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Live Active Cultures

Red against blue is so last week – welcome to the battle of Beauty and the 'Bots

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Conflict divides our nation, andFlorida's I-4 corridor is ground zero. An elder advocate for old-fashioned family values vies against an upstart multiculturalist urging investment in innovation. Nope, forget the presidential election, which will thankfully (hopefully) be resolved by the time you read this column. The real war is between Disney and Universal, with both sides launching multimillion-dollar munitions in the fight for tourists' hearts, minds and money.

"Prepare for incoming transmission!" For most Universal Studios Florida visitors waiting for last Thursday's nightly Cinematic Spectacular show to start, the static-filled announcements interrupting the standard pre-show music must have seemed like a simple technical glitch. But for the invited press, it indicated that the theme park industry's worst-kept secret was about to be revealed. As the giant water screens floating in USF's lagoon burst to life with the visage of Optimus Prime, months of rumor-mongering were finally laid to rest: the Autobots and Decepticons are on their way.

Transformers: The Ride 3-D was an instant smash hit when it debuted last year in Universal's Singapore and Hollywood parks, so it was inevitable that a clone would come to Orlando. Still, I'll admit I was suckered by early misinformation indicating the mysterious construction zone that emerged this summer on the site of USF's long-shuttered Murder, She Wrote show would become a simple haunted house. And I was shocked to hear the massive two-story attraction would open by next summer, months ahead of the holiday season debut I'd expected. As Universal's Mark Woodbury proudly pointed out after the reveal, Transformers' build time will be barely a year, an industry record for a project of this scope.

When I rode Transformers' Hollywood incarnation in June, it instantly jumped to the top of my all-time favorite dark rides list, between Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure and Harry Potter's Forbidden Journey. So while I'm excited to experience it again without a cross-country flight, I hope its strong similarities to the superb Spider-Man ride next door doesn't strangle its success here. Regardless, the rock 'em-sock 'em robots are really just a stopgap while the still-unannounced Potter Phase Two (featuring London's Diagon Alley and a Gringott's roller coaster) is constructed on Jaws' graveyard.

Universal's planned one-two punch is just part of the reported $1.5 billion the resort is spending over the next few years on expansions, which will also include the new Cabana Bay Beach hotel and Simpsons-themed restaurants. Universal's aggressive advances can be interpreted as a response to Disney's upcoming openings, which in turn were spurred by the runaway success of Universal's Wizarding World.

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