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Why (For) Disney doesn't feel all that bad about missing out on the theme park rights to "Harry Potter" ?

Why (For) Disney doesn't feel all that bad about missing out on the theme park rights to "Harry Potter" ?

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As you might expect, I got an awful lot of e-mail yesterday concerning that "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" project that Universal Studios just announced. That $500 million re-theming of the "Lost Continent" section of Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park.

First up, Kurt G. wrote in to say:


 Boy, Disney is going to regret passing this one up !

Dear Kurt G.

Actually, I don't honestly think that this is really the case here. You have to remember that Disney was trying to make a deal with J.K. Rowling back in late 2004 / early 2005. During those dark, depressing days when Steve Jobs & Michael Eisner were openly sniping at one another and it genuinely looked like WDFA & Pixar weren't going to renew their highly successful co-production pact.


"Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling
 Photo courtesy of Google Images

At that point in the company's history, Disney was eager to acquire the theme park rights to the Harry Potter characters because

A) It would give the Imagineers a very popular franchise to build new rides, shows and attractions around, and ...

B) This theme park rights acquisition could then also serve as a future distraction.

That way, whenever anyone in the press and/or the financial community would begin complaining about how Disney had let Pixar slip away ... Well, Disney officials could then just point to the Potter deal and say: "Look, we don't need Pixar anymore. We've got the theme park rights to J.K. Rowling's characters now. Don't worry about Disney. We're going to be just fine."

Of course, the plan that I've described above is a Michael Eisner-era scheme. Once Bob Iger came to power at the Walt Disney Company ... Well, Bob is really more of a pragmatist. And Iger figured that -- in the long run -- it would be far better for the Mouse if the company were to remain in business with Pixar. Rather than allow that CG studio to go off on its own and then emerge as additional competition for WDFA.


Walt Disney Company CEO Robert Iger
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

So Bob made pursuing a new deal with Pixar his top priority, rather than pushing WDI to do whatever it had to in order to make J.K. happy. So that Disney could then close a deal with this rather demanding author and acquire all of the theme park rights to the Harry Potter characters.

So then ... When word came back from Glendale that Rowling was making unrealistic demands, that the various items that she was insisting on including as part of Phase One of Disney's Harry Potter park would just make this project fiscally irresponsible as well as an operational nightmare ... It was Iger who then reportedly made the decision that the company shouldn't continue to pursue this deal. That it would be far better for all parties involved -- if they couldn't agree on what show elements should be included in the Potter project -- that Disney & Rowling just abandon this negotiation.

Which is why -- in late 2005 -- J.K. began talking with the folks over at Universal. Whereas Bob ... He then had Disney redouble its efforts to renew that studio's co-production pact with Pixar. Never dreaming that Steve Jobs might ever agree to sell his animation studio outright to the Mouse for some $7.4 billion.

So if you were to press senior Disney officials on this matter ... Yeah, I'm sure that they'd express some regret that the company wasn't ultimately able to acquire the theme park rights to the Harry Potter characters. But then when you compare that lost opportunity with being able to own Pixar (More importantly, to own all of the merchandising rights to every single one of the characters that John Lasseter & his talented team have created and/or will create) ... It's really not a contest.

Next up, Mickey_Morse_Code writes in to ask:

So what do you think of Universal's plans for that Harry Potter addition to IOA ? Those concept paintings look just amazing. I just wonder if that, once built, this part of the park is really going to deliver on the depicted level of detail.


 Copyright 2007 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved

Dear Mickey_Morse_Code,

I'll say this much. It's a very, very clever re-theming of the "Lost Continent" section of Islands of Adventure.

I mean, if you take a close look at that owl's-eye-view of the proposed retheming of this side of that theme park, you'll notice that IOA's extremely popular "Dueling Dragons" racing coasters is still one of the featured attractions for this part of the park. Only -- in this incarnation -- it's be re-imagined as part of the Tri Wizard Tournament. Where brave wizards do battle with fierce dragons. With the hope that they'll be able to win the Goblet of Fire.


Copyright 2007 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved

FYI : As you wander through the significantly overhauled queue for "Dueling Dragons" (Which will have 90% of its skeletons removed, so I hear), you'll actually get a chance to get a close-up look at the Goblet. Which -- just as it appeared in the "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" film -- will be displayed on an ornate pedestal with magical blue flames licking out of its top.

The key to making this project affordable (Which -- given the enormous licensing fees that both J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. are demanding as well as that huge cut of this area's merchandising money that Universal allegedly had to surrender -- is a real challenge) is that Universal Creative already had the good strong bones of IOA's "Lost Continent" area to build upon.

Take -- for example -- that area's "Flying Unicorn" kiddie coaster. According to what I hear, Universal plans on retheming this area so that you first queue up in the garden outside of Hagrid's cottage. Then -- after wandering through the Care of Magical Creatures teacher's home -- you then get the chance to board the now re-themed "Flying Hippogriff" kiddie coaster.


 Copyright 2007 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved

By clever reuse of pre-existing facilities, Universal is then able to concentrate most of its money on things that the "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" will really need. Which are:

  • The incredible level of detail that Harry Potter fans have now come to expect from all of Warner Bros. films. Which is why it's very fortunate that Universal was able to persuade Stuart Craig (I.E. Production designer of all of the "Harry Potter" pictures that Warners has produced to date) to come ride herd on this project. So that there'll then be some artistic consistency between the "Wizarding World" that one sees in the "Harry Potter" films and the one people will soon be able to visit in Central Florida.
  • A big "E" Ticket attraction. Which -- as you may have already heard -- will be a state-of-the-art family-friendly thrill ride that will then allow IOA guests to first soar through the trees of the Forbidden Forest and then fly high above the grounds of Hogwarts inside of the Weasley family's Ford Anglia. (FYI : This attraction will reportedly be housed inside of the soon-to-be-closed-and-gutted "Eighth Voyage of Sindbad" stunt show theater).


Copyright 2002 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved

As I said earlier, this is a very, very clever retheming of IOA's "Lost Continent" section. One that -- provided that Universal Creative is actually able to deliver on J.K. Rowling's incredibly rich source material -- will then make this Central Florida theme park a "must see" for all Harry Potter fans worldwide.

Which then brings us to today's final "Why For" question. Which comes from Lucas A. Who wrote in to say;

Disney's not going to leave this challenge unanswered, right ? Tell me that the Imagineers have some great new theme park or huge new attraction up their sleeve that Disney can use to lure tourists away from the "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" ?

Dear Lucas A.

You know how you're supposed to fight fire with fire ? Well, when it comes to theme parks, you fight franchise with franchise.


Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Please forgive that I can't be more definitive here. But -- obviously -- given that WDI has just undergone a pretty significant management change, a lot of that division's plans are now very much in flux. As Bruce Vaughn & Craig Russell review many of the plans that Tom Fitzgerald originally hatched for the company's Florida parks and then see how many of these projects Walt Disney Imagineering still wants to implement.

I'll say this much : One of the more intriguing ideas that's currently on the table is a total revamp of the theming of the Magic Kingdom's Adventureland section. Where this part of that theme park would basically become Pirate Land. And the Swiss Family Treehouse would be ripped out & replaced by a full-sized version of the Black Pearl that you could explore. And the long-empty Adventureland Veranda would then be changed into this Pirates-themed tavern that featured interactive entertainment. Where even the "Enchanted Tiki Room" would be reworked so that this Audio-Animatronic show would star pirate parrots.

Of course, the really big draw for this side of the Magic Kingdom would be an "E" Ticket. A brand-new thrill ride that (Keying off the proposed storyline of "Pirates of the Caribbean 4." I.E. Captain Jack Sparrow & Barbossa's search for the Fountain of Youth) would then take WDW guests through this long-abandoned, over-grown temple that is just loaded with booby traps.

You know ? Something similar to Tokyo DisneySea's new "Raging Spirits" coaster ? Only with a more piratical twist ?


Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Oriental Land Company.
All Rights Reserved

Now please keep in mind that this "Pirates of the Caribbean" -based retheming of the Magic Kingdom's Adventureland section is -- of course -- conditional on Bruce & Craig actually liking Tom's original concept and then deciding to move this rather elaborate & expensive redo through WDI's extremely convoluted approval process. And then Bob Iger would have to agree to put up all of the money necessary to tackle a retheming project of this size. (And -- no -- I don't have any answers yet as to how this proposed Adventureland revamp might then impact "The Jungle Cruise" and/or "The Magic Carpets of Aladdin." Whether these two Magic Kingdom favorites would be left alone, rethemed to reflect this area's new "Pirates" -based theming and/or removed entirely).

Obviously, there are a lot of "ifs" involved in the Adventureland retheming scenario that I've described above. Which is just one of the many possible ways that the Imagineers may choose to answer the challenge of IOA's new "Wizarding World" addition. In essence sending Captain Jack Sparrow out to do battle with Harry Potter for your theme park dollars.

So which franchise do you folks think would come out on top in a big budget brawl like that ? Your thoughts ?

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  • Very Interesting. Disney's definately putting a lot on Pirates, almost like a certain gameshow with a certain morning show host. Considering the last film was quite a mess story wise (IE who didn't understand that Will was only supposed to be on the flying Dutchman for 10 years or why the kracken, a great revival of a classic sea monster, was suddenly bumped off with little to no good reason), I'm quite afraid for all these new makeovers.

    And am i dislexic or is there something off with this sentence?

    "Which is why it's very fortunate that Universal was able to persuade Stuart Craig (I.E. The art director of incredibly able to persuade Stuart Craig (I.E. Production designer of all of the "Harry Potter" pictures that Warners has produced to date) to come ride herd of this project. "

  • I think a complete Pirate makeover of Adventureland would be perfect. For starters, it would please many of those who want something new in MK. And let's be honest, the only non-pirate ride there fans (as a whole) have affection towards is the Jungle Cruise. And considering that is already an attraction based on water, all they would really have to do is alter the locations from the Nile & Amazon, etc to be locations like the Caribbean & Singapore. Easy changeover and they would be able to create a whole new slew of jokes. As for the rest, Magic Carpets, Tiki Room, Swiss Treehouse......... I say let the pirates invade!

  • I think a Pirates theme at the MK might be a nice change, but at the same time who's to say how long the Pirates craze will go on?  Harry Potter has been around a few years now, so it's got more legs than Jack Sparrow at this point.  Now, if Disney were to focus on making nice with George Lucas and securing more Star Wars themed attractions or lands, that might be a good contender to go head-to-head with Harry Potter.  Just look how strong the Star Wars Weekends at MGM are, and that the franchise is going on 30 years strong.  If MGM...oh, Disney-Pixar Studios had a brand new Star Wars land, with an updated Star Tours and several other attractions in it, that could easily compete with Universal's new plans.

  • I can't believe I'm going to say this ... I agree with askmike.

    Honestly, most of Adventureland is a wasteland to me anymore. As fond as I was of the old Tiki Room, the "new improved" one is a disaster that never warrants my time. Dumbo Part Deux ... er ... the Adventureland Orbiter ... er ... the Magic Carpets of Aladdin could be blown up on the spot and I'd dance on it's grave. That was one of the biggest disasters of all time ... completely ruined the crowd flow and the atmosphere of Adventureland and was an exact dup of two existing rides in MK (not to mention one in AK).

    I love the Jungle Cruise for nostalgia's sake, but I'd be lying if I said I'd been on it in awhile. While I'd be sad on some level to see it go, I'd be interested in seeing what they could do with it pirate-wise.

  • I would imagine that Harry Potter might get a lot of business because it would be new, but Disney should be okay with more Pirated-themed attractions. Why does it always have to be one upending the other?

  • I actually think The Walt Disney Company has dodged a bullet on this one.  Thanks to the Pixar entanglement and other priorities.

    Universal has a declared two-year schedule on the Potter project, with Warner execs and JK Rowling all over it throughout the design development phase.  Add to that the inevitable disconnect between how a film is production designed, and the rather serious  requirements involved with theme park design.  Theme park sets have to last for years with lots of abuse...a movie set has to last for the duration of the shoot and that's it.  I hope Stuart Craig's learning curve is a short one...because a two-year schedule doesn't allow for many second chances.  For example, I love the snowy renderings of the Universal press release, but snow, whether it's painted plaster or real, gets dirty and it's impossible to maintain and those "Thomas Kinkaid" snowy rooftops will be grey in a matter of months.

    I don't envy the person charged with the liaison position between the Universal team, the Warner execs, and Rowling.....he or she needs to wear body armor.

    WDI will do quite well with the Pirates IP.  Back in the day, loved it when Universal would develop a new attraction because Eisner would get anxious and want to come up with something better...it became an attractions arms race.

  • ^^Not only would Eisner want to come up with something better, but he'd want it open _before_ Universal's.

  • This is blasphemy!  It's okay to rework rides because rides are rides.  What we are talking about is a complete rework of what Walt Disney believed Disneyland/The Magic Kingdom to be.  We are talking about removing Walt's land of adventure and the unknown.  A cornerstone upon which Disneyland was built.  I agree the tiki room needs to be removed.  But, it should be replaced with the original tiki room.  That 90's extreme/hip junk has to go.

    Without the jungles and the south pacific feel, adventureland loses all meaning.  What adventureland needs is an "E" ticket attraction like the Indiana Jones adventure in Disneyland.  There sure is a lot of land behind Jungle Cruise for another Forbidden Temple type attraction.

    If you want to add the Black Pearl walkthrough, what about reviving the old Pirate's Rock from the 1950's Disneyland Fantasyland?

    We are losing Tomorrowland.  It's becoming Pixarland.  I love Pixar and all their movies.  Soon they will have a park all to themselves (the Disney*Pixar Studios).  Most of their films could fit into Fantasyland (great for a Monster's Inc flying door ride).  Why invade Tomorrowland?  

    Even when Walt tore down Tomorrowland, he didn't replace it with characters from his movies.  He looked to the future.  Why not look at attractions for the "Possible" Tomorrow instead of the "Fantasy Tomorrow"?  You remember the final act of the Carousel of Progress?  Very outdated with the virutal reality games and graphics.  It looks like it came out of the early 90's.  That's a great place to show off newer, current products that can pick up sponsorships.  How about, oh I don't know, maybe a little company called Apple, Inc.?  I don't think that sponsorship should be too hard.

    The first shot has been taken at Frontierland in Anaheim.  Frontierland's cornerstone is gone.  The original design that Walt Disney himself drew out on a cocktail napkin is gone.  Replaced with a theme that was a century and a half before Tom and Huck.  The entire Frontierland is next.  "Who cares about Cowboys anymore?"

    If Magic Kingdom wants to do anything look at the huge piece of land behind the Winnie the Pooh Playground.  What land you ask?  Hop aboard the Walt Disney World Railroad (how long until that's removed?) and look at all the land behind Fantasyland as you make the turn from Fronteirland to Mickey's ToonTown Fair.  Perfect place for an "E" ticket (*cough*Matterhorn*cough*).

    So the Magic Kingdom is looking to become Main Street, Piratesland, Frontierland (but how much longer?), Liberty Square, Fantasyland, and Pixarland.

    Is this what Walt would have done?

  • Meh.

    Losing Harry Potter seems fine. Will Harry Potter be timeless? Or will people cringe at a Harry Potter themed anything 15 years from now, much like they would at anything Roger Rabbit themed?

    Even less timeless is Pirates. Redoing an entire section of the park in its image seems an awful idea.

    I dislike comparing Pirates to The Matrix, but it works. The franchise was riding extremely high after the first movie, but the second movie hurt many people and the third was added insult. As a result the franchise is mostly insignficant, even the video games are flopping. Pirates has had the exact same effect on some people. Nowhere near as many, but still some.

    Adventureland might be old, but it's got appeal to everyone.

    A Pirateland would lose some of that appeal. People that dislike the second and third movies would likely try to avoid the section altogether. And, over time, interest would dwindle. Everything would age quickly as pop culture ages quickly.

    Rides tied to movies, fine. Sections of parks tied to movies, not as fine.

    Five to ten years from now everyone will regret it.

  • "I can't believe I'm going to say this ... I agree with askmike."

    If it makes you feel better, I like the new Tiki Room (at least better than the borefest that was the original). Still, I wouldn't mind at all if they destroyed it.

  • Id be most excited for the Black Pearl to be honest.

  • Having read the descriptions of both the Pirateland and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter--I'd probably spend more time at the Harry Potter attraction.

    Disney really needs to step up on this. I don't think Narnia is necessary the answer because the main characters change from book to book. I really enjoyed reading the Narnia series, but I'm looking forward to the new Harry movie much more than Prince Caspian.

  • This sounds really promising to me.  The PoTC overlay of Tom Sawyer's Island at Disneyland gives me hope that this could be done elegantly.  I prefer Disneyland's Adventureland, mostly due to it's feeling of immediacy and focused themeing.  WDW's has too many cultural references (African, Polynesian, Middle Eastern, Spanish, etc.) so it doesn't feel as cohesive as it's California cousin.  I disagree that it needs the jungles and the South Pacific feel for its meaning.  WDW needs the Magic Kingdom's Adventureland to be a markedly difference experience from Animal Kingdom's Africa and Asia.  The worlds of the PoTC films are lush and enigmatic enough to inspire the same level of mystery and adventure as an African setting.  Doing this would also allow for more room for PoTC-based attractions without the need of shoehorning them into the original attraction.

    I would guess that the Jungle Cruise would stay the same.  The film version is set for release in 2009, so it wouldn't make sense to make it Pirate's Jungle Cruise.  As that film will certainly follow the PoTC formula, it should fit in (at least in tone) to the revised Adventureland.

  • Personally, I think Pirate themes are rich enough not to just be a "land"... but possibly a separate park altogether. Pirates VS Potter?  I think a "Pirate land" will have longevity.... as long as you include MORE than just what's from the movies. Its an historical era. Treat it that way. Potter will be great for a few years... but I don't see people flocking 20 years from now. Thats why there is no "Wizard of Oz" land. I agree with the person who suggested the best way to compete with Potter directly is to expand the Star Wars areas.

    As far as changing things that already exist? My thoughts are mixed depending on whether you are talking Disneyland... or Disney World.

    Changing "adventure land" into "pirate land" .... bad idea. There is more to "adventure" than pirates and capt Jack sparrow or really any movie. The island/jungle theme of the land is more universal as it is. Don't mess with it. (Although I like the idea of turning Tom Sawyers Isle or a portion of it into a pirate themed zone in California).

    Changing the TIKI room? CA - No way... preserve Walts original. Florida - certainly... anything is better than that Iago / Zazu stuff.

    There has got to be more to these parks than just more advertising for movies. It’s no question that Country Bears were yanked out of "Critter" country in California to make way for Pooh.... obviously to better promote a series of new DVD and cartoon releases. BAD IDEA. These kids grow up.

    Believe it or not... some people may love the parks.... not everyone likes every Disney movie or cartoon nor should they have to in order to enjoy the park.

    The phrase ... "as long as there is imagination left in the word" doesn't mean much when you base everything on a movie.

  • If you believe that "Disney" is not horribly upset about losing Harry Potter to Universal, I have some nice swamp land you might want to buy, and it ain't anywhere near WDW.  Can y'all say "Rationalization"?  Jim Hill, come on!  Even you can't believe this spin.

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