With the first public "soft openings" already taking place, Universal will throw open the gates to its $200 million Wizarding World of Harry Potter on June 18, 2010. The new addition to the Islands of Adventure theme park is already receiving rave reviews - but will Potter's magic really be enough to finally tempt guests away from Walt Disney World and establish the Universal Orlando Resort as a genuine, multi-day destination?
As discussed in Jason Garcia's recent Orlando Sentinel story, Universal certainly hopes so. As well as spending an eye-watering amount on securing the coveted Harry Potter license and building a staggeringly faithful recreation of the universe seen in the books and movies, it has also restructured its entire range of ticket options to encourage guests to spend more time at the resort. Aping Disney's Magic Your Way system, Universal has made the per-day cost of longer visits far cheaper than that of shorter trips, while offering perks like the ability to "park hop" between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure as paid-for extras.
Universal Orlando badly needs the shot in the arm that the Wizarding World's opening will give it. Combined attendance at the resort's two theme parks fell by 12% last year to 10.2 million, according to figures from the Themed Entertainment Association. Meanwhile, rival Walt Disney World's combination of shrewd marketing and heavy discounting lifted total visitor numbers at its parks to 47.5 million, a rise of 0.8%.
Of course, many Universal fans (and visitors to Orlando in general) may have been holding out for the Wizarding World's debut before making the trip. Universal is certain to reverse the decline in attendance to some extent this year - but will it be enough to fill the resort's hotel rooms, and can Harry Potter really keep theme park fans away from Mickey Mouse for extended periods? Let's look at some reasons for optimism - and some reasons why the Wizarding World may not be enough on its own.
3 reasons why the Wizarding World of Harry Potter will be a success for Universal
- It's the hottest license around - it's Harry Potter, for goodness' sake! It's no surprise that Disney is believed to have competed with Universal for the rights to use J.K. Rowling's creations as the basis for theme park attractions. Potter and his friends have millions of adoring fans, have generated billions in revenue from book sales and box office receipts, and - perhaps most importantly - are god's gift to theme park designers. Who didn't salivate at the thought of combining the conjuring wizards, mythical creatures and exciting adventures of Harry's world with the creative genius behind the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman attraction? We had no hesitation in naming the Wizarding World's headline attraction - Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - as our number one most exciting new theme park attraction for 2010. And as the Orlando Sentinel points out, the Potter license could enable Universal to reach a whole new group of fans who aren't yet theme park fanatics.
- Universal has executed perfectly - from all available reports and reviews, Universal has done a truly stunning job of recreating the sights and sounds of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle at the Wizarding World. The area may have come with a hefty price tag, but the money has been invested in a lavishly detailed area that will have Potter fans drooling. In addition, Universal has enhanced its reputation for producing cutting edge attractions with the Forbidden Journey, which looks set to challenge Spiderman in "world's best theme park ride" polls for years to come.
- It's (relatively) cheap - OK, so Universal may be ready to fleece Harry Potter fans for everything that it can get once they are inside the Wizarding World with an array of enticing (and expensive) merchandise. But ticket prices at the resort are well below those of Walt Disney World - for example, a 3-day base ticket at Universal Orlando will set you back $135.27 including tax, versus $233.24 for an equivalent ticket for Walt Disney World. Of course, Disney tickets cover access to four theme parks rather than two - but a few cost-conscious parents may decide that spending more time outside Mickey's walls isn't such a bad idea after all.
3 reasons why Harry Potter on his own may not keep guests at Univeral Orlando for longer
- There's only one new ride - when it comes down to it, there's only one genuinely new ride at the Wizarding World - Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The others - Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff - are really rethemed versions of existing attractions. Universal's original claim that the area would be a "theme park within a theme park" looks a little weak in this context - on the surface, the Wizarding World is just another "Island of Adventure". This is probably a harsh assessment of an area where even the shops are attractions in themselves, and the entertainment extends beyond mere rides to the simple joy of exploring Harry Potter's world. Still, purely from a throughput point of view, three rides and a single full-service restaurant may struggle to cope with the influx of muggles come June 18. And Universal Orlando's overall line-up still looks relatively slim next to Disney's four theme parks, two water parks and abundance of golf courses and other distractions.
- Guests can't "stay in the magic" - if a "Hogwarts Hotel" had been built alongside the Wizarding World, Universal would have a slam-dunk. Every room would have been double-booked months before the area opened, with Potter fans scrambling for a chance to stay overnight in the home of their hero. Of course, the investment required (and additional licensing costs) would have been phenomenal, and it is completely understandable that a hotel didn't form part of Universal's plans. What this means, though, is that Universal Orlando is still lumbered with a set of three relatively expensive on-site hotels (operated by Loews), which offer nothing of the variety in theme and cost available at Walt Disney World. Despite the many perks that Universal extends to hotel guests (including early entry to the Wizarding World), extended stays may be beyond the reach of some families.
- Younger wizards are not catered for - as ThemeParkMom points out in her preview, the Harry Potter books and movies are not aimed at younger children - and nor is the Wizarding World. The Forbidden Journey and Dragon Challenge are too intense for little kids, and even Flight of the Hippogriff may be too much for some. On top of that, the Potter stories feature some fairly dark themes (such as the Prison of Azkaban and the associated dementors) which are fully represented in Universal's recreation. This, and Universal Orlando's overall weakness in terms of catering for families with young children, may count against it in the battle to draw guests away from Disney.
Universal has pulled off a coup in landing the Harry Potter license, and hasn't shied away from spending a bucketload of money to exploit it. The huge investment the company has made in the Wizarding World will allow it to attract Potter fans from far and wide, surely giving the Universal Orlando Resort a huge attendance boost as well as a fortune in revenue from merchandise sales. The lure of Potter may also enable a new audience to discover some of the other stunning attractions at Universal's parks, which genuinely offer something distinct from Disney's parks.
Having said that, while the Wizarding World is a huge step in the right direction, I'm not sure that it will be enough on its own to achieve Universal Orlando's holy grail - tempting guests into longer, on-site stays at its resort. For that, it will need to continue to invest in new attractions, and to develop a range of strong, well-themed accommodation options that cater for different budgets. I don't think Universal needs to become another Disney - younger kids will be well catered for by the Magic Kingdom's expanded Fantasyland and the upcoming Legoland Florida - but there's no harm in looking to borrow its rival's better ideas while focusing on an older, thrill-seeking market.
Overall, it's an exciting time to be a fan of Florida's theme parks. The arrival of Harry Potter looks set to trigger a new wave of competition and investment - and we'll be the biggest winners.
What do you think the impact of Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter will be? Are you planning to spend longer at Universal's parks now that it's arrived? Let us know through the comments section below.