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U to open Islands resort destination

Park to open May 28

MIAMI — Universal Studios and the Rank Group have set a May 28 opening date for Islands of Adventure, their long-in-the-works, $1 billion theme park outside Orlando.

Complemented by a recently unveiled CityWalk complex, new on-site hotels, a U-owned Wet’n’Wild water park and the site’s original Universal Studios Florida park, Islands caps an evolution from single-day stopover to resort destination.

Opening thus signals the emergence of a bona-fide competitor to Disney World — which boasts four gated parks — for the attention and dollars of Orlando’s 40 million-plus annual visitors.

“Until now, Disney’s been saying: ‘You can spend a whole week within our property,’ while Universal’s been saying, ‘Just give us a day of your trip,’ ” said Corey Sandler, editor in chief of Econoguide Travel Books. “Now Universal can ask for two or three (days),” Sandler added.

Consisting of seven themed sections, based on franchises from “Jurassic Park” and Marvel Comics to Dr. Seuss, U’s new park is being touted as the most thrill-packed of all Orlando sites, with a strong pull for teens and young adults.

Early buzz is that U has done a bang-up job, learning from the disastrously glitch-ridden bow of Universal Studios Florida in 1990, emulating Disney’s knack for distinct “created worlds” within the bounds of one park, and delivering cutting-edge attractions.

Highlights include a Dueling Dragons coaster in which separate trains make several near misses, a Spiderman ride that simulates the motion of jumping down the side of a building, and a life-size animatronic dinosaur that breathes, sneezes and passes gas.

One veteran theme park monitor called the Spiderman attraction — which combines actual movement, simulation and a host of 3-D cartoon villains — “the most technologically advanced ride I’ve seen in this country.”

Question now is whether Islands can grow the Orlando theme park biz. Disney World’s new Animal Kingdom saw strong numbers last year, according to Amusement Business, but largely at the expense of other Disney gates.

Islands can be expected to cannibalize Universal Studios Florida somewhat, but the central Florida park likely to be hit most is Tampa’s Busch Gardens, which is the most coaster-intensive of pre-existing parks.

Islands also faces uncertainties over Brazil — Orlando’s No. 3 source of foreign visitors after Canada and the U.K. — which has recently seen a huge downturn in overseas travel due to its economic crisis.