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Fans who feel powerless to do anything against the cutbacks in entertainment at local theme parks might want to consider a trip this weekend to Universal Studios-Hollywood.

Saturday, February 8 and Sunday, February 9, Universal is staging "My Big Fat Character Weekend," a test to pack the park with entertainment and see if any visitors notice.


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The park is calling its entire entertainment crew into service, plus dozens of former Universal performers. As one ex-employee explains, "Practically everybody who ever worked there (and didn't sue the company) has been called to work this weekend."

Universal will have 60 characters in the park, as well as seven different musical acts — including two jazz bands, a Dixieland band, a steel band, and a mariachi band. They're also bringing back the doo wop a cappella singers, 1950s dancers, street shows, improv groups, and much more. Some new characters will be introduced and others will be resurrected after years of retirement. [Expect to see everyone except Betty Boop, who vanished from the park's payrolls after a pair of performers sued for sexual harassment. Of course, Universal still sells Boop merchandise...]

The entertainers will also employ the "Trolley," the single-car tram designed like a San Francisco cable car that rarely leaves the tram route.

The trial program marks a drastic turnaround for Universal, which had been sharply trimming its entertainment roster in recent years. Universal visitors can thank — and Universal accountants can blame — Disney. This winter, several Universal managers have been visiting Disneyland and noticing just how many characters are in the park. And, through inside contacts, they've learned that the high character count has Disney's guest satisfaction ratings skyrocketing.

Then, there's been all the recent positive media coverage of Disney's California Adventure's new Aladdin stage show. And the media ignoring Universal. The last straw came Sunday, when the Los Angeles Times Calendar section inadvertently omitted Universal in their listings of theme parks.

That night, Universal's characters were called in to a rare mandatory meeting. For the first time, the character escorts were also invited. During the meeting, the characters and escorts were told that management has been extremely worried about the low guest ratings lately. Consequently, they want to see if adding as many characters and street shows as possible will have any effect. In a rare nod to the competition, at several points during the meeting, management alluded to the quantity and quality of characters and street shows at Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure.

January through April is always a slow period for revenue at Universal, but this year paid attendance is at rock bottom. "The feeling," says one source, "is if Universal can get the guest ratings up, they can then go to the senior Vivendi Universal executives and ask for some advertising and promotional money."

The main beneficiaries are you, the theme park visitors. So, come out to Universal this weekend, get your $47 annual pass, enjoy all the entertainment, and — most importantly — stop by Guest Relations and let them know what you think. They're finally ready to listen.



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(Send an email to David Koenig)

David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.

After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).

He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.