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Huge crowds for Harry Potter: The Exhibition offers clues as to how well Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World will be received

Huge crowds for Harry Potter: The Exhibition offers clues as to how well Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World will be received

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Denny P. dropped me a line on Saturday to ask:

Did you see Jason Garcia’s story in the Sentinel yesterday about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? As a Disney fan, this sounds like complete hype to me. But what do you think? Is this Islands of Adventure addition really going to be a game changer for Universal Orlando?

Concept drawing of Hogwarts Castle at Universal Studios Orlando
Copyright 2010 Universal Orlando. All Rights Reserved

Let me get this straight: You're seriously asking whether a $200 million addition to IOA based on the highest earning film franchise of all time is going to have a significant impact on UOR's attendance levels? Silly muggle. Even The Walt Disney Company now acknowledges the power of Potter. (Don't believe me? Then you probably weren't watching ABC Family yesterday afternoon. When -- just as they've done multiple times in the past -- this Disney-owned cable channel ran "Prison of Azkaban" & "Goblet of Fire" back-to-back. And then there's the Mouse's real motivation for greenlighting WDW's Fantasy Forest project. Which I'll get to in a minute ... ).

But you're looking for definitive proof that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is going to be huge, Denny? That visitors to Central Florida are actually going to go out of their way to come check out this new area to Universal's Islands of Adventure? Okay, then. Let's talk about how Harry Potter: The Exhibition has been doing since this 10,000-square-foot display first began traveling around the country back in April of last year.

Hedwig carries an invitation to the Harry Potter Exhibition on the poster for the East Coast exhibition event
Copyright Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter Publishing Rights copyright JKR

The crowds really came out in Chicago for this traveling exhibit's 5-month-long stop at the Museum of Science and Industry. Take -- for example -- June 19th, 2009. When 19,995 people made their way to the MSI to check out the more than 200 costumes & props that were on display. And for the final weeks of Harry Potter: The Exhibition, MSI officials actually pushed back this exhibit's closing time 'til midnight on Friday and Saturday nights in an effort to accommodate as many Potter fans as possible.

And this traveling exhibit proved to be equally popular when it moved on to Boston's Museum of Science in October. Just last month during Christmas Vacation week, 30,000 people made a special trip into the city, braving the snow & the cold to check out Harry Potter: The Exhibition. Which is why -- in order to keep those crowds under control -- MOS staffers sometimes had to bend the rules.

The Harry Potter exhibit includes Hagrid's Hut where everything is large
The interior of Hagrid’s hut. Photo by Chris Hollo, Hollo Photographies, Inc.

“We’re only supposed to let 50 people into the exhibit at a time and then keep those groups spaced 5 minutes apart," explained one unnamed HPTE staffer. "But things got so busy & so crazy during the Christmas Vacation week that we sometimes had to bump up that number from 50 to 60 people. Which made things really hot & crowded inside of the exhibit area. But that at least allowed us to get the line outside back under control.”

Everyone can pull up a mandrake in the Herbology area of the Harry Potter Exhibit
Kids pulling up mandrakes in the Herbology area at the exhibit.
Photo by Chris Hollo, Hollo Photographies, Inc.

And since the Ontario Science Centre is already reporting extremely strong ticket sales for the third stop of the "Harry Potter: The Exhibition" tour  ... Well, Universal Orlando has been keeping close tabs on all of the crowd control challenges that this traveling exhibit has been facing. With an eye toward some of the operational changes that UOR may now need to make at Islands of Adventure in order to handle all of the Harry Potter fans that are sure to come surging into that theme park later this year. 

Harry Potter and Ron Weasley's dormitory rooms at the Harry Potter Exhibit
Harry Potter and Ron Weasley’s dormitory rooms.
Photo by Chris Hollo, Hollo Photographies, Inc.

To explain: Ever since Universal Orlando's second theme park first opened back in May of 1999, the typical IOA visitor -- as they exited Port of Entry -- would  turn left and then head over to Marvel Super Hero Island so that they could get on line for the Incredible Hulk Coaster.

The Incredible Hulk roller coaster at Universal Studios Orlando
Copyright Universal Orlando. All Rights Reserved

But once The Wizarding World opens later this Spring, Universal Orlando officials anticipate that the typical IOA visitor will now turn right as they exit Port of Entry and then walk straight through Suess Landing. They won’t stop for any of the rides, shows or attractions that are located in this whimsical part of that theme park. No, the current belief in-house at UOR is that these tourists will blow right past Suess Landing, motor on through what’s left of The Lost Continent and then just keep going until they reach Hogsmeade Village.

A concept painting of Hogsmeade Villiage being built at Universal Studios Orlando
Copyright 2010 Universal Orlando. All Rights Reserved

As one Universal Orlando veteran told me last week:

“We’re probably going to have to completely rethink how we staff Islands of Adventure. At least during the first half of the day. With so many of our Guests now going right instead of left as they enter the park, that means we’re going to have to temporarily shift staff and resources away from Marvel Super Hero Island & Toon Lagoon and then place them over in Suess Landing, The Lost Continent & Wizarding World in order to handle the crowds.

A concept drawing of the inside of a Hogsmeade store
Copyright 2010 Universal Orlando. All Rights Reserved

Things will eventually balance out again over the course of the day. But at least during the morning hours for the first couple of years that Harry Potter is open, this is where we anticipate that most of our Guests will be headed. That since the Wizarding World will be the main reason that many of these people will be visiting Islands, this new addition to our theme park will be their very first stop of the day.”

A concept painting of the future Harry Potter area of Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando theme park
Copyright 2010 Universal Orlando. All Rights Reserved

And if the crowds that have been turning out for Harry Potter: The Exhibition (which will end its run at Boston’s Museum of Science on February 21st) are any indication, The Wizarding World is going to be one very busy place during its next few years of operation.

So long story short, Denny: Believe the hype. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter really is going to be a game changer. There are hundreds of thousands of fans of the films & the books who have dreamed of someday being able to visit Hogwarts. And this $200 million addition to IOA will finally going to make that dream come true. Which is why -- the very next time they're in Orlando -- these folks are going to make a beeline (or -- at the very least - take the Bee Line) to Islands of Adventure.

A Disney artists concept drawing of the Magic Kingdom's expansion project
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And Disney Parks & Resorts knows this. I mean, you can't seriously think that it's a coincidence that -- just as The Wizarding World was entering the final phase of its construction -- that The Walt Disney Company announced the Magic Kingdom's Fantasy Forest project? Which will be the largest / most expensive expansion of that WDW theme park in this Resort's 39 year history.

Trust me, Denny. Mickey knows all too well the impact that this IOA addition is going to have on Central Florida tourism. Which is why Mouse House officials eventually okayed construction of this $300 million Fantasyland extension. More importantly, this is why the Fantasy Forest project's nickname (in-house, anyway) is the Potter Swatter.

Your thoughts?

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  • Does WDW seriously think that a few glorified character meet and greets will be a "Potter swatter"?!?!? If this is what WDW's VERY late response to Harry Potter land is, than WDW is in SERIOUS trouble.

  • I agreee with your assessment of the Fantasyland expansion, jedited - it's nice to see ANY kind of major expansion in the MK, but I was kinda underwhelmed.  

    I think this expansion represents a hedging of bets by Disney - they feel they've got respond somehow to keep guests on-property as much as possible, but Uni's got a track record of promising to kick Disney in the pants and then doing their imitation of Charlie Brown when he gets the ball pulled away by Lucy when it came time to deliver.

    If Potterland actually boosts attendance at Uni - especially if it boosts attendance enough to put even a small dent in WDW's attendance figures - expect the boys in Burbank to let WDI go nuts.  

  • I agree with the two guys above. Furthermore, it's obvious that Disney was confident that its Princess franchise, injected into Fantasyland, would successfully compete with Universal's Potter attraction.

    Given the underwhelming public response to "The Princess and the Frog"...I wonder if that confidence has been shaken a little?

    I hope so. And I also hope that Disney isn't stupid enough to think the Muppets are going to prove any competition against Potter either. (I bring this up because some genius at the Mouse House decided that it would be nifty to have the puppets advertising the parks. I hate those "volunteer" commercials. A more wrong-headed campaign can scarcely be imagined). At this point in time, Disney is starting to look old hat, with a hokey Princess movie and puppets that were popular 30 years ago. It's going to sink deeper into irrelevancy unless it faces the fact that while nostalgia is nice, it in fact has very limited appeal and that the new will always trump the old. That's why Walt didn't want the parks to be museums - he wanted them to keep growing and changing. I really worry about Disney now...I don't think Iger's any better than Eisner...

  • Actually I think IOA is in trouble.  The fact that an IOA rep actually stated that they would have to shift resources from one side of the park to another is a complete lie.  We went a few months ago and if there was 20 people in the park in the morning I would be surprised.  Every store and eating facility was closed and only 4 rides on the side of the park were open/staffed.  I can only imagine what resources they would shift over.

    The neglect in the is park (rusty metal on rides, closed facilities, peeling paint) is amazing for such a young park.  It is obvious they do not spend time on upkeep.  Believe me, I actually want to like this park since former imagineers created a pretty fun place.  But over the years it is apparent that Universal is out of money and the place looks it.  

    Good luck to Harry.  It is just a matter of time for that section to fall into disrepair.  The fact that two of the rides are just being rethemed doesn't add to the excitement, just the cost cutting.

  • I see both sides of this. I will be among those who leave DIS property to visit HarryPotterland on a future trip to Orlando. (Can't wait to try butterbeer!!) And although I'm thrilled that the famously spend-averse WDW management has allowed Burbank and WDI to pry its checkbook open, I'm underwhelmed by their plans and concerned about the rumours that the budget-cutting red ballpoints are out already. It couldn't be more obvious that Fantasy Forest is nothing more than the "counterstory" to TWWOHP, and it got the media attention they wanted. What will also get media attention, though, is when/if IOA's maintenance/show-quality failures continue, and Potter start to bitch and blogg about Jo Rowling's created world being in disrepair. Rowling has proven that she will endure much unpleasantness in order to protect her creation - she was forced to sue a fan site whose people she actually liked because they were planning a Harry Potter Encyclopedia which would infringe on copyrights owned by her and Scholastic and all attempts to resolve the matter without the courts failed. If she felt forced into it, I believe she would cause IOA much bad press in order to make sure TWWOHP remains every bit the fantastic guest experience Universal promised her it would be. I don't think Disney's culture as regards control was compatible with hers; she's cut from the same cloth as A.A. Milne or P.L. Travers, and Walt isn't around to win her over. (Wasn't it Jim Hill who reported that DIS was secretly glad on some levels it "lost" Potter to Universal?)  I think Universal probably made promises in order to win the deal that they don't necessarily expect to be held to. And I think that will bite them somehow.

  • "Does WDW seriously think that a few glorified character meet and greets will be a "Potter swatter"?!?!? If this is what WDW's VERY late response to Harry Potter land is, than WDW is in SERIOUS trouble."

    OK...devil's advocate.  When you get down to it, what is IOA doing that is so far above-and-beyond Disney's plans?  I haven't followed the HP project too closely but from what I have read it's one new attraction, two rethemed attractions, a restaurant and a bunch of shops themed for the HP world.  

    Similar to the FL expansion, IOA's plan also seems to rely heavily on theming rather than substance (attractions.)

    In terms of IOA vs. WDW, people are already showing a preference for what Disney has to offer, princesses and all.  

    If we're to believe that HP may be a game-changer, why weren't the Marvel superheroes a game-changer?  I believe the films featuring Spider man, X-Men, and others have fared VERY well when compared to HP.  And there are dozens of comics in active publication while no new HP content is forthcoming.  The Spider Man ride at IOA was universally praised and named the best theme park attraction for several years running.  Why didn't that change the game?  

    Why not The Simpsons?  The Mummy?  Jurassic Park?  Dr. Seuss?  Men in Black?  Why not the new steel coaster at US?  

    I'll grant that HP fans may be a little more rabid in their devotion to the subject matter than, say, Jurassic Park fans.  But even if these folks do flock to IOA for the first time, will they come in numbers great enough to really drive a long-term change?  

    As a Disney fan I'm glad to see them pushing The Mouse.  But Universal has tried its hand at so many different pop culture phenomenons that it's hard for me to accept that HP will finally be the one that leads to a different end result.  

  • I always find it curious when posters here place Disney and Universal in the context of being in competition with each other. I simply do not accept the premise that Potter will draw visitors away from the Walt Disney World parks.

    When Jedited asks: "Does WDW seriously think that a few glorified character meet and greets will be a "Potter swatter?" I'd respond "No. Because I find it highly unlikely that Disney decided to launch the Fantasyland expansion to undermine the Wizarding World of Harry Potter."

    I concur with the assertion that the Walt Disney Company timed the commencement of construction on the Fantasyland project around Potter. But I am more inclined to believe they did so in order to draw from the tourist industry momentum created by Potter -- and NOT because the new IOA attraction will somehow steal a significant amount of business from WDW.

    If Potter draws tourists from around the country and around the world to Central Florida, to JHM posters honestly believe that while they are in town these visitors will not venture down to WDW? Please.

    Potter is a welcomed addition to the Central Florida market. While the brilliant designers of Universal Creative will no doubt produce an exceptional show with Potter, any suggestion that Disney is making decisions out of fear seems rather silly.

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