The spires of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry materialise like an apparition, cutting through the morning haze and rising above the treetops. A bird darts by – or was it Harry Potter on a broomstick, playing Quidditch?
But the spell is quickly broken. The flora are palm trees; a sign for the Hard Rock Cafe crowds the view. As Hogwarts beckons, reminders abound that this is a theme park called Universal’s Islands of Adventure, just outside Orlando, Florida. Nonetheless it is here of all places, amid a cacophony of roller coasters, shops and restaurants, that Harry Potter’s universe has come to gigantic life.
Once I have my ticket ($85 for adults, $79 for children), I pass first through Seuss Landing (a collection of rides and shops inspired by Dr Seuss) and The Lost Continent (an area inspired by ancient Greece and Rome). An alternative route takes visitors through Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park.
There is no mistaking where The Wizarding World of Harry Potter begins. Tall walls made to look like stone form a barrier around it, with the snow-capped gables of Hogsmeade village beyond. Hogwarts’ towers cut into the sky, and the metal loops of the Dragon Challenge, two intertwined roller coasters, are scribbles on the skyline.
Once inside, I quickly understand why NBC Universal last year paid $1bn to private equity firm Blackstone to buy the 50 per cent of Universal Orlando it did not already own. On a Monday there are hordes of so-called Muggles (otherwise known as humans) streaming through the gate. (“The enchantment has been lifted so Muggles can come into the Wizarding World,” explains a guide.)
The steaming locomotive of the Hogwarts Express stands sentinel near the main gate. A rotund conductor mans the train, checking his pocket watch for the next departure, and posing for pictures with eager guests. From the station platform, the main road of Hogsmeade, the wizards-only village, stretches up a gentle slope. Everywhere, in shops, stands and restaurants, families are spending money. There are more shops than there are attractions in the Wizarding World. But then again, the opportunity to stroll through the shops of Hogsmeade is part of the appeal.
At Zonkos, the first shop on the promenade, toys and magic tricks are stacked to the ceiling. Salesgirls in robes and pointed caps work a bank of cash registers, where they sell Extendable Ears ($22), Sneakoscopes ($15) and Pygmy Puffs ($15). Next door, at Honeydukes sweetshop, the most popular items are Peppermint Toads ($8), Pumpkin Juice ($6), Chocolate Frogs ($10), Fizzing Whizbees ($10) and Exploding Bon Bons ($10).
Among the Muggles on hand are Tom and Melissa Laurence from Dearborn, Michigan, with their four daughters. Three of the girls are wearing robes hand-made by their mother. “This is a dream come true,” says Mr Laurence. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.” And the steep prices? “It’s worth it,” he says. “I’ve got a video camera and we’ll get to watch it on TV at home.” (Admission alone for the family would have topped $500 that day, with food and merchandise adding another couple of hundred.)
“Universal has seen a massive increase not just in attendance, but in per guest spending,” says Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, an online publication that tracks the industry. “It’s a creative and an economic hit.”
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, opened in June 2010, has quickly become one of the most successful properties of NBC Universal, the media group. “‘Harry Potter’ in Orlando is probably the biggest new attraction I’ve ever seen in my career,” Steve Burke, chief executive of NBC Universal, said at a conference last year. Burke’s statement is especially meaningful as he spent four years working at Disney’s theme parks division.
Attendance at Islands of Adventure is up almost 50 per cent since the Wizarding World opened, resulting in “a gigantic sea change in the profitability” of the park, Burke said. Revenues from the theme parks division of NBC Universal were up 24 per cent to $2bn in the past year, thanks largely to the success of the Harry Potter attraction. Operating cash flow at the theme parks division was up 41 per cent to $835m.
Coming on the heels of one of the most successful book and film franchises of all time, the results are yet more proof that even after the last books have been published and the last movies released, Harry Potter continues to be one of the most lucrative pieces of intellectual property in the world.
The attraction takes its visual cues from the eight blockbuster movies. “It’s an immersive environment that is built with top-quality materials that make you feel like you have entered into the books or movies themselves,” says Niles. To achieve this, the team spent nearly eight years developing the attraction, working in concert with the producers of the films, and Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling herself. “This franchise had all the elements that we look for – great characters, magical places and great action,” says Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative.
Universal began contemplating the idea for a Harry Potter attraction around 2002, when the books were still being published, and only the first movies had been released. During 2005 and 2006, the team began developing conceptual sketches of what a Harry Potter park might involve, and in 2007, at a secret meeting in an Edinburgh hotel, senior NBC Universal management met with Rowling and executives from Warner Bros, which owns the rights to the films, to pitch their vision for the park. The meeting was a success, and in November 2007 Universal broke ground.
NBC Universal’s total investment in the project has not been disclosed, but is estimated to be $265m. In addition to the development and construction of the park itself, it has had to pay substantial rights to Warner Bros and Rowling.
As construction on the park began, the team continued developing the park’s merchandise, rides and food. While the final Harry Potter movies were being shot outside London, Woodbury and his team would travel to the set and present updates to Rowling, who signed off on the smallest details personally. Rowling’s involvement is spoken about in hushed tones. “The author has the final say,” says one person familiar with the park. “J.K. has to sign off before they do anything,” concurs Niles. She personally taste-tested Butterbeer ($3), a butterscotch-flavoured soda with a foamy topping and the park’s signature product. Wizarding World officials estimate that 78 per cent of visitors try it.
As I relax in the Three Broomsticks restaurant, where traditional English pub food dominates the menu, I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. Chairs are dancing in the rafters, and it dawns on me that throughout the park, three-dimensional special effects are woven into everything. Doors open and close at random; the taxidermied boar behind the bar is animated.
At Ollivanders, the wand shop, character actors put on a show. With a few dozen people crowded into a room, a bearded wizard proceeds to help a child select a wand. “Descendo!” he cries. Boxes tumble down and the shelves fall apart on cue. It was the wrong wand. “Repairo!” he cries. The shelves put themselves back together. The long-bearded gent eventually gives the girl an Ash wand, “an excellent wand for a charismatic, successful wizard”.
Ollivanders deposits visitors into an actual shop, where they can buy feather quill pens ($10) or various wands ($30), made of plastic and packaged in a cardboard box. The margins must be substantial. Also for sale: a Gryffindor sweater ($85), black polyester robes ($100 apiece). Swarms of Muggles are pouring in. “This is a quiet day,” a guide said.
There are things to do besides shop. The Dragon Challenge is a serious roller coaster. And the main attraction is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a truly unique ride housed in the belly of Hogwarts castle. The queue is an event. While waiting in line, which can last an hour or more, visitors are shuttled through a room full of magical portraits, which are talking animatedly about their displeasure with the presence of Muggles in the Wizarding World. From there visitors move into an elaborate recreation of Dumbledore’s office, where a hologram of Sir Michael Gambon helps families pass the time. A similar set-up follows with a recreation of the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. The walls are crammed with potions, books and powerful plants, and holograms of Harry, Ron and Hermione, played by the actors from the films, talk to the audience.
There are a few moments of cognitive dissonance. Despite the snow on the rooftops, most visitors are in shorts and brightly coloured T-shirts, coping with the heat. “The only thing that fell down is that it’s still central Florida,” says Niles. “They can’t blast enough air-conditioning to make it feel like Scotland.” And true Potterphiles, even the young Muggles, are keen observers. “It’s kind of confusing,” said one of the Laurence daughters. “Some of the things are in the wrong places.” From the peak of the Dragon Challenge, I saw the contours of the Islands of Adventure, including the service areas outside the back gates. In the distance, Orlando’s modest skyline was profiled in the haze.
Yet those incongruities fail to detract from what has become a creative and financial success, albeit one whose fate was uncertain even as it opened: just as the Wizarding World was readying itself for the public, Comcast, the largest cable operator in the US, took control of NBC Universal. Many thought it might dispose of the theme parks division. “We did not go after NBC Universal for the theme parks,” said Burke, the NBC Universal chief executive. “It was probably the last thing on our list.” Yet when Blackstone exercised its right to demand a buyout from its 50 per cent stake, NBC Universal happily ponied up the necessary $1bn, thanks largely to the early results from Potter. “We happened to show up right at the time,” Burke said.
After just a year and a half, it is such a smash that NBC Universal has announced plans to expand the Wizarding World in Orlando and open a version in Los Angeles. Overseas parks are also on the horizon. “The Wizarding World has been a game-changer for the entire industry,” says Niles. “It has inspired Disney and Sea World to start developing more ambitious attractions to protect market share.”
Universal seems confident, too, that even though there are no more books or movies to come, Harry Potter will not lose its appeal anytime soon. “This is one of those evergreen stories that is multigenerational,” says Woodbury. “My daughter started reading these books when she was 10 – she’s 22 now. Just like when we were kids and had movies we were really attached to, these will be stories that people share with their kids, and their kids share with their kids. It is one of those modern classics.”
David Gelles is the FT’s US media and marketing correspondent.