Potter in Paris

With every passing day, we draw closer to the unveiling of Universal Epic Universe. This new third gate for Universal Orlando isn’t just the first from-scratch U.S. theme park by a major operator since Disney California Adventure in 2001; it’s meant to be a major step forward for the industry.

After all, it was in 2010 that Universal accidentally rewrote the rules of a theme park by way of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – a “plucked from the screen” place where guests wanted to dine, shop, and live. Now, more than a decade later, the “Living Land” has become the de facto form of theme park expansion, from Cars Land to Pandora; Galaxy’s Edge to Super Nintendo World. And in Epic Universe, we’ll see a park entirely comprised of IP-focused “Living Lands” for the first time…

Already, we’ve provided a sneak peek into the dancing, dueling Starfall Racers anchoring the park’s celestial center; we’ve soared through the Isle of Berk to explore its stunningly unique flat ride; and we’ve explored what horrors lay hidden in the Dark Universe… Today, let’s see how Universal is hoping it can recreate the magic of the Wizarding World one last time… and in a way that might surprise you…

The Wizarding World Saga

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

To start, you have to think back to a time before the Wizarding World – a near impossibility given how its ripples have reshaped the industry today. When Universal first announced in 2007 that it had secured the theme park rights to build attractions based on Warner Bros.' Harry Potter film series, the notion of licensing IP for use in theme parks was still new. Even more, before the real start of the “Content Wars” (Disney only bought Pixar that very year), no one knew how much it would matter.

No one quite knew what it would look like, either. Even when word came down that a Harry Potter themed land would replace the “Merlinwood” section of the Lost Continent land at Islands of Adventure, leaked development art suggested it would be a modest overlay; that the land’s existing Medieval shops would simply see signs switched out, and that Hogwarts “students” would mill about for meet-and-greets.

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

But the series’ creator, J. K. Rowling, was notoriously persnickety about how her characters and world would come to life in a theme park, insisting on some caveats that must’ve seemed unthinkable at the time. Rowling’s influence allegedly shaped the land’s final form: a painstakingly to-scale recreation of the “real” Scottish village of Hogsmeade seen in the books and films, down to the details.

That meant that the Wizarding World would throw out the conventions of the theme park. Instead of massive emporiums, it would feature tiny, cramped shops; rather than LEGO Harry Potter sets and action figures, stores would sell quills and ink, house robes, and wands; and that theme park staple Coca-Cola would be verboten, replaced with “in-universe” beverages like Pumpkin Juice and Butterbeer.

Image: Universal

The land’s anchoring ride – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – was about as much an afterthought to fans as a technological breakthrough E-Ticket can be. As grand as the attraction may have been, the Wizarding World wasn’t about a Harry Potter ride; it was about eating where the characters ate; shopping where they shopped; living like they lived! The ride was just a perk!

And of course, the "Wizarding World formula" was a smashing success whose invented rules would inspire… well… just about every theme park project since, from Cars Land to New Fantasyland; Pandora to Avengers Campus; The World of Frozen to Springfield: Home of the Simpsons. Even so, if you ask many, none have topped Universal's Hogsmeade follow up.

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

It’s rare for a sequel to live up to the original, but 2014’s Diagon Alley certainly did. A chaotic, urban London shopping center for witches and wizards, the Universal Studios-set half of the Wizarding World gave guests a complete narrative arc to follow – grab your supplies in Diagon Alley, take the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade. A stunning set of lands combined into one by way of an unprecedented inter-park ride, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter incarnate at Universal Orlando certainly stands as one of the strongest theme parks projects of all time…

And naturally, a new park meant a new page in the story…

Fantastic Beasts and How to Lose Them

Image: Warner Bros.

In 2011, the theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part II officially completed Warner Bros.’ decade-long adaptation of the seven-book series with a $1.3 billion bang, bringing Potter’s box office total to $8 billion. In a way few properties do, it was clear that Potter had captured a generation and become elevated to a permanent fixture of pop culture. But with its film adaptations completed, it was also certain that Potter’s years as a box office behemoth were over.

Until maybe they weren’t. In 2013, J. K. Rowling and Warner Bros. announced that they’d begun pre-production on a new film set in the Wizarding World, but decades before Harry Potter’s birth. There’s something intriguing in the promise of following an entirely new adventure in a completely new corner of the “Wizarding World” – of a low-stakes, uncomplicated adventure disconnected from the characters and story we know.

And that’s exactly what Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them sounded like. You have to remember that when Fantastic Beasts was announced, fans knew only that it would follow the exploits of explorer and “magi-zoologist” Newt Scamander on international adventures that would eventually lead him to write the textbook of the same name that would one day end up on Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s Hogwarts school supply lists – a subtle but spectacular connection to existing Potter lore.

Image: Warner Bros.

Set in the 1920s and ’30s, the compelling idea might’ve sounded like an adventurous mix of Harry Potter lore and Indiana Jones that might see a rugged adventurer raiding magical temples, slicing through otherworldly jungles, chronicling magical creatures, and salvaging ancient relics, Tomb Raider style. When Rowling subsequently announced that Beasts had been expanded from one film to three, excitement was palpable. Then, the first movie premiered in 2016 and the results were… well… not what anyone was expecting.

We dove into the issues with Fantastic Beasts in a standalone feature, but suffice it to say that the film underperformed expectations critically and commercially… Which made it even stranger when Rowling announced that the Beasts franchise (already expanded from one film to three) would now grow again, this time to five entries that no one really seemed to be asking for…

Images: Warner Bros.

Dampened by substantial public scandals around its stars – Ezra Miller and Johnny Depp – as well as divisive political rhetoric from Rowling herself seemingly tailor-made to betray the series’ young fans, it’s no surprise that the second and third entries (in 2018 and 2022, respectively) each yielded worse reviews and $200 fall-offs from the entry prior.

Fantastic Beasts bottomed out with 2022’s The Secrets of Dumbledore, which earned a Wizarding-World-worst of $400 million at the box office – almost certainly, a financial loss for the studio. The last two of the announced five entries are unlikely to ever be produced, meaning this Potter spin-off leaves not just a dangling, incomplete story in the lore, but an embarrassing statement on the franchise’s expansion beyond the core Potter series.

Image: Universal

Which brings us to Epic Universe – where Universal’s third entry in the Wizarding World promises to bring us into the world of Fantastic Beasts… but with a major caveat. Want to see what we expect the newest Potter land has in store? Read on…


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