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Leaked plans for Universal's Harry Potter expansion totally upstaged Disney's Leap Year Day celebration announcement

Jim Hill

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Leaked plans for Universal's Harry Potter expansion totally upstaged Disney's Leap Year Day celebration announcement

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Upstage: (verb) To divert attention or praise from; force out of the spotlight

This wasn't how The Walt Disney Company envisioned 2012 starting out.

After weeks of broadly hinting that the Mouse had something big in the works for Leap Year, Disney's PR department thought that Twitter & Facebook would be ablaze on New Year's Day with people talking about how they planned on attending those 24-hour-long "One More Disney Day" parties which will be held at Disneyland Park in California and WDW's Magic Kingdom on February 29th.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But what happened instead? As January 1st dawned, all that the online community seems to be talking about were those Universal Studios Florida expansion plans which got leaked to Theme Park Insider. Which revealed how Universal Orlando officials planned on transforming this theme park's Amity Island section (which - for the past 20+ years - had been home to USF's "Jaws" ride) into an extension / satellite of Islands of Adventure's super-popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The plan - as Robert Niles revealed in his December 31st article - reportedly calls for the backmost corner of Universal Studios Florida to be transformed into that section of London which only wizards know about, Diagon Alley. This new USF "land" will allegedly be home to a wide variety of magically-themed shops & restaurants that have previously been mentioned in J.K. Rowling's books / seen in the Warner Bros. films. With its centerpiece attraction supposedly being a cutting-edge coaster which would then replicate much of the fun & excitement moviegoers experienced as they watched Harry, Ron and Hermione break into Bellatrix Lastrange's vault at Gringotts Wizarding Bank in "The Deathly Hallows - Part II."

In short, what Universal Creative (i.e. the crew at Universal Studios that actually designs all of the rides, shows and attractions for their parks and resorts) and Warner Bros. Entertainment seem to be planning to do here is take everything that made the Wizarding World of Harry Potter such a huge success with Universal's Islands of Adventure visitors and then expanding on all of those concepts. Giving USF Guests a chance to also immerse themselves in the fantasy world that J.K. Rowling had created.

The star of Disney's "Wizards of Waverly Place," Selena Gomez (red scarf, second from
left) and friends recently visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's
Islands of Adventure. Copyright Universal Studios. All rights reserved

So should we place any credence in what Robert reported? When I reached out to Alyson Lundell (i.e. the Public Relations Manager for the Universal Orlando Resort) on New Year's Day and asked if her office had anything specific to say about the plans that Mr. Niles had leaked, Alyson simply stated that " ... we don't comment on speculation" and then wished me a Happy New Year.

That said, it is worth noting here that - back on December 19thd - the Universal Orlando Resort filed a permit with the City of Orlando for Project 722.  Which calls for the " ... demolition of  (a) single attraction with several components." Which - obviously - is referring USF's "Jaws" ride which officially closed on January 2nd of this month.

Now as diehard Harry Potter fans will point out, if you Google the phrase "Project 722" in combination with the name "Harry Potter," you'll then come  up with some genuinely intriguing search results. To be specific, that Steve Swain and a number of other folks who have worked on the art direction of the "Harry Potter" films as well as on Project Strongarm (which is the secret code name that Universal Creative used for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter while that project was still in development) are now working for the Universal Orlando Resort on Project 722.

The "Flying Benches" which serve as your ride vehicle on "Harry Potter and the
Forbidden Journey" at Universal's Island of Adventure theme park.

"But why would Universal name this new Harry-Potter-land-for-USF project '722'?," you ask. The code names that Universal Creative uses for the rides, shows and attractions that it has in development for Universal's theme parks typically have some sort of significance when it comes to these individual projects. Take - for example -Project Strongarm, which refers to the KUKA robotic arm technology that moves those "flying benches" which IOA's "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" attraction uses at its ride vehicles.

So what's so significant about the number 722? If you open a copy of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and then turn to Page 722, you'll discover this exchange between the boy wizard and the former headmaster of Hogwarts:

"Oh yes." Dumbledore smiled at (Harry). "We are in King's Cross (Station), you say? I think that if you decided not to go back, you would be able to ... let's say ... board a train."

Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)'s all-too-brief union
in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2." Copyright Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.
All rights reserved

Which brings us to the part of this alleged Universal Orlando expansion plan which has Harry Potter fans most excited. That Universal Creative supposedly plans on linking IOA's Wizarding World area with USF's as-yet-unnamed Harry Potter "land" through a working version of the Hogwarts Express. Which would then reportedly allow Universal Orlando visitors to travel from Diagon Alley to Hogwarts Castle & Hogsmeade Village and back again via steam train.

Now when you take into consideration that the absolute earliest that any Universal Orlando guests will actually be able to visit USF's new Diagon Alley area and/or climb aboard the Hogwarts Express and then travel over to IOA's Wizarding World is 2014 ... Well, you just have to feel for The Walt Disney Company.

I mean, here they were, looking to use their "One More Disney Day" 24-hour-long parties as a way to get people excited about those immersive Wizarding-World-like "lands" which Disney  will be opening in 2012 (i.e. Carsland at Disney California Adventure Park and Phase One of the Fantasyland expansion at WDW's Magic Kingdom). Only to then have Universal effectively upstage their Leap Year Day celebrations (which the Mouse's PR flaks had been teasing about & hinting at for weeks now. As they urged Disneyana fans to tune in to "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve" so that they could then catch the official announcement) through an artfully leaked set of plans for USF's Harry Potter expansion project.

Dick Clark celebrated 40 years of ringing in the New Year on the ABC Television Network
with the December 31st broadcast of "New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest."
Photo by Ida Mae Astute. Copyright American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
All rights reserved

You gotta admit that - strictly from a PR point view - that whoever orchestrated this leak handled the whole thing with great finesse. Allowing Universal to leap out ahead of Disney's Leap Year Day celebration announcement (Niles posted his story on Theme Park insider at 4 p.m. ET. A full 8 hours before the very first "One More Disney Day" commercial aired on ABC as part of that Dick Clark New Year's Eve special). So that - as January 1, 2012 dawned - it would be talk of Universal Studios Florida's new Harry Potter "land"  that would be dominating online conversation, rather than people talking up those 24-hour-long parties which will be held at Disneyland Park and WDW's Magic Kingdom on February 29th.

Which - as I said at the start of today's story - isn't exactly how The Walt Disney Company envisioned 2012 starting out.

Which is why the Mouse's marketing department might want to seriously consider stepping up their game. Given that - now that Universal has Harry Potter in its pocket - Disney can no longer claim to have cornered the market when it comes to theme park magic.

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  • you know the scariest thing of all this for the mouse... Avatar land will never be as much of a crowd draw as WWoHP, and the even scarier thing then that for them, is that they were the first to talk with JK Rowling about making a HP attraction/land, but Disney didn't lie how much of the $$ she wanted... I guess that Disney should have been willing to pay it

  • Disney seems to be making mistakes left and right lately. Their announcement for One More Disney Day seemed to irritate more people than excite. Avatar land will flop and they'll probably spend more $$$ trying to fix it than they would have spent if they had just finished DAK the way they planned or ponied up the dough for Rowling. (That's just my opinion of course, I have no idea what the real $ amounts are/would be-this just seems to be the general consensus from the Disney boards I frequent)

    To be honest I think WWoHP belongs at Universal. I prefer Disney to stay with, well, Disney. Avatar will look horribly out of place but try telling the suits that. Like I said, from a (former?!) fan's perspective they seem to be screwing up left and right...and don't even get me started on their programming decisions....

  • The other problem is that Disney's leap day promotion just isn't that compelling for most people.  At least in the case of WDW, most people make their travel plans months in advance, so it will mainly be just locals who will be able to make plans to attend the parks on leap day.  And for families with young children, the kids won't be able to stay up all night anyway, so the extra hours are of no benefit.  So for all the hype, the actual announcement wasn't something most people will care about.  If the Disney marketing folks really thought the Internet would be excited about this, I don't think they thought things through very well.

  • Fact is that competition is making all parks look better.

    I love what Sea World is doing. More immersive attractions and exhibits and their Christmas was magic!

    Universal is doing great with Potter but I already loved Islands. It was actually build by imagineers (something a lot of Disney only fans don´t know). The attractions and theming are wonderful and I wish that Whoville and the grinch show would be a permanent resident of Dr Suess Island.

    Disney has the tendency to get arrogant now and then. After that is takes enormous amounts of money and some bad decisions to get them back on top again. The Fantasyland expansion is wonderful but will never gets its money back. 425 million dollars and not even a e ticket ride?! It looks wonderful but it´s too expensive. Then Avatar Land with a smoking and cursing Sigourney Weaver and blue aliens with penis tails? And how are those animals mythological? Look for these creatures on en.wikipedia.org/.../List_of_legendary_creatures. Sure, no scifi animals in sight. I bet if Disney went with the original concept the imagineers came up with Disney fans would have been over the moon. Disney didn´t had to pay tons of rights and it would all be cheaper and more fitting in the concept of Animal Kingdom.

  • Leaked plans for an incredibly themed land upstaging a Leap Day gimmick? Is that really so surprising to Disney executives?

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Based on what I've been hearing, Mouse House managers were totally blindsided by this move on Universal's part. More to the point, they were genuinely ticked off that all of their advance planning, all of those weeks that were spent hinting & teasing that something truly special was on the horizon could be undone like. With one leaked set of plans.

    On the other hand, the folks at Universal were absolutely thrilled with the way that Theme Park Insider article quickly spread around the Web and dominated conversation online during the first days of this month. They got a couple of million dollars of free publicity out of Robert Niles' article. More to the point, it was Harry Potter & theme park fans who were evangelizing for the Universal Orlando brand. Which is the very best form of publicity.

    Mind you, Disney is hoping that this new website that they've now got in Beta test mode -- InsidEARS -- will get a lot of the Company's more hardcore fans to start evangelizing for the Disney brand. Here's hoping that that actually works for them.

    Me? I can't help but notice that Disney's most vocal & passionate fans are the ones who are quickest to complain, rather than praise. So I gotta wonder if it's actually wise to give these people yet another forum.

    But hey, that's just me. Your mileage may vary

  • Disney fans complain because they care. I think that an official source of information will help to calm some fans. Sometimes rumors are started that may or may not be true and even if they are true they only give half (or less) of the information. An official "rumor" site could help to clear up some of the misinformation.

    People were going CRAZY over the redos of Tom Sawyer's Island and It's a Small World, but once (most) everyone saw the changes, they were pleasantly surprised. If Disney could have gotten ahead of both of those stories, I think the uproar would have been a lot less.

    Plus, the Disney fan communities complaints gave Disney millions of dollars of free publicity as the "regular" media picked up the stories.

  • The dueling PR announcements/leaks is an interesting mini-story, but the big picture is that Universal is planning on expanding the already uber-popular Harry Potter offerings in Florida.  I speak for probably millions of Harry Potter fans when I say that folks will be lining up for miles to ride the Hogwartz Express and see Diagon Alley.  Leap Day will come and go, but Harry Potter will live for generations in the imaginations of millions of kids and grownsups.

    Anyway, I am a big time Disney fan, I've visited WDW probably hundreds of time, never visiting Universal over the past ten years.  I knew about Seus Landing, but having visited Universal in 1990s, I never equated them with a quality theme park experience, so I never came back.

    I frequently travel to Disneyland, perhaps four times a year.  Because of Harry Potter I am planning on traveling to Orlando just to see the new ride, and will be back to see the expansion.  

    But as Al Lutz noted on Miceage, the Mouse is also annoyed that the announcement of Harry Potter coming to Universal Hollywood has upstaged the Carsland announcement.  I am sure I will be out to see Carsland shortly after it opens, but in the future, any trips to Disneyland will probably also include a quick jaunted to see Harry at Universal Hollywood when it opens.

    I don't plan on visiting Disneyland on Leap Day as tons of locals and Annual Passholders will probably camp out in the park.  Its more of a gimmick for tweens and teenagers, IMHO.  If all it is is extra operating hours, then I don't think this leap year event will accomplish what Disney wants.  I get that they were hoping that people would be happy to be able to visit Disneyland for 24 hours,  . . . as if 24/7 365 days a year wasn't enough, but . . . during the slow times you can ride pretty whatever you want.  

    While Harry Potter's Universe overlapped well with the Disney brand, Avatar is more suited to Universal, and I don't take kindly to the fact that Sigourney Weaver's character smoked in the film, which coincidentally is too intense for the younger set.  Hopefully Disney will pull the plug on this project.

  • Universal is really putting Disney to shame.  (I have annual passes to both)  Universal is looking so progressive with the technology in their ride systems.  Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is fantastic and the entire land puts anything Disney has done in the past 10 years to shame. Fanasty Land witll be a welcomed edition to the Magic Kindom (A park that is really too small to support so many visitors)  Were really not seeing nothing new. No e-ticket.  The Little Mermaid is basically a clam shell ride system. Dumbo is totally recycled. The Mine Train might be fun.  Avatar is a total waste of money. (It's most likly a paper threat, to make Universal think that Disney has something up it's sleeve).  Avatar will not sell food or merchandise. Most of the Avatar toys were in the bargin bin before Christmas was even over. (I'm craving a $4.00 Butterbeer right now along with a $30.00 HP Wand)

    Disney needs to work on Animal Kingdom and the Studios and EPCOT.  

    1. Create Beastly Kingdom at AK and scrape the waste of Avatar. (Only the night sceans in the forest were cool and this is a park that closes an hour after sun set!) Maybe we could get Journey to the Center of the Earth with it's uber cool fake erupting Volcano.

    2. Create Star Wars Land at the Studios.  Close the backlot tour and create an entire Pixar Place land. Update the Great (outdated) Movie Ride.

    3. EPCOT needs a  new country and Journey to Imagination needs to be gutted along with Ellen's Energy Adventure.

  • Jim - any word on why Disneyland was mentioned as a potential site for the Harry Potter "land" on the west coast?  Or was that a negotiating ploy to get a better deal out of Universal?  

    Also, I think that "One More Day" promo will be a flop.  What people forget that the 29th will occur in the middle of a work and school week.  C'mon, who can afford to take time off from work and school in the middle of a week?

  • "Avatar land will never be as much of a crowd draw as WWoHP"

    That's PROBABLY true, but it is worth considering that there are more Avatar movies coming while the Harry Potter franchise is, at least for the moment, done.  I don't think Harry Potter is going anywhere, but it's anyone's guess as to which franchise holds up better over time.

    (Personally, I think Universal will win this one.  Even now, I'm not sure if anyone still really cares about Avatar.)

  • I was disappointed by the "One More Disney Day" announcement. I thought it might mean a free day with purchase of one  passes or something. No . Just extra operating hours on one date, plus discounts like any you'd see at this time of year.

  • The One More Disney Day campaign was so underwhelming, I really can't imagine the PR team at the Mouse thought that was going to drive a conversation.  Jim B's comment is spot on -- who is the target audience?  I guess I'll be WDW-centric here, but the promotion is fundamentally built around ~6 "extra" operating hours, that can only really be taken advantage of by locals, people able to book an impulse trip in 8 weeks or less, or people who already had a trip booked during that period, which is pretty far off-peak.  And even if you fit that profile, it still excludes anyone with young children, or anyone who likes to sleep.  

    The ultimate irony is that Disney pulled out more interesting tricks out of the hat for a relative impromptu Presidential visit (Studios fireworks, you don't get those often) than they did for a long-planned promotional campaign.  

    Seems like a steep miscalculation of precious PR time and money.  They'd have been better off using that 3-60 seconds of precious New Year's Eve national TV time just focusing on the new Fantasyland exclusively, rather than a promotion with extremely narrow, limited appeal.  A new video of 'New Fantasyland' content would have been much more likely to drive my time sitting on Youtube, posting on forums, Facebook, blogs, etc. than this.

  • I think the One More Disney Day thing is sort of a shame in its own right. Usually, the promotions Disney puts on are at least enticing. The Year of a Million Dreams may not have been anyone's sole reason for selecting a Disney vacation, but it added a bit of suspense and mystery and good old-fashioned fun once visitors arrived. In my mind, that shouldn't have been a limited time promotion. It seems like it ought to be a regular thing for Disney to just discreetly hand out FastPasses and pins to guests. It's not like that was killing their bottom line...

    But my point is, this promotion is so short sighted. Though the Give A Day, Get A Day promotion ended early, it still offered a valuable reward and made people see the value of a Disney vacation. The only people impacted by the Leap Day promotion are those who can afford to visit the park anyway. In the case of Disney World, I would assume that most of the people going in February had already booked their trip long before the Leap Day event was even announced. I don't know of anyone booking a trip BECAUSE of it, you know?

    Granted, it is great that they're giving away a Disney trip every day until the end of February, but I fail to see the value in that  for the average customer. It has no draw. It doesn't incentivize a trip to the parks even a little bit.

    I just think this hardly counts as "2012's annual promotional strategy." It is quite literally one day. A day in the middle of the week. And at least in California, a day when even the Value SoCal Annual Pass is NOT blocked out, so what does that say about Disney's expectations?

  • I'm still not sure why Disney went all Avatar.

    Surely bringing back Beastley Kingdomme would have been a better draw to counter Universal's Harry Potter surge.

  • Also....our friends Down Under need to be shown some Disney love. Perhaps an Australia pavilion at Epcot (between China and Germany), complete with a miniature of Sydney's opera house jutting out into the lagoon?

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