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Is Walt Disney World feeling nervous about the arrival of Harry Potter?

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Published: May 3, 2010 at 9:21 AM

As the opening day for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter approaches, I have been hearing more and more chatter about how Universal Orlando’s newest attraction will affect Walt Disney World. Will the inevitable stampede of guests heading to Islands of Adventure have an impact on the attendance numbers at the Disney parks? Are the WDW powers that be feeling a little nervous?

This topic of conversation reminded me about a newspaper ad that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel almost twenty years ago. It was June 7, 1990 and Universal Studios Florida was welcoming its first visitors. That day a full page ad announced “Welcome Universal Studios Florida. What’s good for tourism and entertainment is good for Central Florida.” At the bottom of the ad was a picture of Mickey Mouse and the logo for Walt Disney World.

Orlando Sentinel ad from Walt Disney World welcoming Universal Studios Florida

I’ve always felt it was a bit simplistic to regard Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando as competitors. I never believed that consumers took an “either/or” approach to visiting the Orlando theme parks.

Nor do I believe that the Potter attractions will have any significant impact on Disney’s success. Indeed, according to the Themed Entertainment Association’s recently released 2009 Global Attraction Attendance Report, if the new Potter attractions actually doubled attendance at IOA, the number would still fall short of Walt Disney World’s least attended park – Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Having said that, there is no denying that Disney executives have always had a degree of curiosity about the attractions designed and built by the team at Universal Creative. A healthy dose of media attention was invested the day Michael Eisner strolled into IOA to experience the Amazing Adventures of Spider Man. Several years ago I ran into Tony Baxter at an IAAPA convention in Atlanta. Noticing my Men In Black: Alien Attack construction team shirt he told me he’d ridden the attraction three times and was impressed.

However, while the Disney team has every reason to be impressed (indeed maybe even humbled) by the work of Universal Creative, I’m not sure that they feel even remotely intimidated by the arrival of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’d even go so far as to say that the Disney company is probably pleased about the attention the Potter attractions are drawing to the region.

In fact, I think it would be wise for Disney to play the same card again and take out another advertisement in the local paper. I’m almost certain they have a picture of Mickey dressed in wizard garb, don’t they?

Readers' Opinions

From Robert Niles on May 3, 2010 at 9:36 AM
The Orlando Sentinel thanks you for your suggestion, Tim. :-)
From Adam Dodds on May 3, 2010 at 10:07 AM
I think Harry Potter will help Disney. It won't steal their crowd, but bring more people to experience Orlando as a whole. I think WDW and Universal have always leached on eachother's crowds, (mostly Universal gets the leftovers of Disney vacationers) and for a few years, I doubt people will just go to Universal but rather will hit Disney World while they are there. After a few years, the new Fantasyland will have the same effect on Universal, only not as strong since WDW has a "Must Do" mentality whereas Universal has a connotation of "If we have time and money after Disney."
From Scott B on May 3, 2010 at 10:51 AM
Well, Universal has Harry Potter and Disney has the return of Captain Eo. So I think the playing field is pretty much level. Right? So what is there to be nervous about?
From Derek Potter on May 3, 2010 at 12:05 PM
The single word answer to the question...No.

Disney World has by far the largest market share in the country. They entertain 30 million guests a year and rake in billions in revenue. They have the city of Orlando, the counties in which they reside, and the state of Florida in their pocket. Generations of people love them and flock to their parks as if it were some sort of blind moral obligation. They are backed by one of the largest, most powerful media companies in the world and have a group of characters entrenched in American culture. They have no hesitations about spending a hundred million dollars on one attraction because they have it to spend...not to mention the fact that their product is really good. They are the New York Yankees of the Theme Park industry. Big dollar, big budget, big income, highly visible, and an iconic American symbol known to the world. Does that make them the best? Not necessarily, because it depends on the definition of best. Disney has their own little world in Orlando, and as long as the people keep visiting and shelling out the cash like they have been, they aren't worried about anything.

Despite what Harry Potter super fans may say, I'm simply not willing to put that franchise on the level of Disney. Yes he's sold books and movie tickets over the span of a few years, but Harry Potter the franchise has a long way to go to win the hearts of multiple generations like Disney has, and he has a long way to go to earn the iconic status in this country that Disney enjoys.

While he will grab some media headlines and get his fans worked up, It's Universal's ability to create great visuals and attractions that will be the primary reason for Harry's continued success at IOA, not the franchise itself. When the last film has been played on the big screen, I think that like so many things in pop culture, Harry will begin to fade into the background of trivia questions. The literary works and the author will be appreciated and studied for years to come, but the commercial madness that once was...will be no more, and in a handful of years it will be time for another overhaul at Islands of Adventure. I'll place a healthy wager that the Magic Kingdom will still be standing tall when that overhaul eventually happens.

I'm sure that Universal has the respect of Disney and their creative team, and Disney is happy to have more attention to the Orlando area, but here is Disney's real take on Universal's possible success with Harry Potter.

More potential customers for us.

From Michael Owen on May 3, 2010 at 11:44 AM
Great article, and I totally agree.

It's probably too simplistic to do a theme park v theme park comparison, especially when you consider both resorts are much more than just parks.

The Wizarding World may well turn Disney heads, but that's not a bad thing for WDW. If someone who normally only visits Disney decides they want to go see Potter then they may extend their on-site stay at Walt Disney World to accommodate the trip down the I-4.

From Anthony Murphy on May 3, 2010 at 12:42 PM
I think Disney probably just feels that Universal has made some cool attractions that they should have thought up first, but they will not lose any sleep over that.

Not to mention if they really wanted Harry Potter, they would have probably gotten Harry Potter if they put a little effort in it. As far as we know, Disney might have passed on Harry Potter.

From Manny Barron on May 3, 2010 at 1:20 PM
They are both awesome(and Sea World too)! We are the winners whenever something new opens. I can't wait to ride HP and the Forbidden Journey as well as old favorites like Space Mountain this Summer.
From 68.84.240.18 on May 3, 2010 at 2:51 PM
I had no idea the Walt Disney World had done such an ad - talking about class act! Not to mention smart. Writing about travel in and around Florida, yes, I believe everyone benefits from the other. Surely both the folks at WDW & Universal, as well as all the other supportive tourism entities will benefit far into the future as each grows, expands, and improves.
That said, I do think there was a difference in the days when Walt and even Michael Eisner were in charge, and how things are now at the Mouse's house.
Those days included a true leadership quality at WDW & Disney in general. There was a person at the top who said 'I'm the boss, I'm the visionary, I'm the one who surrounded myself with really talented people, but at the end of the day, its my name that gets signed to a decision and my name that people are going to call on - good or bad. I accept that.'
WDW/Disney has no such person, and hasn't since Michael Eisner left.
I may not have always agreed with his decisions, but I agreed that great companies have great leadership who is not afraid of the decision making, not afraid of the end result. Not afraid of the talk on the other end.
If WDW is to continue to lead - and let's face it, they don't have to make another change for 25 years & they'd still lead the herd, but that's not Disney quality - they need to get a true leader back in there. They need someone who sees the big picture, knows that some things are better the same, others need change. They need someone who's willing to decide if the return of Captain EO is their greatest effort, or if they can take back the reins of greatness.
In recent visits, while thrilled to be back at the Mouse's house, I was greatly disappointed in several elements that are vastly inferior to WDW quality. From Cast Member attitude to handling social media, from dealing with negative press over accidents to daily decision making, from attraction changes to attractions that need changing, there is a disconnect at WDW right now, and they need to deal with that - soon.
But in this situation, yes, Disney and all of Central Florida need to be on the same page and welcome the newest kid on the block. Then get back to work for a brighter tomorrow.
Rori
RoriTravels' Florida
From Robert Niles on May 3, 2010 at 4:02 PM
But what was Tony Baxter's high score? Did he get "the suit"?
From James Rao on May 3, 2010 at 4:20 PM
Great stuff, TH. And overall, I agree that attendance at the Disney parks won't be impacted too much. Heck, if the greatest attraction of all time (Spider-Man) is not enough to draw folks away from the Mouse, than nothing is.

However, take the case of someone like me who is staying at WDW for 10 days this month. If HP was already open I would be spending at least three of those days at Universal parks. Furthermore, next year I plan on spending the majority of my vacation (provided I still have a job) at Universal & SeaWorld with just a couple days at Disney.

So there will be an impact to overall revenue with folks splitting vacations a little bit more than usual. On the other hand, anything that brings more bodies to Central Florida must be considered a good thing at this point!

Anyway, I am loving the TH articles... keep 'em coming!

From Melissa Donahue on May 3, 2010 at 6:20 PM
Enjoyable article, TH!

Maybe I'm an anomaly here, but my husband and I are traveling exclusively to Universal Orlando for eight days this summer -- not because we're huge Harry Potter fans... We just can't wait to see what Universal has in store for its new island! We have shown our love to the Mouse on several different occasions -- heck, we even honeymooned at Disney. However, we have never been disappointed in our Universal visits. Given that Universal tends to be a bit more inviting to the older crowds and thrill-seekers, in my opinion, we are remaining loyal to Universal on this visit. For my money, I don't know that it gets any better than UO's Express Pass for hotel guests, either!

From Mark Fairleigh on May 3, 2010 at 6:56 PM
I can't see Disney being nervous at all. They know they're king forevermore. Love of Disney is passed on from generation to generation. Universal can't compete with that. Universal will always be Pepsi to Disney's Coke. It's a universal constant.

Ironically, this will be the first year we spend more time at Disney than at Universal. It's always been the opposite, but the older we get the more value we see in the little touches Disney offers. We both love Harry Potter, but can't see the new island offering us more than half a day's entertainment seeing as how it's just a small portion of the park.

From Sylvain Comeau on May 3, 2010 at 7:55 PM
As I keep saying, the relationship between Disney and Universal is more symbiotic than competitive. When new attractions bring people to town, that usually means more people going to both company's parks.
From Will Chilcote on May 4, 2010 at 12:22 AM
Harry Potter is going to help WDW if it affects Disney at all. Harry Potter is one ride and 2 re-themings. It will not hurt Disney in the least.
From TH Creative on May 4, 2010 at 3:14 AM
Sylvain Comeau made an interesting point: "When new attractions bring people to town, that usually means more people going to both company's parks."

In retrospect I was a bit presumptuous in my assumption that a new Universal attraction will benefit Disney -- while failing to recognize that the converse relationship may be equally valid. For example, while it is a given that those traveling from out of state or country to see the Potter attractions will likely visit WDW, in the years to come, as the new Fantasyland begins to attract vacationers many of those folks will use the opportunity to visit Potter.

Note to Robert: This means I now have the potential to collect sales commissions for TWO full page ads in the Sentinel.

From Phil B. on May 4, 2010 at 8:36 AM
It's pretty much gotten to the point for me, that a week long visit to central Florida goes either one of two ways now, it's either a Disney vacation, or a Universal/Seaworld Vacation. Between the 2 Universal parks, 3 hotels and City Walk, and the 3 Seaworld parks, there is more than enough to keep me entertained for the span of a week. Ofcourse, Seaworld/Universal falls short on dining options, and lacks the magic that a Disney Vacation provides, eve with Harry Potter setting up shop this year.

Really though, if I'm staying on Disney property, I rather not leave their compound once I'm there. Only once did I do so for Discovery Cove, and to be honest I would do it again, minus shelling out extra for the Dolphin experience. On the other end, if I'm staying at Uni/SW, I rather not shoot over to Disney, I guess because I don't live in FLA, and if I go to one Disney park then I want to go to all of them. So I rather not stress over trying to cram everything in all on one trip.

From 208.66.124.31 on May 4, 2010 at 9:08 AM
I am a HUGE Harry Potter fanatic, I've read the books more than 400 times each, seen the movies more times than anyone can count, even been known to write fan fiction. But given the choice of Disney or Universal. For me it is Disney all the way. I would consider taking maybe a day (or half) to go to Universal to see the Harry Potter stuff only, then back to the Happy world of Disney for me. Universal seems too impersonal, too not family friendly for me. Disney is all about Happyness and Joy, making sure that everyone is taken care of and nothing bad can spoil the day.
From 97.122.229.54 on May 4, 2010 at 7:57 PM
It would be even more interesting if Disney used a couple of Marvel superheros that they now own in order to do a modern version of the full page ad above. Have Spiderman and the Hulk and Mickey Mouse in wizard garb all on the same ad showing some kind a comradery...
From Deidre Dennis on May 5, 2010 at 4:34 PM
I think it's great for all Florida parks. The two times we've been to Orlando we stayed 11 days at Disney Resort. But we also went to both Universal Parks, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and anything else we could find down there. We're planning to go back Summer 2011 to do all these parks again.

Mostly I think it benefits visitors. I don't think Disney is nervous at all.

From Mark Hollamon on May 7, 2010 at 11:06 AM
Disney has nothing to fear and never will have anything to fear from USF, period. Deeper pockets, better innovations, more land, and the most well known brand in the world. Actually, having just said that I think I will go to Epcot tonight! :)
From 71.129.176.197 on May 7, 2010 at 11:24 AM
I am a HUGE Potter fan, and I'm chomping at the bit to get down there...but when I do, I'm going to spend 1 day (or less) at IOA, and the rest of my trip at WDW and Epcot.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter brings that world to it's fans in a tangible, Disneyesque way, and I think it's popularity will endure if it's as well executed as I believe it will be. (I get all misty just thinking about it). But it's one land in one park, not a park itself. I think it will draw droves of Potter Fans to Orlando (when they have the money to take the trip), and for those of us that don't live there, there's no going to Orlando (or Florida for that matter) without going to Walt Disney World. I think Disney will see an increase in attendance because of all of the rabid Potter fans. A love for the two magical worlds (HP and Disney) go hand in hand.
I can't wait!
From Kim Armour on May 7, 2010 at 11:51 AM
I think both parks benefit when new attractions are added to either park. Disney has nothing to worry about. As a lifelong Disney fan, my family prefers to stay on Disney property and spend most of our days there, but, we also set aside a couple of days to visit Universal and Seaworld. I don't see it as competition, it simply enhances our vacation experience.

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