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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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  • 1. Homosexuality is comparable to polyester, eyeglasses and birth control, all of which are not found in nature. Yep, I agree with that.

    2. "Heterosexual marriages are valid because they produce children." This flat generalization is considered erroneous because of the fact that some heterosexuals are unfertile. But by that logic, homosexual marriages are always invalid because in natural practice homosexual sex NEVER produces children. Interesting twist of logic, no?

    3. "Obviously gay parents will raise gay children because straight parents only raise straight children." Since in my view gays shouldn't be raising children at all, I'll pass on this one.

    4. "Straight marriage will be less meaningful, since Britney Spears's 55-hour just-for-fun marriage was meaningful". I have read this pathetic argument elsewhere. So you're saying that since marriage is so meaningless, gays should be allowed to partake of it. Wow. Doesn't that insult both gays AND straights?

    5. "Heterosexual marriage has been around for a long time, and it hasn't changed at all: women are property, Blacks can't marry Whites, and divorce is illegal." So once again, you're trying to assert the validity of gay marriage by attacking the validity of heterosexual marriage. Really, if marriage is such a joke, why on earth would gays want any part of it?

    6.  "Gay marriage should be decided by the people, not the courts, because the majority-elected legislatures, not courts, have historically protected the rights of minorities." So you're saying that voting is not the way to bring about societal change. That the will of the people means nothing if the majority view does not agree with your own. Socialist much?

    7. "Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are always imposed on the entire country. That's why we only have one religion in America." What an interesting view you have of people who disagree with you. BTW, I'm an atheist.

    8. "Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people makes you tall." Well, given that most people are against gay marriage, you have managed to resist becoming so ignorant despite hanging out with such ignorant people. However did you manage that?

    9. "Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage license." Heh. Funny. But of course a dog's legal status could be changed in the courts. Crazier things have happened...(yeah, that's nuts. But I'm just going along with the logic here...)

    10. "Children can never succeed without both male and female role models at home. That's why single parents are forbidden to raise children." All of these amusing arguments of yours are based on caricatures, but let's take this one seriously for a moment: it's a fact that many child-related problems of today's current society are blamed on single-parent households, most of which consist of a single mother and children, with a father nowhere in sight.  This is a regrettable situation. And I do find it amusing that you're comparing it with gay parenting. I do indeed.

    11. "Gay marriage will change the foundation of society. Heterosexual marriage has been around for a long time, and we could never adapt to new social norms because we haven't adapted to cars or longer lifespans." Well, humans have been known to adapt to social norms that were negative, such as the values of the Third Reich. Your point?

    12. "Civil unions, providing most of the same benefits as marriage with a different name are better, because a "separate but equal" institution is always constitutional. Separate schools for African-Americans worked just as well as separate marriages will for gays & lesbians." Um, using the civil rights movement as an argument for gay marriage doesn't sit well with many black leaders. For what it's worth.

    So as you can see, there are valid arguments against gay marriage that can't be shouted down by insult and mockery. Can we move on now?

  • OMG.. You seriously commented on his (OBVIOUSLY) humorous remarks, which he only made to make fun of you? .. That's so.. so.. :P

  • Actually, gigglesock, you really didn't manage to provide ANY valid arguments against gay marriage. In fact, given several of your responses to those, you appear to have missed the point completely. Some examples:

    "1. Homosexuality is comparable to polyester, eyeglasses and birth control, all of which are not found in nature. Yep, I agree with that."

    And yet, you fail to mention that society has still marched on, and has even been further enriched, by these and other things not found in nature. (Although, in all fairness, homosexuality DOES appear in nature. There's documented evidence proving it.)

    "3. 'Obviously gay parents will raise gay children because straight parents only raise straight children.' Since in my view gays shouldn't be raising children at all, I'll pass on this one."

    The "Gay parents will raise gay kids" argument is consistently made by those who oppose gay marriage, and it's a stupid one at that. I know you don't believe gays should raise kids at all, but still, why would you avoid even addressing this fallacy?

    "4. 'Straight marriage will be less meaningful, since Britney Spears' 55-hour just-for-fun marriage was meaningful'. I have read this pathetic argument elsewhere. So you're saying that since marriage is so meaningless, gays should be allowed to partake of it."

    Wrong. The point of bringing up these joke-marriages is not to imply that all marrige is meaningless. It's to show how ludicrous the idea is of gays somehow cheapening straight marriage. You wanna target those who cheapen the idea of marriage? Go after the ones who do it for money, fame, power, and publicity. Not the ones who do it for love.

    "6.  'Gay marriage should be decided by the people, not the courts, because the majority-elected legislatures, not courts, have historically protected the rights of minorities.' So you're saying that voting is not the way to bring about societal change. That the will of the people means nothing if the majority view does not agree with your own. Socialist much?"

    Are you seriously making this argument? For a long time blacks had to drink from different water fountains than whites. And you know what? The majority of whites thought that was just fine. So nothing changed until a small group of people made it change. (And I'll get to your Civil Rights comment in a minute.)

    "7. 'Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are always imposed on the entire country. That's why we only have one religion in America.' What an interesting view you have of people who disagree with you. BTW, I'm an atheist."

    Me too. But I fully understand that the majority of those in this country who propose legislation banning gay marriage are either Christian or Catholic. You cannot deny that there is an air of growing unchecked fundamentalism in American government  right now.

    "12. 'Civil unions, providing most of the same benefits as marriage with a different name are better, because a "separate but equal" institution is always constitutional. Separate schools for African-Americans worked just as well as separate marriages will for gays & lesbians.' Um, using the civil rights movement as an argument for gay marriage doesn't sit well with many black leaders. For what it's worth."

    Good for them. Too bad no one has the right to prevent a group that's being descriminated against from using similar examples from the past. Even if there are black people in this country who don't like the Civil Rights movement being referenced / used (and frankly, I'm going off of your word here, as that I've never heard of this), there really isn't anything they can do about it. You can't restrict people from citing history, even if you don't agree with them. Besides, I'd imagine that people who are both black AND gay see an awful lot of parallels. Just a hunch.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayard_Rustin

  • Brendan and Tomoyo, here is a link regarding black leaders' position on comparing the campaign for gay marriage with the civil rights movement:

    http://www.washtimes.com/national/20040315-122503-3346r.htm

    And Brendan, you're basing much of your arguments on the peculiar notion that marriage is about two people who love each other. Who decided that? Marriage is about *a man and a woman* who love each other. That other stuff about blacks not marrying whites, women as property, divorce being illegal - none of those things, when rightfully discarded, changed the nature of marriage itself, as would allowing two people of the same gender to marry. That is why the vast majority of people in this country are opposed to it - and I proudly stand with them. Now, since we have both expressed our opinions on this matter, can we move on?

  • People, this conversation does not belong here and you all know it. Bring it to the forums if you must, but please, let's not make JHM into a bash site (or at least not a non-Disney/Pixar/Entertainment-related bash site).

  • Gigglesock> Unless it's an extremely small group of people you can and will find all sorts of opinions among them. I think the links we posted show that. But that's all I'm going to say here.

  • Shaking hands and moving on...

  • Agreed. Moving on...

  • Would someone explain why so many people on this board think "Harry Potter" would be a lousy addition to a Disney park, but "Narnia" would be a delightful one? This sounds like the biggest rationalization I've ever heard.

    I should state that I'm perfectly happy to see neither in a Disney park--I can think of a lot more things they could do that would be more fun than rides based on either of these movies.

    (Oh, and the robot arm thing...if Disney really wants one badly enough, it'll be no trouble finding someone to build it for them.)

  • Narnia's going to be more synergy-friendly, but Power Rangers or Digimon would be as well.

    I suspect theme park presence is going to be something that secures HP, though. I mean, a new SW trilogy followed Star Tours and now Indy 4 is a go.  

  • When Harry Potter opens...I'm there with my school tie on!

    And why should JK be difficult! It's her baby...her vision

    I wish it was a whole separate park like discovery cove!

    go pay $300 come out with your wizarding o- levels

    Heaven!

  • <<Would someone explain why so many people on this board think "Harry Potter" would be a lousy addition to a Disney park, but "Narnia" would be a delightful one?>>

    The Narnia movies are made by Disney, HP is WB. Narnia has proven itself over the test of time, HP has not yet done so. Narnia "rebirth" has just begun, Potter movies (and books) are coming to an end.

  • HP is huge right now, but the book series is over this summer and WB's film franchise will probably end early in the next decade. It's a very active fandom right now but it's unknown how long it will keep up after the story's over. It may be the next Star Wars, or settle into a smaller fandom akin to something like 80s toons. I don't think Narnia's nearly as big but I think existing Disney properties should take priority provided they do well.

  • Wow, after years of reading this sight, I FINALLY felt compelled to join the conversation...

    Everyone keeps talking about Disney vs. non-Disney characters (and Brendan has covered this idea a bit), but can anyone count how many feature film characters were actually created by Disney?  Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty...all were well-known fairy tales before Disney ever got a hold of them.  Dumbo was loosely based on a children's book by Helen Aberson which was itself an adaptation of a true story.   Pinnochio was acquired from Carlo Collodi's estate.  Austrian Felix Salten wrote Bambi around 2 decades prior to the Disney movie. 101 Dalmations was a novel prior to Disney's take on it and The Jungle Book was, of course, a book by Rudyard Kipling.  The story of King Arthur was around long before The Sword and the Stone, and Robin Hood was a man before he was a fox.  Hunchback, Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Hercules are all evident in their historical/literary backgrounds. And there are several good articles around the web (possibly this site, I'm not certain) and many  books about the hoops Walt jumped through to get the movie rights to Peter Pan (James Barrie) as well as his acquisition of the Alice in Wonderland (Louis Carrol) characters.  Beauty and the Beast- another well known fairy tale.  The Little Mermaid- Hans Christian Anderson.  The Rescuers come from Margerie Sharp's children's novels.  Alladin is an adaptation from a portion of Arabian Nights. The Pooh rights case between Disney and A.A. Milne's family have us all up to date on that.  

    I think I covered most of the majors, and some that weren't, which leaves us with The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, Lilo and Stitch, Brother Bear, The Emporer's New Groove, Atlantis, Treasure Planet, and The Aristocats.

    I don't know about you guys, but for the most part (there are some exceptions), I think Disney does a better job with its character acquisitions than it does when they are conceptualized in house.  

    Maybe Disney really did miss out on Harry Potter...it seems that most of the people who have actually read the books are convinced (myself included) it will be around for our children as well.  Most of the criticism appears to come from people who are tired of the hype and marketing and have never read the books.  Of course these are broad generalizations, but for the most part...

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