How the Wizarding World Came to Universal Studios
Did you know that Disney theme parks got the first crack at the Harry Potter franchise? It’s absolutely true.
In some alternate universe, Harry Potter meets guests alongside Mickey Mouse. That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?
Here’s the fascinating story of how The Wizarding World of Harry Potter came to Universal Studios.
The Disney Deal That Fell Through
At the turn of the millennium, author J.K. Rowling and her book franchise, Harry Potter, leveled up.
In 1999, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban debuted. In Rowling’s native England, this book became the fastest-selling title EVER there. In your face, Shakespeare!
A few months later, the third Harry Potter story performed similarly in the United States.
Suddenly, everyone in Hollywood wanted to be in the Harry Potter business. Two years later, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opened in theaters.
Almost overnight, a group of preteens became the stars of the biggest film franchise in the world at the time.
By this point, Warner Bros. had snagged the film rights to the entire series. However, The Walt Disney Company anticipated another revenue stream.
Disney recognized an opportunity to tell Harry Potter stories in a different way. The Mouse wanted to introduce Potter and his friends at the theme parks.
Naturally, Rowling loved the idea of the Potter characters coming to the Happiest Place on Earth.
At the time, the author was only a few years removed from struggling financially. She couldn’t imagine the reversal of fortune that led her to this moment.
Disney wanted to tell the story of Harry Potter. Rowling happily agreed to this deal in 2004.
After the author signed a letter of intent with Disney, the relationship soured quickly.
According to Disney historian Jim Hill, Disney only envisioned the following:
“There were two attractions. Basically, it was going to be Buzz Lightyear. You were going to be in an Omnimover attraction with a wand instead of a gun, and you were moving through basically a Dark Arts teaching class. The other aspect was going to be a Care of Magical Creatures Petting Zoo.”
Rowling expected a wizarding world. Disney offered a zoo.
Universal Becomes Plan B
From the beginning, Universal officials had courted Rowling as well. However, at the time, the difference between Disney and Universal was comical.
No reasonable person would have picked Universal due to the financial and tourism gap between the theme park entities.
Thankfully, Rowling didn’t think like most storytellers. She really had no need to sell out, as her books and movies had earned more than she could have possibly dreamed.
Instead, what mattered the most to the author was that a theme park display the Harry Potter universe the way she saw it in her mind.
Disney’s plan absolutely could not have accomplished that goal. Universal, on the other hand, had no pride at the time. That’s not even a dig, just the truth.
Universal executives would have done literally anything to acquire a license on the order of Harry Potter. Still, Rowling initially chose Disney.
Then, park officials revealed their plans for inclusions which outraged the author. Disney would have sold its typical licensed characters in Harry Potter Land.
Similarly, Disney’s existing licensing deals, like Coca-Cola, would have ruined the illusion and taken away some of the British charm of the story to boot.
For its part, Disney found Rowling and Warner Bros. too opinionated about what the land should be. Eventually, Disney and Rowling agreed to split.
Universal swooped in almost immediately afterward. Its executives readily agreed to all the demands that Disney had refused.
The upcoming Harry Potter project would possess a larger construction budget than any Universal themed land ever.
Rowling would maintain creative control and the right of refusal on anything she felt wasn’t in keeping with her Harry Potter stories.
In short, Rowling took a chance on a struggling theme park in exchange for a more accurate representation of the Harry Potter universe.
Building an Entire Wizarding World
In 1999, Universal’s Islands of Adventure cost $1 billion to construct in its entirety.
That’s why theme park analysts boggled at the announcement of what we now know as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Universal promised a $200 million budget for the project, a massive investment for a park claiming only 4.6 million guests annually at the time.
From its perspective, Universal had a sunk cost of $1 billion on an underachieving theme park. Another $200 million seemed like a risk.
However, Universal correctly deduced that it was a solid gamble with massive upside.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the film released the same year, shared a similar budget. Its box office of $942 million easily justified the investment.
Universal officials capitalized on the theme of Islands of Adventure, entire fictional realms, as an organic fit for the Hogsmeade part of the Potter universe.
Ultimately, the project ran well over budget as Universal catered to Rowling’s every demand.
By the time it opened, Universal had spent $265 million on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a number that seems quaint more than a decade later.
However, this addition effectively increased the overall cost of Islands of Adventure more than 25 percent. It was a risk, even if nobody remembers that now.
Universal wouldn’t break ground until January 2008. A few months later, two attractions from the Lost Continent closed to create space for Potter.
In September 2009, Universal showed a few journalists the progress on the themed land. It hinted at a place just like fans had read in the books.
Universal Studios, a theme park company not (yet) known for its theming, had done the impossible. It brought to life The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The Lingering Impact of Harry Potter Land
Universal’s gamble paid off beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Within a few years, Islands of Adventure park attendance more than doubled!
Meanwhile, images of the entrance lines during the earliest days of The Wizarding World went viral.
People were standing in line for an hour or more to enter a theme park few had wanted to visit the year it opened.
Universal quickly expanded The Wizarding World to Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Japan, and even another iteration at Universal Studios Florida.
By the end of 2019, Universal Studios parks around the world claimed more than 51 million guests.
Contrast that to the year before The Wizarding World opened. Universal’s parks registered about 23 million guests worldwide.
The Wizarding World built an empire for Universal Studios, which had struggled mightily before then.
That $265 million investment stands as one of Universal’s best ever. And it all happened because Disney didn’t think big enough with the Harry Potter license.
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Feature Photo: Universal