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

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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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  • I think the problem with Narnia ... is that the story.... at least for the first Chapter.... takes place in a forest or on the plains.   How much can you really do with that?  I can see a major attraction.... but a whole themed land? I don't know about that. Perhaps by the time all the chapters are done in movie form... there would be enough to work with ... but thats going to be another 10 years.

    I still think that STAR WARS is a better bet as far as dirrect competition with Potter. There are just so many locations that could be explored. And the ride ideas could be endless. With the new animated series coming out in 2008 and who knows what after that ....

    Who knows... maybe Lucas wants to make his own park eventually.

  • Adventureland is ripe for a major overall.  If you look at the amount of land it occupies, my guess is that it's not attracting the kind of traffic it should.  A pirates re-theming of the entire land could work (if you replace the bazaar with, say, Tortuga you could integrate shopping and restaurants).  The POTC ride can remain as-is with just some minor architectural changes to make it flow together.

    Magic Carpets would have to go, as would Jungle Cruise and Tiki Room.  Tiki Room would be difficult to do much with, as it's adjacent to Country Bear.  I'm not sure whether Swiss Family Treehouse would necessarily have to go, but it could be rethemed into something from Dead Man's Chest or At World's End.  But it's all doable.

  • The appropriate term here is "sour grapes".

    Disney is missing out on the biggest franchise since Star Wars.

    Personally, I haven't been to a theme park in years.  The Potter thing would be reason to visit, unless they botch it.  The pirates stuff sounds cool, but wouldn't be enough reason for me to make a trip just for that.

  • Jim Hill Readers: Meet Grain of Salt. Grain of salt, meet the Jim Hill readers...

    Hmmm, so 1st of all I need to say all of you shouting 'WHAT WOULD WALT DO!?', stop. Walt was a business man, and he was a showman. Its near impossible to say what he would do re: re-theming an area of his park. He stated Disneyland (and later world) would always be changing, meeting the needs of the population around it. Stop hypothosizing about what he would think, there is no way to know.

    I'm sure this is on the drawing table.....but I dont see it moving past that. I hope Pirates becomes a timeless fanchise for Disney. But if it doesnt, what a way to ruin an area that doesnt have problems getting people in.


    I think Universal is going to ruin the world of potter. Honestly. Not initially. no. Initally it will look cool. But once Universal has it built and the throngs of brats who are 'going to puke if they have to hug another princess' come through, and while their parents arent watching them, are ripping props up. And while the elements ruin the snow, and time lets mold grow on things, you will enter the Dilapidated world of Harry Potter in about 2010, 2011.

    Why for do I make that conclusion? Go to Universal/IOA right now. Check out the exposed gizmos/boning on the Jaws animatronics (doesnt look so real anymore). Get on Jurassic Park and check out the first Dinosaur on your left, his mold line, at the water line, reveils its been awhile since hes left that spot. Walk through the Spiderman que and check out all the missing keyboard keys, missing phone parts, falling apart computers and general scratchyness of the cubicle area. Universal has great ideas, but terrible follow-through and upkeep.

    And capacity issues? lol. lots of people are going to come to universal and be PISSED they will have to either shell out $50 for an express pass (on top of reg. admission), or wait 3 hours in line for these HP attractions. Thats my biggest complaint of IOA/Universal. No fastpass. And im NOT spending $50 to bypass the lines. Nor am i going to waste $250 to stay overnight when I live an hour away.

    Im just not concerned. Go to Universal, ride Shrek and watch them poke fun at the theme park that does it better. Get on Twister, and stand around in a room with wind machines and signs on strings. Ride the mummy with effects that never work. Stand in line 3 hours to ride the Hulk, and then get in line to experience HP, and the updated Delorean, I mean Flying Car attraction, and buy yourself some chocolate frogs.

    Cant wait to see it. But cant wait to see what Disney has in store in the future as well. Not as an answer to a controlling abomination of a woman. (JK rolling)

    My money will always be better spent at Disney.

  • "abomination"?

    Wow, that's harsh for someone who's created some of the most popular and beloved characters of recent years.  She's created this universe, and she SHOULD make sure that licensing stays true to the books.  It baffles me why that should inspire such vitrol.

  • While I like Harry Potter, I think gurgitoy2 is right. With Eisner gone, Lucas might jump at the chance to bring a new Star Wars attraction to life (or park ... you know there's enough of the franchise to build one). And that would kick Harry Potter's butt any day.

    I'll gladly run to IOA to see a Harry Potter-themed land, but guys like me all over the country would geek out over a Star Wars park. The franchise has stood the test of time. And while Potter will have more movies in the long run (7 to 6), three of the Star Wars films are movie classics. Empire is considered one of the best films ever. You can't beat that, J.K. Rowling.  

  • "You can't beat that, J.K. Rowling."

    In case you hadn't noticed, JKR is an author.  She writes books.  I'm not exactly sure how you'd consider a movie to "beat" a book, it's apples and oranges.

  • Harry Potter World might be the first thing that makes me want to go to USIOA since I left Orlando four years ago.  Now, when we go with the kids and stay on property, we spend our time at Disney.

    I may have to pony for some US passes.

  • I'm dizzy from reading all of that.

    I am STRONGLY opposed to changing Adventureland into Pirateland (or whatever name). No land should ever be themed to ONE movie. Make Adventureland more piratey-themed... fine. Add another pirates themed ride even... fine.

    I would hate to come to Disneyland one day and look at a map to find:

    Pirateland, Pixarland, Narnialand, etc,...

    Adventureland DOES need some TLC in a big way... but NOT THIS.

  • I don't think replacing a walk thru attraction with another walk thru attraction and adding a coaster, and a restaurant is really going to make Adventureland much better or really all that different or more piratey for that matter....coasters = piratey...eh not really......now I'm a huge pirate fan but I would rather they NOT give Adventureland and pirate make over.....

    I would rather they really go all out and build a huge pirate area at the studios... Take a page from the Disney Seas' Volcania/20K area.  Build Tortuga or Port Royal that would serve as a "Main Street" with Shipwrek Cove as the main area....have the walk through Black Pearl located at the dock here....build SC like it is in the film sitting in a crater looking thing....the actually pile o ships in the middle could be the pirates themed restaurant....around the inner perimeter of the crater there could be an E ticket or two...perhaps a Pirate dark ride using EMV technology.....Go for total immersion....from the time you enter Tortuga/Port Royal..whatever....you are in the films...DisneySea theming as opposed to California Adventure..

    Borrow a page from Pirate Lair at Disneyland and incorporate some of those ideas here as well.....I really think Imagineering could really go all out and do up a really well done, well themed pirate area if they just started from scratch rather than shoehorning some new ideas into an established area....

    And two pirate attractions at two different parks you say?  How many parks have Nemo....or Mermaid?  More than one my friends...

  • Lets not forget the upcoming Jungle Cruise movie.  How could Disney retheme adventureland into a Pirate dominate theme and leave the Jungle Cruise intact?  I'm in favor of updating Adventureland but leave it the way it is.  I'm still cringing at the whole Pirate's Lair/Tom Sawyer Island debacle.  Lets go with one or the other.  

    Why doesn't Disney redo River Country into a Pirate themed water park?  They can build a replica of the Black Pearl out there on the lake.  With WDI interactive kick they could build a fort on land that can duel the Black Pearl with water cannons.  

    Just my two dubloons

  • I am perplexed by the tendancy of people on these boards to dismiss Harry Potter offhand or to  villify JK Rowling. I have loved all things Disney since I was a wee one (I'm twenty seven now), but I have also fallen head over heels for the world of Harry Potter. Some  people's nasty attitudes make me wonder: does a love of Disney neccesitate blind hatred for all other brands?

    First of all, I strongly disagree with all the people who are saying that a Pirates-themed Park or rethemed Adventureland would 'outdo' a Harry Potter park or have greater longevity. Harry Potter is beloved by children and adults alike and has been a phenomenon for a decade now. As well, Harry Potter is not only a hit movie franchise: it is at its core a popular series of books. A book series has an ability to continually renew its fanbase in a way that most movies are not able to.

    On the other hand, POTC is merely a succeful movie trilogy that has been a going concern for only four years (The last movie was panned critically and certainly isn't making as much of a splash as the previous two.) Making a theme park based entirely on POTC would make about much sense as one based on The Matrix or Back To The Future.

    Lastly, the 'world' of Pirates does not approach the wonderfully Dickensian and 'rich' world of Harry Potter. POTC hardly offers the substance to sustain its own theme park (or re-themed Adventureland). Don't misunderstand me, I personally loved the first two POTC movies. But what made them wonderfully entertaining movies were the fresh spin they gave a stale and old-fashioned genre. Verbinski invested his Pirate films with the verve and vigour of a Michael Bay action flick and gave the Pirates a world that was stylized without being overly cartoony.

    My point is that, beneath Verbinski's great moviemaking (and Depp's wonderful turn as Sparrow), is a world that's filled with characters, situations, and settings that are cliched. In other words, the world of Pirates is a shallow one, hardly the stuff theme parks are made of.

    And to 'Yeti': I highly doubt the popularity of Star Wars with the under-thirty set is   equal to that of Potter.

    (Sorry, I didn't mean this to become some rambling, pro-Potter rant...)

  • You know, Disney has already built a land that was centered on pirates.

    Yea, it was built in 1973, it's called Caribbean Plaza, and they didn't even have to remove all of Adventureland to build it!

    Seriously, Disney will not completely destroy all of Adeventureland and theme it all to the pirates. The Jungle Cruise most likely cannot be touched, as it is a Disney classic. The Aladdin ride can easily be replaced, but the Tiki Room will have to stay, because it shares facilities with the Country Bear Jamboree (which also will never go anywhere), and besides it occupies only a small space.

    The Swiss Family Treehouse was completely rebuilt only 10 years ago, and since the Tarzan redo didn't happen in 1999 it will never happen. True, the Treehouse can't be described as popular, but it is cheap to operate (basically just cleaning, some lights, and occassionally one cast member by the entrance), it would be terribly expensive to rip out (it's "roots" go down forty or so feet into the ground), and is an attraction that can soak up excess crowds (people love anything without a line; the Treehouse by definition really never has a line, as the line and the attraction are one in the same, even if I have seen days where it has a ten-minute wait). Besides, this is one of the only attractions that is virtually unchanged from opening day, and it provides a nice, relaxed atmosphere for the entire land.

    Disney, however, may just go ahead and rehab Caribbean Plaza as a separate land, as it is one of the most underutilized areas of the park. There is land beyond the railroad tracks, and its probably better to get something entirely new out there than it would be to get our present Adventureland with some new paint and a bunch of Jolly Rogers.

  • Someone mentioned a retheming of River Country...why not.  I think a Pirate themed water park is a no brainer.  Bits of artwork that made it online shows that they have considered this. If Disney opened a pirates area at the newly named Disney/Pixar studios and at the same time opened a Pirates themed water park.... that would be quite a one, two punch worth of pirates......


    Tortuga Traders

    Imports from the caribbean and beyond...


  • Badlactose -

    You win. Your pro-potter rant sold me. I think that a Harry Potter themed "land" will do better and last longer than a POTC land ever would.

    UNLESS ...

    1. ...The actors and actresses that the under 30 set have been watching all these years in the movies do not allow their likenesses used for the park. (Why Harrison Ford didn't allow himself in Indiana Jones is still a sore spot for me). Face it.... the land will be build after the movies ... not the books.

    2. ...A "pirate land" at Disney is not merely an advertisment for the movies but rather a tribute to an era. In other words.... more GENERIC pirates and historical references than strictly POTC stuff. A historicly acurate 16th century Caribbean town doesn't automaticly say POTC 1, 2, or 3 to me.

    3. ...They scrap a pirate section and expand Star Wars. I am going to hold my ground on this one. Star Wars offers sci-fi and technology. Potter offers magic. Since sci-fi and technology requires sci-fi and technology and magic requires ... well technology in order to look like magic... I think Star Wars has more to offer than Potter, POTC, Narnia etc... combined.

    Personally... I think there is room in florida for both a galaxy far away and an academy for wizards.

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