I’m fascinated by the Universal resorts, particularly the original Studio Tour in Hollywood. We visited there during a California trip when I was nine back in 1985. My memories of that visit are a little thin, but riding the trams has stuck with me. One reason Universal remains so interesting is the limited information on its history. Sam Gennawey’s book Universal versus Disney: The Unofficial Guide to American Theme Parks’ Greatest Rivalry helped fill that gap. Released in December 2014, it introduced key Universal figures like Jay Stein. Gennawey’s excellent new book JayBangs focuses on Stein and his tremendous impact on the theme-park industry.
Gennawey’s writing stands out because he doesn’t waste time praising the parks. Fans understand why they’re exciting destinations; what isn’t common knowledge is the real back story. Disney receives plenty of attention, particularly due to Walt’s persona. Universal doesn’t have a well-known star as its spokesperson. The closest is probably Steven Spielberg, but he was more of a consultant than a driving creative force. Gennaway makes the case that Stein was essential in shaping Universal’s future. His diligent efforts made the tour a must-see destination and ensured the Florida project would happen. Long before Harry Potter gave the parks a new surge of guests, Stein built the foundation for that success.
Published by Theme Park Press in October, this 200-page book expands beyond Stein’s personal story. He’s the central figure in the narrative but works as part of the larger history. We also learn about legendary MCA leaders Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg, who helped make the company such a powerful global force. When they eventually yield to less committed buyers, it feels tragic to watch the fall. We see both the heyday and the unfortunate end through Stein’s eyes. His working style was brutal at times, but he accomplished remarkable things at MCA. Stein also had a vision for the future of the Universal resorts that predicted our current landscape.
Gennawey mines similar territory to his previous book about the war between Universal and Disney. This time it feels more personal since we have Stein’s viewpoint. Michael Eisner is the enemy that stole Universal’s ideas. There’s no doubt at MCA about the actions of their direct competitor. What’s fascinating is the idea that Universal Orlando might have never happened without Eisner’s moves. Gennawey shows how Stein and MCA became more focused on building the resort because of Disney. The competition from Universal Studios then forced Eisner to expand Disney World. This battle knocked Disney out of its complacency and helped create today’s massive resort. On the other hand, these additions caused price increases from Eisner to justify the expenses. Guests won and lost.
What separates JayBangs from being a straightforward history are the engaging personal stories. One of my favorites is Terry Winnick’s experience at the Disney-MGM Studios during a Cast Member Preview day. He points out the similarities between many of the attractions and Universal’s original plans. Disney even used some of the same words in their scripts that Universal regularly employed, which is stunning. It’s also fun to see honest commentary on the issues (and positives) in that park. I visited during its opening year in 1989 and have clear memories of the odd trip. I was only 13 but recognized that we spent a lot of time watching actors on video screens. There were good things about it, particularly the Great Movie Ride and Indiana Jones stunt show. However, it felt incomplete during the first incarnation.
It’s also interesting to read about the attraction issues for Universal during their early days. The tough decisions involved with sticking to an opening date remind us of the challenges to start any park. Stein was ahead of his time with many of those rides, so there were definite growing pains. My first visit happened in 1991 during the park’s second year. There were some incredible attractions, particularly Kongfrontation and E.T. The downside was that we waited for hours because of frequent shutdowns. There was so much to like even when you consider the reliability issues. The behind-the-scenes information from Gennawey only reinforces the success. There were huge internal and external obstacles to even building the park.
Islands of Adventure (IOA) is a great park and one of my favorites anywhere. Even before the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it provided excellent theming and technologically masterful attractions. That said, I can’t learn enough about Stein’s ideas for Cartoon World. The alternate universe where that park exists is intriguing. Gennawey delves into Stein’s plans for that park and the reasons it never became a reality. A significant portion of what is now IOA was part of that original proposal. It’s hard to say if Cartoon World would have reached expectations, particularly once MCA was sold. There’s a reason that IOA was static for years until Potter. It takes a dedicated parent company with deep pockets to succeed in this industry.
JayBangs works because it provides so many details beyond the parks. Stein’s various opponents (particularly the difficult Garth Drabinsky) stand out as the typical business enemies. They’re powerful figures that don’t see the larger creative vision. I’ve barely scratched the surface of Stein’s many pursuits described in this book. Along with the studio tour and Florida project, he also had a close hand in the management of national parks. Gennawey packs a wealth of great material into a compact book. He could easily have written twice as much about the topic. However, I appreciate the breezier read and lack of unnecessary information. Gennawey knows how to craft a story, and his latest book is a must-read for any theme-park fan.
Learn more about JayBangs at the Theme Park Press site.
Listen to Sam Gennawey’s September 2015 interview on the Tomorrow Society Podcast.