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Why For wouldn't J.K. Rowling let Universal Studios build a Harry Potter stunt show?

Jim Hill

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Why For wouldn't J.K. Rowling let Universal Studios build a Harry Potter stunt show?

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No doubt, you've heard this rumor before. It's the story that's been fascinating Disney and Harry Potter fans for the past few weeks. But it was H.C. who did the best job with this question when they wrote in to ask:

Every once in a while, Universal Orlando President Bob Gault holds a "Lunch with Bob" question and answer session. Middle and upper management types sit around and pepper Mr. Gualt with questions regarding various projects and ideas. Mr. Gault responds and then assigns people to follow up on promising suggestions.

On Thursday, July 3rd, Mr. Gault hosted one such question and answer session. The minutes from the meeting were circulated among various personnel at Universal Orlando.

While there were several interesting questions, Gault's answer to one particular inquiry was especially notable.

Question: Has Universal pursued 'Lord of the Rings' or Harry Potter?

Gault's answer: "Disney has Harry Potter wrapped up. We will check into 'Lord of the Rings.'"

Huh?! Disney has Harry Potter "wrapped up"?

Can this be true? Or did Mr. Gault misspeak.


Since Mr. Gualt dropped this bombshell 'way back in July, I must have received 50 or more e-mails about Bob's comments. From Harry Potter fans. From Disney theme park fanatics. Even Universal Orlando employees. All of these folks looking for answers to the very same questions:

1) Does the Walt Disney Company actually have the theme park rights to the Harry Potter characters "wrapped up?"

2) And if so, when might we expect Walt Disney Imagineering to roll out its very first Harry Potter themed attraction?

Well, I've been on this case since the middle of July, people. Making dozens of phone calls to Glendale, Burbank and Universal City, Hollywood later as I tried to get to the bottom of this story. This (to date) is what I have to report, H.C.:

This much is clear: A few years back, Universal was positively desperate to acquire the theme park rights to the Harry Potter characters. So much so that Universal Creative (the folks who actually design all of the rides, shows and attractions for the Universal theme parks) put together a proposal for a Harry Potter-themed stunt show. Which they planned to present to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. With the hope that she might then be won over by their attraction idea, which would result in J.K. awarding Harry Potter's theme park rights to Universal.

The show proposal that Universal Creative put together was reportedly a special effects filled extravaganza, loosely modeled after that theme park's "Wild Wild West" stunt show. This meant that the arena would have been loaded up with practical effects. Cauldrons that would suddenly bubble and smoke, brooms that could actually fly around, etc.

But the real highlight of this proposed "Harry Potter" themed show would have supposedly been the show's finale. Where Harry, Ron and Hermoine found themselves face to face with Lord Voldemort. (Just in case you're wondering: Universal's stunt spectacular wasn't actually supposed to have been based on any specific "Harry Potter" book or movie. But -- rather -- it was supposed to have been a stand-alone show. Something that would have caught the style and the flavor of Rowling's books and the films without actually duplicating any of them.)

Sometime during this magical duel, Potter was going to get the upper hand in this effects filled battle. And -- with a wave of Harry's wand -- Voldemort would burst into flames. Fully engulfed in fire, the dark wizard was to have writhed in agony and screamed curses as Potter and his pals as Voldemort slowly sank from sight.

Note that "sinking slowly from sight" while "fully engulfed in flames" part of the show. That sort of pyrotechnic stunt would be extremely difficult for a live human to pull off. Which is why Universal Creative was planning on using an animatronic figure to fill in for the live performer who would be portraying the dark wizard during this particular gag. A robotic Lord Voldemort whose robes would be stuffed with steel wool. Which (I'm told) burns in a truly spectacular fashion whenever it's lit on fire.

So that sounds like a pretty good new show for the Universal theme parks, doesn't it? Well, it's just too bad that Universal Creative never actually got the opportunity to present their proposal to J.K. Rowling. Why for? Because -- when they approached Rowling's reps to set up a meeting -- Universal was reportedly told "Thanks but no thanks. We've already awarded the theme park rights to someone else."

Now Universal executives -- Bob Gault included -- have always assumed that the "someone else" that J.K. Rowling's representatives were talking about must have been the Walt Disney Company. Which -- given that Universal and Disney are in almost constant competition these days for supremacy in the theme park arena -- that just makes sense.

But -- in all the conversations that I've had with WDI insiders over the past few weeks -- no one (And I mean "NO ONE") was willing to actually go on record and admit that the Walt Disney Company had indeed tied up all of the theme park rights to the Harry Potter characters. The closest I ever got to confirmation was a couple of knowing smiles from veteran Imagineers as well as a "Sorry, but that would be telling" from someone in the Studio's legal department.

Now, just because no one I talked with Disney would confirm or deny that the Mouse had "wrapped up" the theme park rights to the Harry Potter characters doesn't mean that Mickey HASN'T locked up those rights.

To explain: Historically, the Mouse tends to play these sorts of things very close to their vest. Think back to the 1980s, when WDI was in super secret talks with George Lucas about possibly building some new shows and attractions for Disneyland around his "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" characters. Those negotiations went on for years, with Lucas regularly making trips down to Glendale to view new concepts ... and news about those projects never ever leaked out of 1401 Flower Street. (Okay. Admittedly, that was long before the Internet was as omnipresent as it is today. So -- back then -- it was a hell of a lot easier for WDI to keep its secrets back. But you get what I'm trying to say here, right? Okay. Moving on ...)

What's more intriguing (at least to me) is the number of non-Disney characters that Mickey already has under contract for theme park use that WDI has yet to anything with. Which characters, specifically? How about claymation stars Wallace and Gromit (who were once considered as the possible new hosts of Epcot's "Journey into Imagination" ride) as well as celebrities like sitcom vet Tim Allen and basketball star Michael Jordan (who were also -- believe it or not -- considered as possible replacements for Figment).

So I guess what I'm trying to say here is that -- even though Disney may or may not have the theme park rights to the Harry Potter characters all "wrapped up" -- that still doesn't automatically translate into the Imagineers building a Hogwarts for Anaheim or Orlando anytime soon.

Why the hold-up? Well, to be blunt, J.K. Rowling isn't through puttering around with her Harry Potter characters yet. Let's remember that there are still two books in the series that have yet to be written, much less published. And -- as those of us who have already read "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" know -- things are very much in flux in the non-Muggle world right now.


Characters that we once thought to just be comic relief (like Neville Longbottom) can grow and become heroic. Likewise, characters that we loved for their sweet and understanding natures can suddenly become quite prickly. I mean, think back to all of the complaints that you heard earlier this summer from Rowling readers who were upset with J.K. for daring to make young Mr. Potter so PO'd during most of "The Order of the Phoenix."

You see what I'm saying here? The "Harry Potter" saga isn't over yet. Not by a long shot, folks. And there's obviously a lot of danger in trying to design theme park attractions around a tale that's still being told. I mean, think how terrible the Imagineers would be feeling right now if they'd poured years of time & effort into building a show around everyone's favorite big black dog. Doing something like that would have had some pretty Sirius repercussions, don't you think?

Anyway ... even if Disney really does have the theme park rights for the Harry Potter characters all "wrapped up," the smart money is on Mickey sitting on these rights for a while. For a couple of years, anyway. At least until J.K. Rowling finally finishes up telling her epic tale (and what a sad day THAT's going to be for those of us who have loved reading and/or listening to the "Harry Potter" books. I'm really not ready to leave Hogwarts just yet. Are you?)

But me? Given how cagey the Imagineers that I know are being about all my questions as to whether the Walt Disney Company actually has "wrapped up" the theme park rights to the Harry Potter characters, I'm not entirely convinced that what Gault told Universal Orlando employees is true. If the Mouse HAD landed the theme park rights to J.K. Rowling's characters, I have to believe that -- given all the Harry Potter fans that there are in WDI -- there'd be Imagineers lined up along the rooftops of Flower Street screaming "We got Harry! We got Harry!"

So my apologies, H.C., if this "Why For" response basically amounts to the world's longest "Damned if I know." But I'm just not getting a clear indication out of Imagineering as to whether the Walt Disney Company has actually "wrapped up" the theme park rights to the Harry Potter characters.

Which makes me wonder who this mysterious "someone else" might be. That other theme park-owning corporation which appears to have the rights for J.K. Rowling's characters all "wrapped up."

So again, my apologies if this "Why For" reply raises more questions than it answers. But what did you expect from a Muggle?

(Of course, if some obliging Imagineer wants to come forward with the official word on this subject, I'd be extremely happy to hear from them. Hint, Hint.)

Okay. That's it for this week's "Why For." But please keep in mind that we're still going to have some new stories up on JimHillMedia.com this weekend. Parts III and IV of Jim Korkis' excellent "The History of Comic Books" series. So be sure to drop by JHM on Saturday and Sunday to check those stories out.

Beyond that, have a great weekend, okay?


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  • This was a fun article to look back to 13 years later!

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