During the drive from the airport to Disney World they're impossible to miss - huge billboards announcing Universal Studios Florida, scheduled to open in May of 1990.

What makes these ads so noticeable is that they are endorsed by a familiar face, one that kids of all ages fondly recognize - E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.Steven Spielberg is lending his considerable talents and his most famous creation to Universal. Meanwhile, Disney World uses Spielberg's friend and occasional partner George Lucas in a similar capacity, in particular with rides using "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" characters.

That would seem to add heat to an already fiery rivalry.

Universal executives complain that Disney has stolen their idea by building the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Disney World. After all, the Universal Studios Hollywood tour has been around for 25 years, and the Florida tour was announced long before Disney's theme park came along.

But Disney execs counter that Uncle Walt himself wanted to build a studio tour long before Universal's came along. He simply wasn't allowed to because of no-growth laws in Burbank, Calif., where his studios were - and still are - located.

The volly of words continued during Disney's May news conferences at the opening of the Disney-MGM Studios park. Disney chairman Michael Eisner told reporters, "We are going to try and control ourselves and not lie down on the floor and have a temper tantrum - which we all feel like doing . . . and pretend it doesn't bother us at all.

"I wish they'd shut up."

During another press conference, George Lucas was jokingly asked if his biggest box office bomb "Howard the Duck" would be a future ride. Lucas replied that he'd let Universal build that one. "Howard the Duck" was released by Universal Pictures.

But Universal didn't take all this lying down. Just so its tour-to-be wouldn't be ignored, Universal mailed out postcards to press representatives who were attending the Disney opening, asking them to contact Universal for a tour of its Florida facility as well.

Of course, at the moment, Universal Studios Florida is little more than conceptual drawings, models, architectural plans and heavy construction. But by this time next year Universal hopes to be teeming with tourists as serious competition for Disney World.

The 444-acre active working studio will be more than three times larger than the Disney-MGM Studios park, with rides at Universal built around movies Disney couldn't lease - "Jaws," "Ghostbusters," "King Kong," etc.

At Universal's Hollywood counterpart, which has been going strong and growing bigger since 1964, the concept is similar to what Disney has created, with a special effects show, stunt show, flooded and earthquaked tram ride and even an animation demonstration, with Woody Woodpecker as the primary character.

In Florida, Universal promises visitors an elaborate "E.T." ride, participation in a "Murder She Wrote" TV episode, Alfred Hitchcock film roles, animation from Hanna-Barbera ("Yogi Bear," "Tom and Jerry," "The Jetsons," "The Flintstones," etc.), a "Phantom of the Opera" makeup show, "Back to the Future" and "Ghostbusters" rides and much more.

Both Universal and Disney studio parks have estimated construction costs of some $500 million and both lean heavily on fantasy films. Early word indicates, however, that while Disney leans toward lighter fare and nostalgia - slime-dripping "Aliens" in the Great Movie Ride notwithstanding - Universal's may be somewhat scarier. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported one that will allow visitors to "direct" the grisly shower scene from "Psycho"!

It's hard to imagine Universal alienating parents by getting too grisly for the small fry audience, however.

One thing's sure, when Universal opens its doors next year, Disney World will have some solid movie-oriented competition like it's never had before. - Chris Hicks.