HOW PARK GOT ITS CHARACTER - Orlando Sentinel

HOW PARK GOT ITS CHARACTER

THE ORLANDO SENTINEL

Audrey Geisel, wife of the late Theodor Geisel and guardian of all things Seuss, couldn't imagine in the early 1990s that her husband's bizarre characters would become a marquee attraction in a new theme park.

When an executive from Universal Studios first contacted her about using Dr. Seuss' beloved characters in the planned Islands of Adventure park, she turned the deal down cold.

Theodor Geisel himself never struck even a merchandise deal, resisting the commercialization of his work until his death in 1991.

It took an all-expenses-paid trip to Orlando, and a presentation of artists' renditions of the proposed rides and attractions, to convince Audrey Geisel that her husband's creations wouldn't become part of a carnival midway.

"We did a presentation of the concepts we had for the whole Seuss Landing, and she kept saying, 'Can you really do this?' and 'You can accomplish this?'," recalls Tony Sauber, a Universal consultant and former executive vice president of business and legal affairs for Universal Studios Recreation Group.

Landing Dr. Seuss so Universal could build Seuss Landing was a crowning achievement for park planners seeking to populate Islands of Adventure with characters that would appeal to the same broad demographics as Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Islands, which is allowing a limited number of visitors each day during a lengthy preview, opens officially next month at Universal Studios Escape.

Audrey Geisel and Universal announced their agreement in 1995. When she was looking at drawings in 1993, deals already had been struck with Marvel Enterprises Inc. to use its universe of comic book superheroes in Marvel Super Hero Island, and with news syndicates and other purveyors of cartoons for Toon Lagoon.

Of the five islands in Islands of Adventure, three are devoted to characters drawn for books, comic books, newspaper comics pages or animated television shows and films. Although the millions spent on negotiating rights is small compared with the billion-dollar park's price tag, the characters and their stories are fundamental to the park's competitive strategy.

Former recreation group chief Jay Stein conceived the park in Orlando in 1990 while on a lengthy stay to help open Universal Studios Florida, Sauber said. Sauber himself wrote down the ideas Stein dictated in what eventually was a 20-page memo and character list. About 70 percent of those characters, including Seuss, are in Islands of Adventure today.

"To compete with Disney we had to appeal to children and teenagers," Sauber said. "If we were to appeal to them, we had to have the characters."

Disney, of course, was in the business of creating characters long before it delved into theme parks. Its cast of characters, from Mickey Mouse to Dumbo to Simba, are its parks' linchpins. With every new animated release, new characters join the parade.

Universal has no substantial investment in animation, hence its quest for characters. Its first park in Orlando, Universal Studios Florida, was built around the stories behind such blockbuster movies as Jaws, Back to the Future and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Despite that draw, officials have since recognized the need to cater to children and their love of animated characters.

In 1992, Universal built a playground around the Fievel character in An American Tail, and in 1995, Barney the Dinosaur became a featured attraction. This summer the original park opens a kids playground and roller coaster named for Woody Woodpecker - about the only animated character with a history at Universal.

Universal officials argue that not having a stable of characters has proved more liberating in the creation of the new park than inhibiting. They wanted to compete with Disney, not to re-create it. In shopping for characters, they had great freedom in seeking diversity.

"The Disney-type character wouldn't have worked for us," Sauber said. "We wanted an edgier, more action-prone, less soft and fuzzy character."

No characters on board fit that description better than Marvel's. Islands has a heart-pounding roller coaster named for the Incredible Hulk, a high-tech 3-D thrill ride through Spider-Man's Gotham City and a tower that launches and then plummets passengers dedicated to the evil Dr. Victor Von Doom. Marvel, which recently emerged from bankruptcy, is elated with Universal's creativity in using its stable of characters, some of which are almost 40 years old.

"It is about an extension of the franchise, and it shows in 3-D and living color the fact that Marvel is a live experience as well as one which exists in the pages of comic books," said Eric Ellenbogen, president and chief executive officer of Marvel Enterprises Inc.

Characters in Toon Lagoon include almost 50 comic-strip heroes, from Blondie and Beetle Bailey to Brenda Starr and Ziggy. Then there are King Features' Popeye characters, Cathy Guisewite's Cathy, and the late Jay Ward's Dudley Do-Right and Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Besides an annual licensing fee, Universal agrees to pay royalties on character merchandise, with a guaranteed minimum. Universal officials would not divulge how much it cost to strike the deals. If Seuss was the hardest sell Universal had to make, the syndicated funnies were the least. For them, Universal officials said, the park was a no-lose opportunity for more exposure.

From afar, analysts seem to like what they see.

"The brilliance of the particular brands they picked up is they appeal to both the baby boomers and their kids," said John Robinett, senior vice president for Economics Research Corp. "They didn't grow up and die. ... They have spanned the generation."

Theme parks have increasingly sought out characters to base rides on because that helps them distinguish themselves from the growing competition, Robinett said.

"You always have to wrap a story line into your rides and shows to make them appealing and interesting to the market," Robinett said. "And Universal has done a great job of that."

But making the deal is not the last step. Maintaining relationships with rights-holders is the full-time job of Fred Bernstein, vice president of Strategy Alliance Marketing for Universal. He makes sure no promotions arise that might be seen as conflicting with the interests of the rights-holders and communicates every move Universal makes with their character's images.

He, for example, makes sure Audrey Geisel sees every promotional photo depicting the Seuss characters and that Marvel representatives see every drink cup that sports a Spider-Man. He is on the phone with the licensors daily.

In promotions and in the park, the integrity of the characters has to be protected. You won't, for example, find Seuss' Horton the elephant hanging out with the Incredible Hulk, in the way that Mickey and Donald Duck might cavort at the Magic Kingdom.

"It takes the relationship to a whole new level. It's not just based on a contract," Bernstein said. "I don't believe there's a place anywhere else in the world where this type of diversity exists in one place."

Audrey Geisel, who was not available for comment, insisted on almost total creative control. She has seen and approved everything for Seuss Landing, from the Caro-Seuss-el to the menu at the Green Eggs and Ham Cafe.

But, the agent for Seuss Enterprises, Herb Cheyette, said she has been delighted with the results.

"She felt it was really an appropriate legacy for the estate to leave for the children of the future, and one that Ted would have been extremely pleased with and would have enjoyed playing with himself," said Cheyette, who is with International Creative Management in New York.

Audrey Geisel has since negotiated numerous other merchandising deals, a contract for a Broadway musical based on the Seuss characters and a $9 million deal for movies based on How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Oh, the Places You'll Go, both of which will be distributed by Universal Pictures.

Theodor Geisel didn't want to be involved in merchandising because he didn't want to be distracted from his work, Cheyette said. But after his death, it was necessary to convert his literature, which under copyright laws would belong to the public after 75 years, to trademarks. Seuss characters were already being pirated for bootleg T-shirts and the like. Audrey Geisel decided to sell character rights to preserve her husband's legacy, Cheyette said.

Even with his considerable imagination, Dr. Seuss probably never thought his famous cat would be tipping his hat to tourists, or that his red and blue fishes would carry children in a theme park ride, or that his green eggs and ham might really be served - on a sandwich, no less.

But the corporate world has courted his estate like Sam I Am dogged his prey in Green Eggs and Ham. Audrey Geisel, for her part, seems to have a good taste in her mouth now for business.

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