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Is it too late for Harry Potter to become a profitable franchise for Universal Orlando?

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Published: January 6, 2010 at 6:57 AM

Possibly the most eagerly anticipated theme park expansion of 2010, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, set to debut at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, will more than likely attract millions of fanatics of the boy wizard over the next year.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The addition of the Potter themed land, based around Hogwarts and the surrounding area, represents Universal’s first major expansion of their Islands of Adventure theme park which opened in 1999. Whilst the attractions are all set to be of the same high standard set around the rest of the park many industry experts have questioned just how long guests will remain spellbound by a series of movies nearing its end.

Of course, these concerns are all valid, just ask Mattel, the company who own the rights to produce the Harry Potter based toys. After the release of the first movie in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosophers (that was the UK book title) Sorcerer's Stone, Mattel couldn’t get the Potter toys on the shelves fast enough, selling around $160m worth in 2001 alone. However, the year following the release of the second instalment, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the value of sales was estimated to be around $130m according to The Economist, a fall of $30m.

Similar trends were seen in the release of the Harry Potter video games, all of which have been developed by Electronic Arts. Since the release of the original game all sales of the Potter-based games have declined. Seemingly even the most budding magicians, witches and of course wizards can get too much Harry Potter magic.

It has to be said that it isn’t all downward spirals for the billion Dollar franchise, book sales, for example, have increased over time, with J.K Rowling’s seventh instalment of the series ‘The Deathly Hallows’ being the best selling of them all. The same can also be said of the movies, more and more people seem to become fans of this tale of courage, integrity and friendship as Warner Brothers premiere’s each new movie. This has to be primarily attributed to the promotion of the books and movies as for all ages. No longer are these best-selling novels regarded as simple children’s stories, they’re aimed not only at the young but the young at heart.

Theme parks are a whole different ball game as we know. If you ask many kids these days if they’ve ever seen an episode of classic Sci-Fi series ‘The Twilight Zone’ they’ll most likely give you a confusing stare, not knowing exactly what you’re talking about. Despite this ‘The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror’ at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is arguably Walt Disney World’s most popular and most loved attraction. At the same time when ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ appeared at the same park it was at the height of its popularity, yet visitors didn’t take to the attraction and the interactive quiz lost popularity along with the show it takes its name from.

There are of course other movie franchises in theme parks. As much as I hate to use the same park as an example over and over I have to go back to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The movie park as hosted the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular since opening and Star Tours for over a decade. Both attractions have passed the test of time and are still favourites today. Yes, both are in need of some changes but the main thing is the theme based around two huge movie franchises still holds strong, even though the last Star Wars movie was released several years ago.

So, franchises can last for a considerable number of years in a theme park. As long as the theme is backed up by quality attractions then I’d bet that any half decent movie series could last over a decade in the park. Having a big name movie franchise at one of your theme parks is great for drawing crowds but what will keep them coming back are great rides and shows, regardless of the theme. If something is good people will ride it over and over again, even if the movie it’s based around is a little passed its sell-by-date.

Universal are taking precautionary and notably smart steps when it comes to ensuring the Potter theme stands the test of time. Rather than going down normal routes to revenue Universal are adopting a more unique approach. The Wizarding World will offer more than just rides and shows, unique products such as Butterbeer taken from the books will be sold in outlets around the land. This product and many more will be unique to the Potter themed land and it’s likely to be much more profitable than the traditional Potter products sold outside of the theme parks gates.

If I was asked to say now if The Wizarding World would be a success I’d say yes. The plans look simply amazing and if the rides and shows are kept up to scratch then Universal will have no problem selling millions of tickets for years to come just to people who want to experience some magic outside of Walt Disney World. However, if Universal is expecting to make a ton from merchandise as they do at many other themed areas, most notably Marvel Superhero Island, they may be in for a shock. Mattel’s figures don’t lie, there’s seemingly only so much Potter stuff one would-be wizard can have and that’s something Universal will have to deal with in years to come.

Readers' Opinions

From Rob P on January 6, 2010 at 7:41 AM
Apologies if this is a double post but I wasn't logged in :

I think this may prove to be a symbiotic thing. Where the toy sales dropped off as the movie ventures weakened I think that Universal will have a positive effect on the whole franchise.
Just as the rides spawned movies at Disney and then found that those movies then spawned changes to their parent rides. I think that toy , book and DVD sales will get a much needed boost from Universal's Themed areas for Harry Potter. In turn those arms of the franchise will then encourage more interest in the Theme Park arm.
I don't care too much for the books or the movies but am eagerly looking forward to visiting Universal's Harry Potter.And so it goes. One man's ceiling and all that. One thing is for sure : there's no such thing as bad publicity.
More and more new readers,riders and viewers are out there and I can see that particular demographic increasing with the advent of Harry Potter World in Orlando.

From Robert Niles on January 6, 2010 at 8:15 AM
I think that this analysis helps explain some of the decisions that Universal had made regarding the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Certainly Universal took a long, hard look at the sales data for all ancillary Potter merchandise and licensees before investing in Wizarding World.

So instead of getting the same old wands you could have bought anywhere else, Universal will offer wands that interact with the Wizarding World environment. Universal Creative got the green light to go nuts on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, in an attempt to create the enduring franchise that can overcome potential consumer fatigue with a brand. And the attractions become a new land within a compatible theme park, rather than a stand-alone destination that might not have enough "help," if you will, to achieve a critical mass with frugal consumers.

I'm in the camp that says Potter will be a success, though I do worry about hourly capacities and Universal's initial promotion for the land. But those are minor worries in comparison with all that I've seen Universal do right with the project to date.

From Corbin Barker on January 6, 2010 at 8:30 AM
I am very interested in how this turns out. If this land came 3 years ago, I don't think anybody would question what a great move this is. However, we do know that at some point, we're gonna get to the end of the movies, and the question is going to be is "Is Harry Potter just a fad of a generation, or is it going to be a cultural icon that lasts for a long time?"

Take a lot at the other theme parks out there:

Disney- Mickey Mouse. Cultural Icon that lasts generations.
Universal- Marvel and Dr. Seuss. Cultural Icons that last generations.
Sea World- Shamu and a theme of animal care. Cultural Icons that lasts generations.

Now my question to you guys is will Harry Potter be the next cultural icon that lasts for generations? No one is doubting the initial "cool" factor that it will have, but will it keep people coming back 10 or 20 years from now?

From Anthony Murphy on January 6, 2010 at 8:43 AM
I believe this is the reason for the whole "Disney Vault" thing.

Disney likes to re release movies so that kids are familiar with Snow White, Dumbo, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Toy Story, etc.


I personally think Harry Potter will be fine. As mentioned, Indiana Jones and Star Wars attractions at DHS seem to be doing pretty well.

Also, while the merch. sales of Harry Potter Books are still pretty strong. The attractions are still based upon a very popular book series. It would seem that many of the stores and resturants in this new land are explained more in the books than in the movies.

From Derek Potter on January 6, 2010 at 9:19 AM
I said this when the announcement came down that they were building Wizarding World, and my opinion hasn't changed. I think that Harry Potter the franchise has peaked. Many of the fans were kids who were wild for everything that had to do with those books and movies, and they have grown up/moved on...etc. The Harry Potter pandemonium of five years ago simply won't happen again because that's what pop culture is. Things come and they go...they become wildly popular and then they become passe. To HP's credit, he's been around for a long time, and he still has the ability to draw a crowd. Like most other things in pop culture though, he's a victim of overexposure, media frenzy, and mass commercial saturation. He will never sell as much merchandise as he once did, and he will never get the attention that he once did.

Having spent the last paragraph knocking Harry Potter around, I'll now say this. The theme park is a funny place. It's where once popular TV/Movie characters can go to find new life. When's the last Mickey Mouse movie you saw. In fact, when's the last anything you saw with any of the classic Disney characters in it. Seen a new Popeye or Dudley Do Right cartoon lately? How about those Peanuts... anything from them since the 1970's? Has Scooby Doo or Dr Seuss made any appearances except for in underperforming movies.

I guess my point is this with theme/amusement parks. It doesn't really matter what character they use. If it's good, people will come. Nobody under 25 probably has a clue who Popeye the Sailor Man was until they rode the ride at Universal...you know, the one in the best ride tournament this year. I didn't know who Dudley Do Right was, until I rode a pretty good flume ride at Universal. All of those franchises enjoy a successful presence at a theme or amusement park while doing very little at the box office or on store shelves, and it's because the parks have packaged them well, either with an area of the park, or a themed ride. Theme parks can offer something that the TV and big screen can never offer, and that is real life interaction and immersion.

If Universal turns out a product that I know they are capable of, Harry Potter's fading pop culture status will have very little or no effect on the success of Wizarding World. They can even still make money with merchandise if it's unique. Some will show up because it's Harry Potter, but they will return because it's well designed and entertaining.

From TH Creative on January 6, 2010 at 10:38 AM
Mr. Owen writes: However, if Universal is expecting to make a ton from merchandise as they do at many other themed areas, most notably Marvel Superhero Island, they may be in for a shock. Mattel’s figures don’t lie, there’s seemingly only so much Potter stuff one would-be wizard can have and that’s something Universal will have to deal with in years to come.

I Respond: What is notably absent from this analysis is a comparison between Marvel merchandise sales within a theme park verses Marvel merchandise sales outside of a theme park. Mr. Owen's comments related to lackluster Potter sales reflects performance outside of a theme park. It seems the only way to make a fair comparison between the franchises' merchandise is to measure sales within the same conditions.

From 82.17.232.33 on January 6, 2010 at 11:13 AM
TH Creative,

It's hard to directly compare the sales figures of Marvel with Harry Potter because Marvel release different movies based around different characters, the Harry Potter series is based around one storyline which is close to its climax on the silver screen.

Whilst Spiderman merch may have seen a decline in sales in recent years, due to there being no new movies and no promotion, sales of Iron Man merchandise will have increased due to the movies release. Marvel are constantly producing movies based on different characters and they can release different merchandise to satisfy the movies fans. There's a limit to how much new Potter merchandise can be released, when a child has a Harry Potter figure then they may not want the same figure that comes with a broomstick, hence the continuing decline.

I do agree that sales within the parks are likely to be higher as when people are on vacation they are naturally much more easy-going with their money and pester power will most likely see generic merchandise sales, at least for the first few years. But in five or ten years time children will be flocking to Marvel Super-Hero Island and whilst they are there they will likely buy a t-shirt or similar product related to the latest Marvel character to be portrayed in a movie. Can you see the same amount of popularity for generic products for a movie franchise that ended several years ago?

From 68.163.72.94 on January 6, 2010 at 11:17 AM
I wouldn't base any measurement of consumer interest on the video games. The problem with the Harry Potter video games is the same problem with any movie-based game. The developers only have a year or so to turn them out, which results in a half-finished, uninspired product. Look at the reviews for the Harry Potter video games and you'll see: They're all pretty bad.

Ask any gamer, it's rare for a movie-based game to be any good. There are only a couple exceptions, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and Wolverine being two.

From Michael Owen on January 6, 2010 at 12:21 PM
Just to clear up any confusion the response to TH's comment was mine. Just forgot to log-in.
From TH Creative on January 6, 2010 at 12:37 PM
Mr. Owen Writes: But in five or ten years time children will be flocking to Marvel Super-Hero Island and whilst they are there they will likely buy a t-shirt or similar product related to the latest Marvel character to be portrayed in a movie. Can you see the same amount of popularity for generic products for a movie franchise that ended several years ago?

I Respond: Two words: Star Wars.

From Blake Nieman on January 6, 2010 at 12:50 PM
D. Potter writes: "Having spent the last paragraph knocking Harry Potter around, I'll now say this. The theme park is a funny place. It's where once popular TV/Movie characters can go to find new life. When's the last Mickey Mouse movie you saw. In fact, when's the last anything you saw with any of the classic Disney characters in it. Seen a new Popeye or Dudley Do Right cartoon lately? How about those Peanuts... anything from them since the 1970's? Has Scooby Doo or Dr Seuss made any appearances except for in underperforming movies."

I'd have to agree with this. It's almost a chicken and an egg argument; which came first? The overall popularity of the franchise? Or the theme park attraction's popularity? I think both have to lean on each other, really.

I think Robert had some good examples with the Tower of Terror, Star Tours, and Indiana Jones. I'll also throw in some instant classics: Peter Pan, and Dumbo. Are these overly complex attractions? No. Are these franchises still thriving? Other than frowned-upon sequels, no. Are these rides still popular? Absolutely. Why? Nostalgia--for both the rides and the classic movies.

I think that will be the key for Universal's success. As people grow up, will the current Harry Potter fans (notably teens to young adults, as many have grown up with it already) still have that same fuzzy feeling about Harry Potter as they do now?

On the opposite side there are attractions like the Swiss Family Treehouse and Stitch's Great Escape. I may be the minority here, but I don't think the Treehouse has aged very well and it's WAY past it's prime (if there was one).

As far as oft-maligned Stitch's Great Escape, I don't think the character of Stitch will stand the test of time, seeing as how people are already calling for his proverbial head.

Where will the "Wizarding World" land? Only time will tell.

From Michael Owen on January 6, 2010 at 1:26 PM
TH, Star Wars has to be one of the most commercially successful series of movies ever. Lord of the Rings was massive when the movies were released, but demand for the merchandise since Return of the King hit the screens has been considerably less.

The question is what will happen to Potter after the last movie is released? Consumers may lose interest quickly, like we've seen with Lord of the Rings, or it could remain popular for decades to come, like Star Wars.

Regardless of what does happen Universal have to prepare now, which they have done by adding unique products not available outside of the parks. This way if Potter remians popular for years to come they can still sell generic merch, but if it doesn't they have something else to generate extra revenue outside of tickets, food and drink.

Universal will know consumer trends are different inside the park gates than out, but they can't stick their heads in the sand when it comes to what is happening to Harry Potter products outside the park.

From Rod Whitenack on January 6, 2010 at 2:30 PM
In my opinion, the theme park experience is a completely different experience than that of viewing a film or reading a book. A good theme park ride or attraction is an interactive, immersive experience that can create a devoted following (or not)based entirely on the unique ride experience. The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, two of the most popular themed rides in history, aren't based on a specific book or film. One spawned a popular series of films itself. The other did not, but the film didn't hurt the ride experience.

My point is this: Harry Potter will do fine if the rides are amazing in themselves because it falls into the realm of fantasy. Wizards, dragons and castles have been around since the early days of storytelling. You don't need to know anything about Harry Potter to enjoy an adventure in that world. To me, theme park rides are all about living an adventure that takes one out of the mundane world. It can be a trip to outer space, a visit to a haunted house or a trip through a storybook forest. Universal already had a fantasy area up and running. Harry Potter just adds to that.

If the ride and themed areas are fun, they should be able to sell merchandise exclusive to the ride that people will want as a memento. Generic Harry Potter action figures? Not so much, but items tied specifically to scenes in the attraction. Yes!

From Paul Sierra on January 6, 2010 at 2:36 PM
Wizarding World will do fine. Jurassic Park is right next door, and that franchise was well past its peak when IOA opened. I think the biggest concern is not the popularity of the brand, but the fact that Universal is only offering one new attraction. Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff are simple re-themes, so if the Forbidden Journey ride isn't absolutely amazing, people are going to be disappointed. And according to most insiders, it's far from absolutely amazing. On the other hand, tourists who aren't familiar with the park will think everything is new.

If we're going to discuss a franchise that can't support a themed land, we should be talking about Carsland at Disney's California Adventure. Harry Potter is a franchise of 7 books and 8 movies, all of which have been enormously successful; Cars is a single movie (with a pending sequel) that is widely considered to be the weakest in the Pixar archive. Disney's decision to change their Route 66 concept to Carsland reflects two facts: Cars does great merchandise, and John Lasseter (who is neither an Imagineer nor any sort of architect, planner, or designer) has a big boy crush on that movie. Is that enough? Will people really still care about "Cars" in 10-20 years, or will DCA just end up needing yet another rehab?

From luis gonzalez on January 6, 2010 at 3:58 PM
the debate of whether HP will stand the test of time is pretty useless. Theme parks are laden top to bottom with expired shelf dates and aging franchises. HP will bring in huge numbers for atleast the first year to year and a half and will continue to satisfy well after that. This is simply an expansion to an already fantastic park, not a completly stand alone park. When all is said and done HP will have done exactly what it was built to do; open huge and bolster an already fantastic park for the next decade atleast. Both men in black movies suck, the simpsons hasnt been funny in ten years, and dont get me started on the horrible mummy frachise, yet i dare anyone to tell me that those arent the best three attractions at universal studios. HP fans are going to drink this up like peppermint schnapps.

word to your mother!

From James Rao on January 6, 2010 at 7:53 PM
You make some great points, Luis. However, I think we are all underestimating the tremendous cultural phenomenon that is J.K. Rowling's magical creation. This franchise is not simply a pet rock fad or the literary version of a one hit wonder, but quite possibly the biggest success story the world has ever seen.

The Harry Potter books are among some of the best selling novels of all time. From a popularity standpoint, J.K. Rowling may well be the Charles Dickens of the modern era. Even Stephen King (a cultural phenomenon in his own right) once stated that the Potter novels would "...stand time's test and wind up on a shelf where only the best are kept; I think...this is one series not just for the decade, but for the ages." Furthermore, as long as J.K. Rowling is alive the potential exists for more Harry Potter adventures to keep the franchise relevant for years to come.

And while I am not a fan of the film adaptions, no one can deny their popularity. With two movies still in the pipeline, the series has already amassed the most money of any franchise in box office history: $5.5 BILLION in worldwide grosses.

As far as Universal goes, all they have to do is stay true to the HP universe, keep the rethemed rides up to snuff, and make sure Forbidden Journey is at least close to being the Spider-Man killer every other theme park company has been striving to build for the last eleven years. If they can accomplish those tasks, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter will provide Universal Studios with a license to print money for decades to come.

From TH Creative on January 7, 2010 at 3:32 AM
Mr. Owens writes: TH, Star Wars has to be one of the most commercially successful series of movies ever.

I Respond: Warner Bros. announced today that the Harry Potter film series has become the most successful movie franchise in history, based on worldwide box office returns.

According to the official press release:

With the success of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Warner Bros. Pictures' Harry Potter films have now become, worldwide, the top-grossing motion picture franchise in history. The announcement was made today by Barry Meyer, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer and Alan Horn, President & Chief Operating Officer, Warner Bros.

The combined worldwide box office gross for the five Harry Potter films to date is in excess of $4.47 billion, surpassing the box office totals of all 22 James Bond films and the six Star Wars movies.

http://www.hpana.com/news.20190.html

And PLEASE NOTE: That release was offered in September 2007 -- There had been six Star Wars films released and only five Potter films released.

From James Rao on January 7, 2010 at 4:00 AM
FYI - the actual numbers for the three franchises, worldwide:

Star Wars (seven films, incl Clone Wars) - $4,411,410,761
Harry Potter (six films) - $5,420,026,613
James Bond (23 films) - $5,074,402,453.

Potter is averaging $900 million per movie, so after two more films the franchise will gross about $7.2 billion total.

As I said, phenomenal.

From TH Creative on January 7, 2010 at 5:58 AM
(Meandering off topic)

And the most AMAZING achievement of the Potter film franchise is that, when it is complete in 2011 (eight films -- Deathly Hallows to be released in two parts [clever!]), they will have released the entire franchise in just twelve years (from commencement of production on the first film through the release of the eighth).

I mean ... WOW!

From Don Neal on January 7, 2010 at 8:10 AM
I understand the world, and America especially, is all about what is the newest and greatest but we are talking about a very strong brand that has become a phenomenon. This is no different than any of the Disney movies through the years that theme many rides and areas of their parks. Snow White is 70 years old or something like that. But yet she remains a part of the park and part of the princess theme. Harry Potter wasn't just a passing fad. I wasn't a big fan, but I did see the movies. And I also know that that story is a significant part of the lives of my over 20 nieces and nephews who have all grown up reading the books and watching the movies. They will be going to the park for years to come sharing their memories and experiences with friends and eventually their own children.

My kids (6, 8, & 10) are a little behind on Harry Potter but are already asking me when we are going to Universal. They understand the significance of the brand.

I think a lot of people want to discount the brand or even Universal. But I see no reason not to expect big things from this. I am not going to say this is Universal's ticket to overtaking Disney or this puts them on par with Disney. But I definitely don't think this is going to hurt them or be a disaster.

From Joshua Counsil on January 7, 2010 at 9:59 AM
The difference? The toys and video games were mediocre.

I am afraid, however, that people are over-hyping this attraction. Some believe it will be an entirely new theme park of its own. The Ottawa Citizen declared the new Wizarding World the top reason to "celebrate" in 2010. That's scary - what could they possibly expect?

From TH Creative on January 7, 2010 at 10:41 AM
Mr. Counsil, if any organizayion is capable of designing a marquee, gate-crashing worthy theme park attraction that could meet and/or surpass such sky-high expectations, it would be Universal Creative. Period.
From Joshua Counsil on January 7, 2010 at 2:25 PM
I don't doubt it, but I think people's expectations are still way too high. I am rarely disappointed with Universal's creations - even the much-maligned (by yours truly) Rip Ride Rockit - but I think people are expecting an entire theme park dedicated to this franchise. After all, the advertising certainly sells it that way.
From Rob P on January 8, 2010 at 3:13 AM
The enjoyment barometer for me will no doubt be this :
I don't believe , for one minute, that I'll fall asleep at Harry Potter World at Universal like I did when viewing the original movie at the Cinema.

When we went for a meal after the movie I had no recollection of things like Sqibbosh or Widditch or Squabbage or whatever it's called because I'd fallen into deep slumber by then.My narcoleptic episode disturbed only by the end titles music.

What I couldn't get out of my mind was why magic spells of obvious early Celtic origin were being delivered in Latin.( ??? ). I went to that sort of school when I was kid and can only reason that it's to make children today believe that the teaching of Latin still has some value.
Anyway...nil desperandum.

But I am still looking forward to Universal's offering.

From Dave Bower on January 9, 2010 at 1:45 AM
All other points aside, I am certain that Harry Potter will be a long term success.

Universal are experts at milking a long-dead franchise

One word, WATERWORLD

Still going after almost twenty years.

From Rob P on January 11, 2010 at 1:22 AM
Good point Dave.
Waterworld is a fine example of how a Theme Park attraction can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
It's the best show on offer, imho, and will continue to run and run. Always packed to the rafters with excited audiences and deservedly so.
The show works where the film laboured. ( great concept but way too long )
I forecast the same for Dreary Potter. It'll be far better at Universal than the franchise has served up so far.
From 161.44.193.143 on January 11, 2010 at 3:45 PM
If the IOA land stays true to the movies then they'll do fine. What impresses me about the movies is not the confusing and pointless plots or the wooden dialog and journeyman acting, but the lush sets, the lighting, and all-round visual theming. If they can reproduce the feel of the ancient-looking stone passageways of Hogwarts, the Dickensy cobblestones of Diagon Alley and the misty, Scottish-highlandy outdoors then I would go there just to experience the atmosphere.

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