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Monday MouseWatch : WDI hopes that its "Living Character Initiative" will make up for losing "Harry Potter" as well as Kuka's robotic arm technology

Monday MouseWatch : WDI hopes that its "Living Character Initiative" will make up for losing "Harry Potter" as well as Kuka's robotic arm technology

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By now, you've probably heard that Nikki Finke has confirmed what I wrote back back on February 5th (Though -- to be fair here -- I guess I should acknowledge that it was actually Arthur Levine of About.com & Lance Hart of Screamscape who first reported this story). That Universal Studios has in fact scored the theme park rights to J.K. Rowling's characters. More importantly, that Universal will shortly be announcing its plans to add a whole "Harry Potter" -themed land to the line-up of attractions that the company currently has at its "Islands of Adventure" theme park.

Mind you, Universal can't be all that happy about Ms. Finke (Or me, Mr. Levine & Mr. Hart, for that matter) letting Crookshanks out of the bag. Given the elaborate security precautions that the company had put in place in order to keep "Project Strongarm" under wraps. With a 24-hour guard being placed on the Universal Studios Hollywood soundstage where that mock-up of the flying Ford Anglia had been built. Where only key members of the creative team and/or senior General Electric / NBC / Universal officials were actually allowed in to view and then ride the prototype.


Copyright 2002 Warner Bros.

Now you'd think -- given the enormous amount of time, money & effort that the Walt Disney Company had wasted over the past few years in trying to woo Ms. Rowling, so that the Mouse could then score the exclusive theme park rights to "Harry Potter" -- that the Imagineers would be rather upset to see Universal Studios wind up with those rights instead. But that's honestly not the story that I've been hearing coming out of Glendale.

If anything, the guys at WDI are breathing a sigh of relief that it's Universal -- rather than Disney -- that will now have to deal with J.K. on a daily basis. Based on the tales that I've been told about Mickey's protracted negotiations with Ms. Rowling ... Well, let's just say that the author of the "Harry Potter" series is said to be somewhat difficult to deal with.


Photo courtesy of Google Images

Wait a minute. It's probably not all that fair of me to characterize J.K. in this fashion. So how's about instead that I say that Ms. Rowling was reported to be very protective of her characters. More to the point, that she supposedly had some very definite ideas about what a theme park version of Harry Potter's world should look like.

How so? Well, according to the folks that I've spoken with who worked on the Disney version of this project ... J.K. allegedly wanted each & every guest who was experiencing the theme park version of Harry Potter's world to do so by first entering the Leaky Cauldron pub. Where -- by tapping on just the right brick ("Three up and two across ... ") -- they'd then gain access to Diagon Alley, that odd collection of Wizards-only shops & restaurants that's hidden away in the heart of London.


Copyright 2001 Warner Bros.

From this area (Which was -- at least in the stand-alone version of the proposed "Harry Potter" theme park -- supposed to have been the equivalent of Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland. As in: That area that established the style & the tone of the theme park to follow. More importantly, Diagon Alley would have been where most of the guests purchased their souvenirs before exiting the park that night), these folks were then supposed to have made their way to Platform 9 & 3/4 at King's Cross Station. Where -- after magically piercing the barrier that separates the Muggle world from the Wizard world -- guests would have then been able to board a full-sized version of the Hogwarts Express for a trip to Harry's alma mater.

Which admittedly (on paper, anyway) sounds wonderful. But to the folks who actually run the Parks & Resorts side of things at the Walt Disney Company, what Rowling was reportedly asking for sounded unfeasible. Never mind the costs involved in building such an elaborate recreation of Harry Potter's world, just the guest-flow issues (EX: In order to give each & every guest the experience of entering Diagon Alley through the Leaky Cauldron ... Well, that meant that the Mouse would have had to have built multiple versions of this seedy pub and then staffed each of these) were enough to give these Ops experts agita.


Copyright 2001 Anheuser-Busch, Inc.

Even though this "Harry Potter" project was once viewed as Disney's possible answer to Anheuser-Busch's Discovery Cove (Where every day, 1000 guests each pay nearly $300 for the opportunity to swim with dolphins at this ultra-exclusive theme park) ... In the end, given everything that Ms. Rowling was allegedly insisting upon, Mouse House executives thought that it would take a decade or more to finally get a return on their initial investment. And given that no one within the company could actually guarantee that the public's interest in "Harry" wouldn't wane after the seventh book was published and the last "Potter" motion picture had been released ... Well, it was then thought that it might be best if the Mouse took a pass on this particular project.

Plus (to be blunt here) given that -- just about this same time -- the Walt Disney Company was wrapping up its deal to acquire Pixar Animation Studios ... Well, it was felt that the characters that John Lasseter & Co. had already created (Not to mention all of the animated features that this talented group of film-makers would be making for the Mouse in the future) would more than off-set the loss of the theme park rights to "Harry Potter."

As one Imagineering insider told me last week:

"Given how difficult Rowling had been to deal with, losing "Harry Potter" wasn't really that much of a loss. But Universal scoring an exclusive on Kuka's robotic arm technology ... That was a real heartbreaker."

You see, to date, that's been the under-reported part of this story. That it wasn't just that Universal Studios had scored the theme park rights to the "Harry Potter" characters. But that Kuka had also awarded Universal a 10-year exclusive on using its amazing technology in a theme park setting.


Photo courtesy of Google Images

It was this news (and not that the Walt Disney Company & J.K. Rowling had failed to come to terms) that really upset the guys in Glendale. Mind you, before Kuka & Universal were able to hammer out their new deal, WDI did manage to score seven of these robotic arms. One of which is now being used in the angler fish sequence of Epcot's new "The Seas with Nemo & Friends" introductory ride. While the other six will then be used to create a similar sequence in Disneyland's soon-to-be-opening "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage." With three of these robotic arms being used to move angler fish around on each side of the sub.


Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

But after that ... The Mouse reportedly can't get its hands on any additional Kuka arms for theme park use 'til at least 2017. Which definitely puts the kibosh on that "Incredibles" -themed "E" Ticket that the Imagineers were hoping to build. Which was to have gotten underway in a suitably incredible fashion. In that guests were first to board this free-standing ride vehicle that wasn't attached to anything. Then this enormous robotic arm was to have reached down from above and attached itself to the top of this vehicle. Then that robotic arm was to have lifted that ride vehicle that was now full of guests up (in front of everyone who was still waiting in this attraction's queue, mind you) and then carried it up out of sight into that show building.

Talk about your dramatic ways to start a ride ! So why didn't Disney ever go forward with construction of this particular attraction? As one Disney official who was familiar with this project recently explained to me:

"(This proposed ride system) required the vehicle to connect and disconnect from the arm and no Kuka arm (to date) was capable of handling the capacity of a loaded concept vehicle. A more viable Kuka system had been under development by a more credible Imagineering group. With at least a couple of years co-development with Kuka on a custom-built, heavy-duty arm that could hold over 6 passengers. A mock-up, using the off-the-shelf arm, was presented to all sorts of Disney executives, including Eisner, Iger and Rasulo – and a lot of others from different parks. That mock-up supposedly had a 'Harry Potter' element.

'The Incredibles' version was a blue sky concept that, while looking like a out-of-the-box breakthrough, just wasn’t feasible."

That's perhaps the most ironic part of this entire tale. I mean, here was the Mouse -- almost five years ago now -- trying to use Kuka arm technology to create a "Harry Potter" -themed attraction. So what happens? Not only does Disney lose the theme park rights to J.K. Rowling's characters to Universal, but then Universal goes on to lock up the theme park rights to Kuka's robotic arm technology for the next 10 years.

Which you think would be a bruising loss for the folks at 1401 Flower Street. But -- truth be told -- the Imagineers that I've talked with are fairly philosophical about this whole situation. Okay, so Universal now has the theme park rights to the "Harry Potter" characters as well as Kuka's amazing robotic arm technology. That just means that Disney will now have come up with some other way to wow its customer base.

And these days, the secret word at WDI seems to be interaction. Take -- for example -- that "Team Possible" interactive game that was play-tested at Epcot last summer? According to company insiders that I've spoken with, a much more elaborate version of this in-park-adventure is now due to debut in the parks in 2009.


Photo courtesy of Google Images

Or -- better yet -- how about the Muppet Mobile Lab? Most Disneyana enthusiasts already known about the field test that was done for this "Living Character Initiative" project at DCA back in late February / early March. But how many of you know about what became of that Imagineering prototype after all of those tests in Anaheim were complete?

Well, as it happens, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew & Beaker were then sent up to Emeryville. Where they delighted dozens of Pixar employees & their family members by rolling around that animation studio's lobby and then trying to order lunch at the Cafe Luxo.

Which is pretty cool all by itself. But the Imagineers were also servicing their own agenda by bringing that Muppet Mobile Lab unit up to Emeryville. You see, what they were really trying to do was convince the powers-that-be at Pixar to allow them to create "Living Character Initiative" versions of the robots from "WALL * E." So that -- in the Summer of 2008 -- just as this new Andrew Stanton film would be rolling into theaters ... Well, seeming autonomous versions of WALL * E would then begin rolling through Disney theme parks around the world. With this cute little Waste Allocation Load Lifter units actually picking up & then disposing of various pieces of trash that they find on the ground as well as interacting with guests.


Copyright 2007 Pixar / Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Which (admittedly) may not be as much fun as going for a trip in the Weasley family's flying car. But it does suggest a way that Disney can then make its theme parks seem that much distinctive & appealing than the Universal parks. By giving its guests one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-art interaction with Disney / Pixar's library of characters.

But what do you folks think? Is Disney going full force into the development of interactive theme park attractions as well as ramping up its "Living Character Initiative" program enough to make up for the loss of both the theme park rights to the "Harry Potter" characters & Kuka's robotic arm technology?

Your thoughts?

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  • A nice article about interrelated concepts.

    (1) Rowling's ideas for entering the park are interesting, but if she insisted on unfeasible approaches (and Jim points out a big flaw in the "right brick" puzzle) then the relationship could have been doomed from the start.  Her imagination and creativity should inspire a "can-do" attitude - in other words, instead of considering her to be a pain or finding ways to veto ideas, the approach should be "how can we make this work?" This story does, though, remind me of Pat Travers' relationship with Walt.  His attitude ws more along the lines of "we bought it already, we'll do what we judge right."

    (2)  As for the robot arm, Disney and its partners will figure out a way to do it without infringing on the patent.

    (3)  Interactive is good, but I worry that it, too, is designed for small groups.  I like the small group approach (such as the Jamitors in Epcot), but you can't hang big-time success on limited attractions.  A small interactive demonstration will enhance - not define - the theme park experience.  

  • Well now that Disney lost Harry Potter they should try to get the other wizard movie: Lord of the Rings.

  • Not being able to get the Kuka arm technology and the rights to a "Harry Potter" theme land isn't a huge loss. Disney can always come up with other ways to entertain visitors.

    An interactive WALL-E sounds cute.

  • The "Living Character Initiative" is great, but, so far, it has been pretty limited.  I know there are some great examples in the parks, but it seems like every time I read about the newest project, I never get to see it.  I was excited to see Lucky, and I was thrilled to see the Muppet Mobile Lab. But, having not visited the parks in the brief time they were out, I guess I never will.  I know these were just tests, but if Disney wants to tempt me into the parks with something, they should make it at least a little permanent, like Turtle Talk and the Laugh Floor.

  • i am not too worried about the Harry potter loss.  Let universal deal with overprotective writers.

    The kuka arm technology is another thing.  The attraction for theincredibles from what i had heard was going to be amazing.

    I have faith WDI will comeup with another amazing idea for an attraction based on that movie as long as it isn't another darkride.  That movie really needs something amazing

  • I love the Muppet Mobile Lab concept, and I think using that technology for WALL*E is a great idea, as long as it's up and running by June of 08 when I'm down there. Otherwise, it just wouldn't be fair.

  • This is some of the best news for Disney Theme Park Fans. I'll tell you why:

    1) Disney is notorious for its p*ssing contests with rival parks. i.e. Universal wanted to open a studio park in Florida, so Disney built MGM. Disney opens Living Seas to compete with Sea World. Animal Kingdom was an assault on Busch Gardens. There are countless examples of Disney throwing money at attractions to compete with rival parks (with mixed results). In the last twenty years the parks have constantly tried to one-up each other (with a bit of a lull the first half of this decade). Now Universal has upped the ante - TWICE! Disney has no choice to compete, which means bigger and better attractions for all of us. Plus we'll still get a chance to experience these great attractions -- except we'll have to travel 15 miles up the road to Universal.

    2) Disney has countless properties of its own that have never had attractions built. Lately they seem obsessed with building Pixar themed attractions, even though the pixar properties have not yet stood the test of time (with the possible exception of the Toy Story characters), but let's not forget the countless Disney classics that have never received the theme park treatment... Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin (that Dumbo-ride clone doesn't count), Lion King, Mulan, Tarzan; then there's the classics like Mary Poppins, Jungle Book, Sleeping Beauty, and Bambi. I would love to see rides on these classic Disney movies.

    Why bring in outside characters that are foreign to the Disney universe?

  • I wonder if last year's DL Christmas parade was part of the JKR negotiations or a nod to them... http://www.mpimages.net/dlr/compressed/Disneyland/Parades/SantasList-HPnames-AR.jpg

    In any case, I'm curious just how unique the Kuka arm is. I mean, I've seen similiar enough robotic prototypes  from different companies and I imagine someone else is coming as close as patents will alow, etc.

  • Hmmm, doesn't Disney know they too have a library of characters? Why focus so much on Pixar's characters? Still, the "autonomous" Wall-E sounds great, but it isn't really an "attraction". It will make the overall experience at the parks greater, but won't improve the selection of attractions people can ride.

  • There's still the question of the rights for the Lord of the Rings, with the new Bilbo the Hobbit movie in the pipeline, Disney could bring in the theme parks a universe much more elaborate, big and for long term than with Harry Potter.

    I think that Disney is just preparing the Theme Parks of the future, all in all, Universal is just going to open a "PotterLand", while Disney is trying to really bring to life all our dreams. Perhaps in the future we will not just ride in a fantasy world, but live in it.

    How much would you be able to pay to live for a week or two in the "real" Middle Earth (for example) ?

    Here in France, Disneyland Resort Paris will open in 2009 a new resort : "Les Villages Nature" where for a week you will be able to relax and do plenty of different sports (there will be different lands : Sports, Water, Forest). It's just a dream, but for me the theme parks of the future could be to just add theming on such experiences with the help of the Living Character Experiences (Something a little bit like a real Jurassic Park).

    Nothing really new has been done on the Theme Park concept since 1955 with Disneyland. It's time to create something different and new, something that only Disney can do !

  • Jeff, you or anyone else ever watch the movie Westworld? I can't help but think of this movie when reading everyone's comments. Small park, hefty price, and guests interacting with robots. Mind you they were killer robots.

    http://www.allmovie.com/cg/avg.dll?p=avg&sql=1:53970

  • I'm so glad that Universal has the rights to "Harry Potter"- as much as I'm anti-Universal, HP has no place in a Disney park, IMO.

    The Imagineers will just have to make a new technology instead of the Kuka arm- they can do it!

    I think that having Disney-owned characters (whether Disney, Pixar, or Muppets), roaming around the parks is an awesome idea.  I loved seeing Lucky the Dinosaur, and, if Bunsen & Beaker ever come to WDW, I want to see them!  I hope that the WALL-E characters (or at least WALL-E himself) will be able to walk around the parks.  I think it's a great idea.  

    I'm really ecstatic about Disney not having HP in its parks- I really am.  I don't read the books or watch the movies, but it does seem more fit to have HP at Universal.  "The Chronicles of Narnia" is a much more fitting series of movies (they're Disney owned!  Save $$$!) that should have some kind of attraction at the parks (besides the walk-in one they have now).

    JohnLockamy said:

    "2) Disney has countless properties of its own that have never had attractions built. Lately they seem obsessed with building Pixar themed attractions, even though the pixar properties have not yet stood the test of time (with the possible exception of the Toy Story characters), but let's not forget the countless Disney classics that have never received the theme park treatment... Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin (that Dumbo-ride clone doesn't count), Lion King, Mulan, Tarzan; then there's the classics like Mary Poppins, Jungle Book, Sleeping Beauty, and Bambi. I would love to see rides on these classic Disney movies.

    Why bring in outside characters that are foreign to the Disney universe?"

    I completely agree (except for the statement about the Pixar characters having not yet stood the test of time).  Disney is Disney- they have such a vast collection of movies and characters that they haven't even touched.  Part of what makes Disney Disney is their movies and characters.  Embrace them!

    Disney doesn't need "Lord of the Rings"- they have their OWN movies!  Disney, out of all the parks in the world, doesn't need to borrow movies from other companies- they're Disney, for crying out loud!  They have about 80 years of material to use!  And, they can always create new, original attractions (such as Expedition Everest).

  • Personally, I'm THRILLED that they didn't land HP. I agree with blackcauldron that Potter just has no place in a Disney theme park. Plus, I can't stand him anyway and it would have irritated me if they'd spent a bunch of money bringing something to Disney World that I'd never bother with.

    As far as the other stuff, maybe I'm crazy but I don't see those interactive characters as being a suitable replacement for any of the amazing sounding attractions they talked about. I mean am I going to be as WOWED by Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker as I would have been by that Incredibles attraction??? I think not ...

    I hope WDI has a lot more up it's sleeve than that stuff, because thus far I've been immensely underwhelmed. If the new Monsters show in MK is any indicator, that trend will continue. I saw it on preview and it was just horrible.

  • I have never been to Universal and really have had no desire to.  However, a Harry Potter Land would definately get us to venture over there.  Obviously there is a huge fan base for the Harry Potter franchise.  I cannot imagine that this is not going to draw people to Universal and away from WDW for one day of their WDW vacation.  Families with younger children instead of teens will have a reason to visit Universal.  However if it is done poorly it will only be a temporary problem for Disney.  They do have more than enough to draw from in their own film library but now they may have to deal with some real competition.  

    I think the living characters are amazing but it wouldn't get me to visit WDW to see them like a major new ride or land would.  They are just an added bonus.  I was disappointed that this is all Disney is saying they have on the horizon to counter Harry Potter at Universal.  I seriously hope that they have something on a much larger scale up their sleeve that has not leaked yet.   As a PP said maybe this competition will cause WDW to invest in their parks more.    

  • Forget Harry Potter...Disney has survived without Suess and Spider-man and the Sesame Street characters and NASA and Jesus.  They will get by wthout this IP.

    What strikes me is that there were days--no too long ago--when Disney wasn't relying on outside parties to develop its new ride systems.  Certainly industrial innovation has made the Mouse's new ride experiences possible...whether it was platens moving on a Ford assembly line or the development of flight simulator technology, Disney has cherrypicked liberally from the "real" world.  But now, let's see, new roller coasters are essentially off the shelf product from Vekoma and Intamin, Soarin' is an Imax thing that Disney has an exclusivity license, and WDI-er's are sad because they couldn't get a leg up on Universal and have the right to buy this Kuka product.

    This is clearly the way the industry is heading...all the operators buying from the same small stable of suppliers.  But this dependance will define what Disney is able to bring to the market in the future...an altogether different reality from the order of things two decades ago

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