A Universal Primer

The Universal Orlando Resort is located on 840 acres inside the city of Orlando, about 8 miles north-east of Walt Disney World (which is actually in Lake Buena Vista). The resort consists of two theme parks – Universal Studios Florida (USF) and Universal's Islands of Adventure (IOA) – along with four Loews-operated Universal hotels, and the CityWalk dining, nightlife, and shopping complex. Wet 'n Wild, a nearby water park, is also marketed under the Universal Orlando banner.

Universal Studios Florida (USF) opened in June 1990. At the time, it was almost four times the size of Disney’s Hollywood Studios (originally known as Disney/MGM Studios), and much more of its facility was accessible to visitors. Like Disney's parks, USF is spacious, beautifully landscaped, meticulously clean, and delightfully varied in its entertainment. Its rides are exciting and innovative and, like many Disney attractions, focused on familiar and/or beloved movie characters or situations. Unfortunately, while the opening-day rides incorporated state-of-the-art technology and lived up to their billing in terms of creativity and uniqueness, several lacked the capacity or reliability to handle the number of guests who frequent major Florida tourist destinations.

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

IOA opened to good reviews and sizable crowds, and it did steady business for the first few years. Ongoing competition with Disney, however, and a lack of money to invest in new rides eventually caught up with IOA. Attendance dropped from a high of 6.3 million visitors in 2004 to a low of 4.6 million in 2009, less than half of Animal Kingdom, Disney’s least-visited park in Orlando that year. In the middle of this slide, Universal’s management made one bold bet: securing the rights in 2007 to build a Harry Potter–themed area within IOA. Harry, it was thought, was possibly the only fictional character extant capable of trumping Mickey Mouse, and Universal went all out, 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 first phase of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, as the new land was called, opened at IOA in 2010 and was an immediate hit. Its headliner attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, broke new ground in its ride system and immersive storytelling. Families raced to ride the attraction, and IOA's attendance grew 22% in 2010 and another 28% in 2011.

Harry Potter single-handedly upended the power structure in Florida’s theme parks. Emboldened by its success, Universal's new owners Comcast – which acquired a majority stake in the NBCUniversal conglomerate in 2011, and purchased full ownership from GE in 2013 – embarked on an unprecedented wave of expansions, rapidly adding new attractions and extensions, including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida and a fourth on-site hotel.

Now, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure are state-of-the-art parks vying with Disney parks whose attractions are decades older on average. Although Disney has expanded the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland area with new rides and restaurants, that effort is primarily to increase the Magic Kingdom’s capacity; none of Disney’s latest attractions are the kind of cutting-edge, super-headliner attractions that Universal has built recently and continues to build.

The gamble appears to be paying off for Universal; on some days in the summer of 2014 after Diagon Alley's debut, attendance at USF and IOA reportedly exceeded attendance at least two of Walt Disney World's theme parks for the first time, and Universal posted a dramatic 18.7% increase in revenue for the third quarter of 2014.

Disney and Universal officially downplay their fierce competition, pointing out that any new theme park or attraction makes Central Florida a more marketable destination. Behind closed doors, however, the two companies share a Pepsi-versus-Coke rivalry that keeps both working hard to gain a competitive edge. The good news is that all this translates into better and better attractions for you to enjoy.

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 December 27, 2014