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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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  • Wow... quite a few different opinions here. Personally, I think an entire re-theming of Adventureland is wrong, however adding more pirates to the land would be ok by me. POTC Ride has been a Disney staple for... well...since Disneyland opened, remember the outcry when WDW didnt have it, and they had to jam it in? I think ading to the pirate contingent in MK is a good idea, pirates are timeless -regardless if they dont hold up against the kiddie fare today or not, the fact the ride has existed and thrived for over 50 years is proff that pirates are popular as a theme park attraction.

    I really liked the idea about turning discovery island into a Tortuga or whatever, I had not thought about that, great idea. However lets assume that they powers that be only want to increase their pirate levels in the MK park itself.

    So... where does it go? Do they tear out existing structures? Move them? Lets think about this for a moment.... Lets say that the JC needs an update due to the movie coming out. Do we get rid of the ride? Heck no... we move the ride. There is land behind MS USA and on the other side of the railway tracks. The JC loading area can move to but no one says the course has to be the same.

    Now in the vacant land from the "old" JC course make potc ride better and longer. Add more scenes add the black peral battling the flying dutchman, our boats can go around the whirlpool with these two battling boats. Add the bayou scene which should have always been there and maybe one other scene from the movie.

    I also like the idea of chaning Tom Sawyer Island to a pirate island, I know getting people to the island has always been a problem (riverboat capacity sucks!) So why not build a pirate ship (Black pearl?) that is somethign to explore and acts as a bridge to the island? Yes... yes.... I know it does pose a problem for the Riverboat.... I'm not sure what to do about that one.

    Also I would add a "E" ticket ride just west of POTC ont eh other side of the rail tracks. I know this area would be top heavy with "E" rides (Splash Mountain, Big Thunder) and thats where the smart guys at WDW would worry about crowd control etc... I just think of the big ideas. I would like a ride using either the Spiderman or indy Ride technology.

    Here is the thing... WDW alrady has a stron track record with Pirates, as for Harry Potter... well the last book is coming out, 2 more movies after this one (maybe 3) after that what vehicle will there be to inspire new generations of Potter fans? Star wars is lucky they have spanned to new generations thanks to (love or hate them) the prequils. I dont see Potter having much life after the last movie... I could be wrong, but... just a feeling.

    Also last note... I agree with those who said not EVERY ride needs to be themed after a movie, I like that many of the original rides were just stand alone. Look at it this way would POTC movies have been made if all rides were built on movies? The ride wouldnt have existed until aftert he movie was made. However if theming rides after movies means more development into rides, then maybe its not that bad. (I am only refering to MK here, I know other parks make rides not based on movies)

    soor this was so long... had lots to say.

  • Whatever WDI chooses to do with Adventureland, I think we're past the time when we need to worry what "Walt wanted" for the Magic Kingdom or for any of its lands. I doubt that Walt planned for Main Street, U.S.A. to be one giant merchandise store, or for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to sit vacant for years, or for the Downtown Disney Area to exist at all. The point is, Walt couldn't have imagined a lot of what's happened at WDW, and that doesn't make it any less entertaining or enjoyable.

    I loved the original Pirates attraction, and I love Haunted Mansion, and Space Mountain and all of the classic attractions, but at some point are Disney fans getting blinded by nostalgia? Call it blasphemy if you'd like, but some of the "classic" rides really suck as attractions (DLR's Enchanted Tiki Room and Matterhorn top the list).

    Walt's legacy isn't specific 50-year-old rides--it's the concept of creating richly themed, immersive attractions that Guests look forward to experiencing over and over again. Disney is still the best at this, and as long as they keep this in mind (rather than clinging to specific, outdated rides), they always will be.

  • Tomoyo said, "A park presence can help keep a brand alive- look at Star Wars and Indy with movies made or greenlit _after_ the ride."

    You really think it was Star Tours and the Epic Stunt show that kept Star Wars and Indy in the public eye?!?!?  If anything, it was the enduring popularity of each franchise that kept people interested in the theme park offerings.

  • Cosmic Ray said:

    "Whatever WDI chooses to do with Adventureland, I think we're past the time when we need to worry what "Walt wanted" for the Magic Kingdom or for any of its lands. I doubt that Walt planned for Main Street, U.S.A. to be one giant merchandise store, or for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to sit vacant for years, or for the Downtown Disney Area to exist at all. The point is, Walt couldn't have imagined a lot of what's happened at WDW, and that doesn't make it any less entertaining or enjoyable."

    Walt would be saddened to know that E.P.C.O.T. was never built.  Considering it was one of the final things he planned out on the hospital ceiling for his brother before he died.  WDI ignores the original design.  They stuck it in a dark corridor on the TTA instead of housing the original designs in the Epcot Park.

  • What about the Jungle Cruise francise-tentpole movie that is supposedly being worked on? Could that too influence this possible Adventurine-Piratesland? Interesting...

  • Disney has a new Swiss Family Robinson movie coming out in '07 or '08.  The Treehouse ain't going anywhere.

  • The reason all we get these days is an interactive video screen.... is because we keep paying for the rising price of a ticket.

    These interactive "attractions" while cool .... are something that could be installed at your local mall.

    Why invest in a $35 million dollar ride.... when you can build a $5000 video screen and have some programmers and artists do the rest.... and still charge $63 dollars a head to see it?

  • I was always dissapointed with the Adventureland of WDW or DL for that matter. It did not have a true adventure "I am lost in the jungle" feel. That is why I am very glad that they moved into the right direction with Adventureland in Disneyland Paris. I believe that is they do change the WDW adventureland it is for the best, as now it looks very chaotic, no clear theme. Disneyland Paris adventureland really gives a person the feeling he is exploring! The caves, long bridges and overgrowth of bamboo make you feel you feel you are some place far away. It is also very Pirate themed. The place has a skull rock, huge captain hook pirate ship, mermaid lagoon and underground caverns with pirate treasure's and not to forget the PoC ride itself.

    But I do hope they have a better anwser to the move of Universal to make a Potter Land. A tortuga Island could be very promising, and be good competition for Potterto be honost. They need to go by it the right way though, give it a real "cosy" but "dirty" pirates feel. A Pirate Tavern would be amazing, as long as they do not turn it into a restaurant. Have the tavern with a pirate band, and serve only drinks and small snacks. Sell real alcoholic bevrages for adults, and for the kids why not have alcoholic free beer or fruitbeer. Keep it real, so that people really feel as if they are on Tortuga, accomplish that and you have a winner in your hands. To me that sounds better and more exciting than a Narnia franchise land due to the complex world of Narnia. If you have Pirate Land you can dress up people to look like pirates. Have a Narnia land and it would be really hard to have realistic costumes  where people look like centaurs and little talking bevers (as there are no humans in Narnia) .  

    Just my two cents :)

  • Tmerman said: "Sell real alcoholic bevrages for adults, and for the kids why not have alcoholic free beer or fruitbeer. "

    None of the Magic Kingdoms (at least stateside, I don't know about elsewhere) will ever sell Alcholoic Beverages.  The only excepion is the exclusive Club 33 because well, it's exclusive and not open to the public.  This mandate came from Walt Disney himself.  You can get Alcoholic drinks on WDW property, just not in the Magic Kingdom.

  • I always felt the old Skyway landing point in Fantasyland would be a great place for Grumpy's Tavern.  A place to get a tall, frosty mug of Rootbeer and scoops of Ice Cream.  WDW used to sell shirts advertising a fictional rootbeer tavern named Grumpy's Tavern.

  • Just a side note for Techguy, California Adventure does have a wine tasting area.  It's the first place I hit up when I arrive. :P

  • michguy said above that the Swiss Family Treehouse isn't going anywhere, due to an upcoming remake of the Swiss Family Robinson. Couldn't the Imagineers or whoever just transplant the tree over to Disney/MGM? It is a "tree" after all:)

  • Yes there is alcohol on Disney Properties, but the Magic Kingdoms (Disneyland and WDW) do not sell Alcohol.  You can get drinks from around the world at EPCOT, you can get beer at MGM, even Downtown Disney sells various drinks.  The Magic Kingdoms have not and will not sell Alcohol, with the exception of Club 33 at Disneyland.  That's the way Walt wanted it to be.

  • DailyRich> Speaking as someone born a little too late to see any of the Star Wars OT  in their original theatrical run, my main memories up until the mid-90s  were related to the ride. And I imagine the same is true of my little sister with Indy. For generations that came after the movie a theme park presence is a way to maintain and develop brand awareness. Not the only way, mind you, but a decent starting point with a location that will always have the films available for sale and some merchandise. I do think it contributes to a brand's longevity long after its story has been told. And I think that'll be the case with Potter, if done correctly and kept up.

    And Swiss Family Remake doesn't necessarily mean the treehouse won't go down anyway. Country Bears went down in Anaheim months before the film, although it still had another one in the US- unlike SFT. But the Tarzan overlay's recent troubles lead me to believe it can't simply be moved.

  • I think turning Adventureland into Pirateland would honestly be great - partly because the Pirates attraction/concept was one that Disney - and by that I mean Walt Disney - dreamed up himself. It's a Disney original. And if it were done right it would be a huge boost to the parks, and easily be on a par with Universal's Potter attraction.

    But once again I have to ask....what about NARNIA!!!!!! I haven't heard SQUAT about any attraction based on that very successful film based on a timeless classic that the "Potter" books can't even touch in terms of quality, imagery and creativity. A Narnia attraction would be great in either Fantasyland or that waste of space that is the Animal Kingdom. The only good thing about that place is the Tree of Life - the rest of it is just a damn zoo no matter how the Disney admeisters spin it. I don't understand why Disney isn't making more of their rights to a British fantasy tale that is more than equal to "Potter" and has stood the test of time. Have you heard *anything* regarding any imagineering plans for Narnia, Jim?

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