics of the designs until I have personally walked though the {Disney} park." He said that MCA may yet sue, adding, "Disney knows they're being watched carefully." Watched for what? "For everything," he replied. The Similarities In the Studio Tours In addition to Disney's "Catastrophe Canyon" ride and Universal's "Hollywood Canyon" ride, MCA officials contend there are similarities between other attractions in Disney's tour and their original 1981 Florida studio tour plans. Examples, from Universal's presentation material and Disney promotional literature, including tour brochures and the Disney-MGM Studio News: Universal's 1981 plans started with a '30s and '40s Hollywood Boulevard, palm-lined and "designed to re-create the exciting golden era of Hollywood," according to the slide show. Disney's tour also begins with a palm-lined 1930s-era Hollywood Boulevard, "inspired by the golden age of Hollywood." Both Hollywood Boulevard plans emphasize art deco and streamlined moderne architecture. Universal used a slide of the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles as an example of that architecture. Disney's Studio News says: "The auto gates and the main entrance areas of the {Disney} park borrow from the style used for Los Angeles' Pan Pacific Auditorium." The Universal plans had a "Sound Effects Theater" that involved audience volunteers brought on stage to create sound effects for a short film. The results would be played back to the audience. The joke was that the film would be at a tempo difficult for volunteers to keep up with. Disney Studio News on its "Sound Effects Theater": "Individual guests will be brought on stage to test their skills as film sound-effect technicians -- with predictably funny results the audience will enjoy during playback." Universal had a "Screen Test Theater" in which audience volunteers would be given costumes, scripts and a chance to perform in scenes to be edited into TV productions. The concept is used in Universal's "Star Trek" show in Universal City and was used in several earlier shows. Disney has a "Disney Television Theater": "Volunteer and you'll be escorted to a backstage 'Green Room' where you'll be given costumes, scripts and stage instructions," a tour brochure explains. "When the director starts the show, you'll be a real live TV star in one of the great shows from yesterday to today." Universal had a "McHale's Navy" set with miniature warships to demonstrate sea battles whipped up by special effects. Universal also had a separate life-size ship's prow where guests would experience a storm at sea, via special effects. "The idea was to get guests up there in slickers and videotape them in the storm," an MCA executive said. Disney's special-effects tour has a water tank containing a ship from the TV miniseries "The Winds of War" to demonstrate sea battles. In addition, there is a rocking tugboat where guests can join Mickey Mouse in getting splashed by big waves. Universal showed several back-lot streets in its plans, including a New York street, Hollywood Boulevard and a street of residential facades from popular TV shows and movies. Disney shows three back-lot streets: Hollywood Boulevard, a New York street and a residential street.