A Universal Primer

Universal Orlando occupies 840 acres in Orlando, about 8 miles northeast of Walt Disney World. The resort consists of two theme parks—Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure—along with five Loews-operated Universal hotels; Universal’s Volcano Bay, a water park opening in 2017; and the Universal CityWalk dining, nightlife, and shopping complex.

Universal Studios Florida (USF) opened in June 1990. At the time, it was almost four times the size of Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then Disney-MGM Studios), and much more of its acreage was accessible to visitors. Like Disney’s parks, USF is spacious, beautifully landscaped, meticulously clean, and delightfully varied in its entertainment.

With just one theme park, Universal played second fiddle to Disney for almost a decade. Things began to change when Islands of Adventure (IOA) opened in 1999. Adding a second park, along with the CityWalk nightlife complex and on-site resort hotels, made Universal a legitimate two-day destination and a serious competitor with Disney for tourists’ time and money.

In 2007 Universal’s management made one bold bet: securing the rights to build a Harry Potter–themed area within IOA. Under author J. K. Rowling’s watchful and exacting eye, to create a setting and attractions designed to be the envy of the industry. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Hogsmeade, as the new land was called, opened at IOA in 2010 and was an immediate hit; it was followed in 2014 by The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Diagon Alley at USF.

Today, USF and IOA are state-of-the-art parks that vie with Disney parks, whose attractions are decades older on average. None of Disney’s latest attractions are the kinds of cutting-edge, super-headliner attractions that Universal has built recently and continues to build.

Disney finally announced major expansion plans for Hollywood Studios in 2015, but it’ll be the end of the decade before they come to fruition. That delay is helping Universal wow the socks off of even hard-core Disney fans, including this Moncton, Nebraska, reader:

I’m a huge fan of all things Disney, so it pains me a little to say that the highlight of our most recent trip was actually Universal Orlando. Not because Disney World isn’t spectacular—it always is—but because Universal’s themed Harry Potter experience is by far the most immersive I’ve ever had.

A dad from Montclair, New Jersey, compares Disney and Universal when it comes to value:

After many Disney trips, we finally went to Universal last year. We’ll never switch our allegiance, but Universal taught me some lessons about how to blow minds using new technology—and Disney needs to pay a little attention. Time at Disney isn’t cheap, but I always tell people that it isn’t a bad value; still, that high cost puts Disney in a position where if they don’t deliver 100%, they look awfully greedy, whether it’s a tasteless muffin or a lame new attraction.

What Is The Wizarding World?

Universal has been in central Florida for a quarter century, but if it only recently attracted your attention, a certain superstar boy wizard is likely responsible. In what may prove to be the competitive coup of all time between theme park arch-rivals Disney and Universal, the latter inked a deal with Warner Brothers Entertainment to create a “fully immersive” Harry Potter-themed environment based on the bestselling children’s books by J. K. Rowling and the companion blockbuster movies from Warner Brothers. The books have been translated into 68 languages, with more than 450 million copies sold in more than 200 territories around the world. The movies have made more than $7 billion worldwide, making Harry Potter the largest-grossing film franchise in history. The project was blessed by Rowling, who is known for tenaciously protecting the integrity of her work. In the case of the films, she demanded that Warner Brothers be true, to an almost unprecedented degree, to the books on which the films were based.

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been

That Grateful Dead lyric is awfully appropriate when recounting the evolution of The Wizarding World-Hogsmeade. A Harry Potter theme park (or themed area) had been the chop-licking dream of the amusement industry for a decade. First, of course, there were the books, which against all odds trumped texting and TV to lure a broad age range of youth back to the printed page. Next came the movies. In securing the film rights, Warner Brothers, along with several unsuccessful suitors, learned the most important thing about exploiting the Harry Potter phenomenon: J. K. Rowling is boss. As the Potter juggernaut took the world by storm, entertainment conglomerates began approaching Rowling about theme park rights. When she spurned a Universal Studios Florida concept for a show based on the Potter characters, industry observers were certain that she had struck a deal with Disney. In fact, Disney was in talks with Rowling about a stand-alone Harry Potter theme park. For her part, Rowling had no problem visualizing what she wanted in a theme park, but from Disney’s point of view, what Rowling wanted was operationally problematic, if not altogether impossible. Never an entity to concede control, Disney walked.

Universal caught Rowling on the rebound and brought her to Orlando to tour Islands of Adventure. Among other things, they squired her around the Lost Continent section of the park, impressing her with its detailed theme execution and showing her how with a little imagination it could be rethemed. Rowling saw the potential but wasn’t much more flexible with Universal than she was with Disney. From her perspective, getting a themed area right couldn’t be any harder than getting a movie right, so she insisted that Stuart Craig, her trusted production designer for the films, be responsible for faithfully re-creating sets from the movies. Universal, on fire to land Harry Potter, became convinced that the collaboration could work.

But theme parks and movies are two very different things. With a film, a set has to look good only for a few moments and then it’s on to something else. With a theme park, a set has to look good 12-16 hours a day, in all manner of weather, and with tens of thousands of tourists rambling through it in need of food, drink, restrooms, protection from rain, and places to rest. With The Wizarding World – Hogsmeade, Rowling’s insistence on authenticity occasioned conundrums not anticipated by the theme park designers, who, for example, logically assumed that guests would like to see the interior of Hagrid’s Hut. No problem – a walk-through attraction will serve nicely. Of course, there’s the Americans with Disabilities Act, so we’ll need ramps both in and out of the hut. No way, say the movie people: Hagrid’s Hut in the films had steps, so the theme park version must have them, too.

To be frank, Universal shot itself in the foot by initially promoting the original Wizarding World as a “theme park within a theme park.” While arguable from the aspect of immersive theming, the phrase implied a lot more content than what guests got back in 2010: a single land with only three rides, two of which were re-purposed roller coasters. It also created a false impression that admission to the Harry Potter area was separate from the existing parks, or involved an additional charge. Now that Diagon Alley has been added, along with a train attraction connecting the two areas, the “theme park within a theme park” moniker is perhaps more apropos. But though the Wizarding World will be the resort's top draw for many years to come, it still represents just a sliver of what Universal Orlando's theme parks have to offer.

Last updated by Seth Kubersky on July 21, 2016