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Disney Accidentally Designed, then Destroyed Universal’s Best Land Ever. This is the Full Story.

Potterwars

The commonly understood story is that, in the mid-2000s, Disney was intent on securing the global rights to incorporate Harry Potter into its theme parks. Negotiations between Disney, Warner Bros. (the films’ distributing studio) and series creator and author J.K. Rowling were said to be pretty far along… until Rowling made some demands that Disney simply couldn’t sign onto.

Image: Mary McCartney, J.K Rowling

While no one involved in the alleged discussions is talking, we have our hunches.

We suspect that Rowling wanted in writing that Disney would give her Potter characters reverence and exclusivity… And one need only look at Disney’s prior treatment of George Lucas’ Star Wars to see why. Once Lucas provided Disney with the rights to Star Wars, Disney’s marketing machine started selling action figures of the Muppets dressed as Star Wars characters and had Darth Vader dancing to Michael Jackson at Disney World’s Star Wars Weekends. (Interestingly, once Disney bought Star Wars outright, such silliness was stopped immediately in favor of reverent, respectful treatment of the brand… Hmm…)

It could also have been that Rowling (rightly) refused to have her Potter characters relegated to a showbuilding at the Studios park where Disney needed the boost.

Image: Scholastic

We also know that Rowling required the “real” world to stay far away from any Harry Potter themed lands (as in, no Coca-Cola in the restaurants, no LEGO sets in the gift shops, and no meet-and-greets with actors playing Harry, Ron, and Hermione), and it stands to reason that Disney balked at such a power play so antithetical to their method of operation.

Allegedly, Disney and Rowling parted ways. Undoubtedly, Disney believed that Rowling would shop her idea around to other theme park operators before eventually finding that no one could bring her ideas to life to the level she demanded. She’d relent and come crawling back to Disney, right?

Except, she didn’t have to.

The Wizarding World: Rough Draft

When Universal and Rowling entered into talks to bring the literary fantasy world of Harry Potter to life, it was obvious that Islands of Adventure was the place to do it. And even better, a simple redress of the Lost Continent’s Merlinwood would create the perfect spot.

The concept art found in the archives of Universal Creative reveals that these initial plans would've taken mainstays, sights, and structures of The Lost Continent and given them a light overlay to create Rowling's sorcery-filled story world.

From the Enchanted Oak Tavern to the iconic entry of Dueling Dragons (now casting both dragons in stone rather than fire and ice), this Wizarding World would look familiar to frequent Universal guests, even if new roving characters and specific Potter merchandise would be all new. 

A parcel of land within Merlinwood had even been set aside for a cutting-edge E-Ticket ride based on the 2004 film Van Helsing, but when the movie failed to make an impression, the ride (and its cutting edge robo-arm ride system) were cancelled, leaving the perfect plot of land for Hogwarts to rise over Merlinwood.

But Rowling must’ve pushed farther.

Hogsmeade Rises

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

With Universal, Warner Bros., and Rowling on board with the concept. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – an entire seventh island at Islands of Adventure ­– was announced. And this new Wizarding World would overtake the Merlinwood section of the Lost Continent entirely… But rather than absorbing it, Potter would level it. A bypass bridge was constructed between Sinbad’s Bazaar and Jurassic Park as Merlinwood disappeared behind construction walls never to be seen again.

In its place, the Scottish village of Hogsmeade would rise, recreated painstakingly from its look and feel in the Harry Potter film series. The snowcapped village would include only shops and restaurants featured in the “real” Hogsmeade, all built to their “real life” scale rather than to theme park proportions. The unimaginable creative choice (which could’ve been another sticking point for Disney) meant that the cramped, tiny, bauble-filled shops are authentic.

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

They feel as if you’ve stepped into the “real” Hogsmeade, not the up-sized theme park version of it. So believable and sought-after is the experience, guests regularly wait in lines to get into gift shops to buy interactive wands, fish and chips, house robes, Butterbeer, and other in-universe goods… without a LEGO kit or Harry Potter action figure in sight.

Dueling Dragons was absorbed into the new mythos. The skewered knights were removed from the queue, as were any references to fire & ice. No one would've argued that the coaster or its queue looked custom-built for the new Wizarding World (after all, they weren't), but at least it left two cutting-edge steel coasters wrapped around one another...

That said, even fans were quick to admit that the bare steel coasters on the edge of Hogsmeade were a major detractor in the land's otherwise staunch committment to immersion and reality. 

Image: Universal

Still, the coasters continued roaring along. But now, waiting guests would by the Tri-Wizard Cup from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In that novel, one of the three challenges faced by the wizards selected for the Olympics-style Tri-Wizard Tournament is a race to outwit dragons, so the renamed Dragon Challenge would be an excusable mismatch with riders now selecting the Hungarian Horntail (blue) or the Chinese Fireball (red) to tame.

Unfortunately, a 2011 incident – after the coasters' renaming and absorption into Potter – forced Universal's hand, and they announced that the dragons would "never duel again," meaning the two trains would henceforth dispatch at opposite intervals.

The loss of the "duel" was akin to the removal of the loop from another infamous coaster Lost Legend: Son of Beast... The dragons only lasted another six years in their neutered form before Universal (admittedly, wisely) decided to scrap the steel behemoths entirely in favor of a well-themed, purpose-built Potter family dark ride / coaster. They took their final flights on September 4, 2017. It was the first time ever that a B&M steel coaster (much less two at once) had been permanently removed, and also signaled one of the last remnants of Merlinwood (and by extention, Beastly Kingdom's DNA) to remain.

Except...

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

The Flying Unicorn family coaster was relocated and renamed Flight of the Hippogriff, with riders now passing by Hagrid’s Hut in the queue and then gliding past a bowing Hippogriff animatronic before the coaster’s lift hill... a rare remnant of Merlinwood in a reinvented land.

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

By far the land’s anchor is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a groundbreaking dark ride that somehow exceeded the technological prowess of the unbeatable Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, indeed using the technology and space once planned for a Van Helsing ride. Forbidden Journey also added another world-class dark ride to the park, featuring all manner of mythological creatures from dragons to acromantulas and the dreaded Dementors.

Lost?

When the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010, industry experts were sure that what remained of the Lost Continent – Sinbad’s Bazaar and the Lost City – would follow Merlinwood at Universal’s earliest opportunity. After all, an expansion of the Wizarding World was all-but-assured, but the remains of the Lost Continent would prove to be the perfect parcel of land to bring to life the Forbidden Forest on the edge of Hogwarts.

(And note to any Universal Creative team members who might be reading: it’s true that we’d all collectively enjoy an Omnimover-led dark ride through the Forest on a “field trip” with Hagrid, passing by animatronics of magical creatures good and evil for a rare screen-free, family-friendly dark ride!)

Click and expand for a more detailed view. Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

But what was left of the Lost Continent was salvaged – at least for now – because Universal’s unavoidable expansion of the Wizarding World did something unbelievable… it jumped parks.

The second “half” of the land, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, opened at Universal Studios Florida next door. In retrospect, it's so obvious that the park-spanning mythology of the Wizarding World would be split in such a way... Now, Universal Studios Florida simply has a London streetscape (that fits perfectly amongst its New York, San Francisco, and Hollywood "set" style lands) that conceals the magical street of shops featured in most every Harry Potter film.

And think of the brilliance here: guests now can begin their magical journey in Diagon Alley, hidden from Muggle eyes. There – just like Harry and friends – they can peruse shops, buy their wands from Ollivander's, purchase house robes, procure galleons and sickles at the Gringott's Money Exchange, and join our heroes on Diagon Alley's headlining E-Ticket, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (a marvelous and must-see family adventure in its own right).

Image: Universal

Then, it's just a few steps back to Muggle London and into Kings Cross Station, where the Hogwarts Express waits at Platform 9¾. The Hogwarts Express, as you'd hope, is a D-Ticket wonder unto itself, shuttling guests between the two theme parks – an unprecedented ride that offers a different experience based your departure and destination.

Just like real Hogwarts students, guests then disembark – with Diagon Alley purchases in hand – in the enchanted, magical, evergreen forests of Islands of Adventure, where mystical rocks and mysterious runes signal arrival in Hogsmeade, with Hogwarts itself reining overhead.

Click and expand for a more detailed view. Image: Universal

It's brilliant and conceptually mind-bloggling to consider the narrative woven through the two parks, creating what truly is a mini-Potter theme park... two beautifully themed lands containing a cutting edge 21st century dark ride, an immersive E-Ticket roller coaster (soon to be two), a family coaster, enough one-of-a-kind shopping and dining to fill a mini-vacation, and a must-see family ride to connect them both. And for Potter fans, especially, the Wizarding World as a whole may be the best example yet of a truly immersive theme park experience that lets you live out your favorite story. 

Image: Universal

Even if Universal spared what remained of the Lost City and Sinbad's Bazaar in favor of a park-hopping Wizarding expansion, that doesn't mean that the Lost Continent is safe. Indeed, while it may be an impressively-scaled original concept that stands among the most well-designed lands in Orlando, its contents – Poseidon’s Fury and Sinbad – are both woefully dated, tired, and in need of revival or replacement. Now, what’s left of the Lost Continent serves mostly as a thru-path to get to Hogsmeade, which is a sincere shame…

In fact, even fans have noticed that – outside of Marvel and Potter – Islands of Adventure is... well... aging. Look no further than our must-read list of Rides Universal Needs for ideas.Seuss Landing needs a new E-Ticket of its own (a long-rumored Mount Crumpet family coaster?) and a full reskin of the 20-year-old Cat in the Hat ride (which should be a Disney quality family dark ride, but isn't); Toon Lagoon has been stagnant since opening; Jurassic Park is an ambitious land that contains only one ride; and the Lost Continent... welll...

In an era of back-to-back-to-back-to-back screen-based, IP-infused simulators, The Lost Continent would be the perfect place for Universal Creative to prove it's still "got it," and that Universal's designers can still come up with ambitious original concepts. Certainly Greek mythology and 1001 Arabian Nights are wonderful source materials from which to build Orlando's next starring attraction, hopefully with practical special effects, cinematic sets, and Audio-Animatronics at the forefront.

Meanwhile, Back at Animal Kingdom

Obviously, Disney’s Animal Kingdom never did get Beastly Kingdom… Once Islands of Adventure opened, that ship had sailed lest Disney look like the copycat.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom did finally gain an imaginary creature with the 2006 opening of Expedition Everest in Asia, featuring the infamous Yeti who made our must-read Countdown of the Best Animatronics on Earth… though, with a caveat.

The “temporary” Camp Minnie-Mickey meant to hold Beastly Kingdom’s place survived for 16 years – lasting longer than Epcot’s Lost Legend: Horizons or Universal’s Kongfrontation, if you’re keeping track. On January 5, 2014, the entire land closed.

Image: Disney

Festival of the Lion King was relocated to a more permanent theater in the park’s Africa, and construction walls went up to block the bridge from Discovery Island.

Of course, that’s because in 2009, Disney secured the international, worldwide exclusive rights to build themed lands and attractions based on James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar. Ironically, insiders say that, upon realizing Universal’s Wizarding World was going to make Universal a long-term contender, Disney simply panicked and snatched up the rights to something – anything – Potter-sized…

And in 2009, that was Avatar, which had just broken box office records. (Never mind that in the decade since, it’s been largely forgotten and left barely a blip on the pop culture radar despite Cameron’s laughable and pop-culture-pun worthy promises that, like it or not, no less than FOUR sequels are on the way… Whoops…)

So in 2017, the bridge that would’ve connected to the forking path through the forest of Beastly Kingdom instead became a portal to Pandora – The World of AVATAR. 

Image: Disney / Lightstorm

To be clear, the land is elaborate, detailed, beautiful, and astounding. Like Cars Land, its scale simply can't be captured in photographs. It's wild and awe-inspiring and breathtaking. Pandora is the next evolution of the immersive, photo-realistic environment pioneered by Disneyland, reinvented in Animal Kingdom, and refined in Islands of Adventure.

(Though, in the spirit of full disclosure, fans still can’t seem to settle down with the notion that James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi action flick deserves a permanent land at a Disney Park… In other words, praise for Pandora is, in general, in spite of the concept and not because of it… The best of a bad choice. All the well-deserved praise aimed at the land is thanks to the hard work of Disney Imagineers.)

Disney-Designed and Destroyed

So for those keeping track, Disney’s Beastly Kingdom was canned and taken to Universal, who adapted it into The Lost Continent. Then Disney turned down Harry Potter, so Universal leveled part of the Lost Continent to build Hogsmeade… which in turn made Disney buy up the rights to Avatar, and build a land based on it where Beastly Kingdom would’ve gone!

Image: Disney

If you follow that logic, it stands to reason that if Disney had just built Beastly Kingdom to begin with, the Islands of Adventure we know, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and PANDORA might never have even happened. And THAT is an intertwined destiny if we’ve ever heard one.

And thus ends the first of our Lost Legend entries to deal in the messy business of an entire forgotten land – half absorbed by the Boy Wizard, and half left to rot. But the unusual case of the Lost Continent is really notable for way it exemplified the relationship between two competing themed entertainment powerhouses.

Image: Disney

With Islands of Adventure, Universal set out to build their best impression of a Disney theme park, and succeeded wildly in that regard. To do it, they needed to look no further than Disney’s own dissatisfied and dejected ranks… scores of Imagineers were so tired of Disney’s delays and cuts, they happily took their designs to Universal where they flourished and were given a new lease on life.

But if Disney unintentionally designed Universal’s best themed land, they also accidentally demolished it… Their alleged hard-nose rejection of J.K. Rowling’s standards sent her catalogue into Universal’s arms, sinking a third of the Lost Continent and putting the other two-thirds on notice: “your time is short.”

Though the story of this Lost Legend may be in flux, our In-Depth Collections Library houses the stories of dozens of other forgotten, closed classics. Make the jump there to choose your next adventure.

Now we want to hear from you. What do you remember of the Lost Continent? Was this oversized themed land really Disney-quality, or have our memories been blurred by time? What do you think is the next step for the remains of this land? Should it be overtaken by Potter? Or do the original stories and myths of the gods have a place in a park otherwise packed with intellectual properties? What other closed classics and fan favorites would you like to see our Lost Legend series cover?

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There are 5 comments.

It's a shame that there don't seem to be many photos of the Merlinwood area, particularly inside the Enchanted Oak and Dragons queue. I remember both fondly. The Dragons queue now just seems boring in comparison to how it used to be.

What a crazy, twisted story! I knew the details about all these lands separately, but never thought about how closely they are all connected.

I always feel a pang of sadness when I think about what could have been with Beastly Kingdom. As beautiful and immersive as Animal Kingdom is, it could have desperately used a few more rides and a little more "Disney" whimsy and storytelling. I know I would have loved Beastly Kingdom, maybe even more than any other land at WDW.

However, if following the logic above, the construction of Beastly Kingdom may have resulted in the Wizarding World never being built. Or at the very least it could exist in an entirely different capacity than it does today. As a HUGE Potter fan, that is a tough pill to swallow.

If only there was a world where we could have both...

On the other hand, though I am not at all invested in the Avatar franchise, I am very much looking forward to experiencing Pandora at Animal Kingdom. I have been floored so far by all the pictures and videos I have seen. This land looks like the next level of immersive theming, which I think will make up for the underwhelming source material.

An incredible story very well written. I absolutely adore the Dueling Dragons and have no idea why it isn't as revered as the Hulk. I enjoy them more actually. When they dueled was especially awesome. Seeing the other "dragon" line up with you in the lift hill was something unique and fun. The queue itself was something to really behold. Best queue hands down in the history of theme parks. Did you know that there was very slight whispering in the catacombs section? I learned one day when it was slow and I ran ahead and there was noone else around. Really awesome touch that I'm sure very few people realized. Why in the world would Universal want to get rid of it? (if the rumors are true) Also does anyone know what the incident was in 2011 that caused Universal to mismatch the coasters?

I found this on a wiki page. "Dragon Challenge Edit
Main article: Dragon Challenge
On July 1, 2009, an employee was walking underneath the coaster in a restricted area when he was hit by a train during a test run. The victim suffered multiple head injuries and was taken to a nearby hospital.[2]

On July 31, 2011, a tourist was injured when an unidentified object hit him in the eye while riding Dragon Challenge. Prior to the incident, the guest had only one good eye, therefore the incident resulted in the guest completely losing his sight. Dragon Challenge remained shut for less than 24 hours after the incident with Universal concluding that the ride was safe.[3][4][5]

On August 10, 2011, a rider was struck by an object while riding the attraction, injuring his face and leg. As a result of this and the aforementioned incident in which a rider lost sight in one eye, Universal officials announced that the two roller coasters would no longer operate simultaneously, pending an investigation into both incidents.[6] In October 2011, officials suspended the dueling aspect of the ride permanently."

I remember back in 2002 starting the day at I.O.A on the verandah of the Enchanted Tavern overlooking the lake. Now sadly gone but it encaptured the whole feel of that Land. Sights, sounds and smells as the sun rose above the treeline and the excitement of the day ahead coursed through our veins.
I much prefer Lands that have the capacity to develop organically rather than the trend of the " all eggs in one basket" policy.
No doubt Potter is popular and Avatar looks amazing. But they have limitations. A more fluid themed Land has endless scope and can be more readily tweaked and changed. Just my opinion of course.

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