A Harry Potter cruise? How about an entire Universal Cruise Line?

January 25, 2018, 5:48 PM · You might have seen some news stories going viral about a Harry Potter-themed cruise setting sail later this year. Lest you have any visions of thousands of house-robe-clad wanna-be witches and wizards sailing across the Caribbean, chill. The actual "Harry Potter" cruise is much less ambitious — a river cruise up the Thames on an eight-passenger barge with some roadtrips to Harry Potter filming sites during stops along the river.

Prices start at $4,550 per person, which includes meals and an open bar aboard. The same cruise company also runs an alternate itinerary that substitutes the Harry Potter film locations for ones featured on "Downton Abbey." Any potential visitor to Great Britain also could find dozens of land-based tours featuring any combination of these film sites, as well as one for "The Crown" or any other popular show now playing to America's Anglophiles.

But what if you wanted that large-scale Caribbean adventure instead? What if you wanted something akin to the Disney Cruise Line experience, except with Potter or other franchises currently featured in the Universal theme parks? Could you imagine Universal one day getting into the cruise business?

Imagine it? Of course we can! What better way to spend a January workday than to imagine what a potentially far-fetched themed attraction might look like? It's what we do around here. So let's start imagining.

Confession time: I have been on exactly one cruise in my life, and I hated it. (FYI, it wasn't a Disney cruise — it was on Holland America to Alaska.) The food ranged from the bland to the terrible, and I ended up confined to my cabin with norovirus for 24 hours. So I am far from a cruise fan. But instead of disqualifying me from leading our little imaginary exercise here, I think my bad experience with cruising makes me an ideal contributor.

If Universal (or any other creative company) is going to get into the cruise business, it needs to offer something different and better than existing cruise lines. Copying what Disney and other cruise lines are doing won't win customers' business. Universal would need to reinvent what a themed cruise is in order to succeed in this competitive market. So what could Universal do with a cruise line to attract not just current cruise fans, but to entice an even larger audience of theme park fans to set sail?

First, I think it would be helpful to remember how Disney got into the cruise business. It didn't start by building its own boats. Disney began by co-branding cruise itineraries with the now-defunct Premier Cruise Line from 1985 through 1993. Only after Disney had established that fans had an insatiable appetite for Disney-branded cruises to extend their Walt Disney World vacations did the company commission the Magic and the Wonder in 1995 and start the Disney Cruise Line.

Universal has "tested the waters" in the same was a Disney once did, offering Universal Orlando vacation packages with Royal Caribbean. But these are not the character-driven, franchise-immersive experiences at sea that Disney offers on its cruises.

That's what I would want to see from Universal — a completely immersive, franchise-driven vacation experience, even beyond what Disney is doing with its Marvel and Star Wars Days at Sea. This shouldn't be a special itinerary during the "off" season. This should be the standard cruise experience.

But should an itinerary focus on a single franchise, or a mix? IDK — what do you think? Of course, throwing anything Harry Potter into the mix would require negotiating the rights from Warner Bros. and JK Rowling, which is never a sure thing. But, good heaven, what I wouldn't give to hang out in the Gryffindor common room and tuck into a proper Great Hall feast on a true Harry Potter cruise vacation.

Or maybe the cruise should recreate the Durmstrang Ship? A great themed cruise experience should be one that could happen only on a ship — and not something that would work just as well in a hotel or theme park on land. One of the things that frustrated me on my Holland America cruise was the on-board gym. They'd set up the treadmills at the bow of the ship, in front of floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the ocean ahead. But atop each treadmill, they'd placed a big TV screen that blocked the amazing view of the sea, as if the treadmill was in some windowless, land-based gym. What a frustrating disregard for the unique environment of a cruise ship!

So let's forget the traditional placemaking of a "cruise ship" and all the wooden boardwalks and other stuff we've been taught that should be on it, and instead envision the vessel as whatever floating themed setting we can imagine to support a designed adventure. Let's load up the tech, too. Every cabin should have an HD video control center for entertainment, communication, food ordering, scheduling, and even role-playing on board. And a mobile version for passengers' use throughout the ship, too.

I also have to fess up that I am not a big fan of shore excursions. On my Alaska trip, I most enjoyed the times when we got away from other cruise passengers and explored on our own, which is often impossible in many overcrowded ports of call. I'm fine hanging out with thousands of other tourists in spaces such as theme parks that are designed with intent to accommodate and engage us. But being in a tourist horde just depresses me in natural or organic locations that we've overrun and changed into glorified malls. I understand the need to get off the ship from time to time, but I rather would call on a destination that the cruise line owns and controls as part of the designed experience of the cruise. (Think, a more-themed Castaway Cay.)

Which franchises in Universal's collection of owned and licensed IP would lend themselves to an immersive, interactive, ship-board experience? What would you like to see from a Universal Cruise Line?

Replies (9)

January 25, 2018 at 6:29 PM · Dreamworks is already on the bigger Royal Caribbean Ships, but interestingly the newest one Symphony of the Seas won't have them (Even though the sister ships in that class all do). Since dreamworks is fully owned by Universal now, I'm not sure if that had anything to do with it or not. But was curious if Universal would do something similar with RCCL or not, but with Dreamworks characters not on their newest boat, I'm not so sure.
January 26, 2018 at 2:38 AM · Universal's Comcast never ventured into the hotel business. Instead they teamed up with Lowes. Because of that I don't think Universal will never go in the cruise business. They should team up with an excellent partner and "Universalise" the experience a bit. But like the hotels who aren't a theme park on themselves (because they have the theme parks to do that job) and the same should go for the ship experience. I think that works great for Universal and they should continue that. I as a customer appreciate it but I also would never set a foot on a cruise ship ever.
January 26, 2018 at 8:37 AM · You haven’t heard of Dreamworks on Royal Caribbean? Disney Cruises are the most luxurious cruises around without being a luxury cruise. It’s just premium. You need to go more. Not every cruise ends with novovirus so give a reputable cruise a try. The Pirates themed nights at Disney Cruise is really fun. There’s plenty of Princesses. I’m sure Marvel and Star Wars are similar to the theme park experience.

The problem with Universal is their focus on Horror movies. They don’t have enough family friendly franchises to develop their theme parks with IP. This certainly restricts licensing to cruises. Universal is usually licensing rather than issuing licenses.

January 26, 2018 at 11:40 AM · Anton - I went on 4 Cruises with Disney and tried Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

While Disney is more luxurious than Carnival (which I thought was second class), Royal Caribbean is just as luxurious, if not more so.

Disney might be priced like they are Luxury, but they are not.

However, I think children under 12 would enjoy Disney tremendously.

January 26, 2018 at 11:42 AM · Focus on horror movies? As if. Dark Universe is a mess, and Universal hasn't launched a viable horror franchise is generations. Universal's current top-grossing films are:

1 Jurassic World
2 The Secret Life of Pets
3 Despicable Me 2
4 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
5 Jurassic Park
6 Furious 7
7 Minions
8 Meet the Fockers
9 Sing
10 Despicable Me 3

Lots of family IP potential there, even before considering what it has licensed from other studios.

January 26, 2018 at 12:55 PM · Dark Universe is not horror. It's action flicks with classic horror characters.

There are 3 horror franchises listed below (Ouiji, Insidious, and The Purge)

The horror movies that I'm referring to in the last 5 years are...
Insidious 2018
Happy Death Day 2017
Get Out 2017
Split 2017
Ouiji 2016
The Purge Election Year 2016
Krampus 2015
Crimson Peak 2015
Unfriended 2014
Ouiji 2014
Dracula Untold 2014 (not considered Dark Universe)
The Purge Anarchy 2014
The Purge 2013

Plus, it doesn't help that Universal released a bunch of turkeys that quickly left the theater that no one hears about ever again like

Seventh Son

January 26, 2018 at 12:58 PM · I think the key thing to keep in mind here is the difference between the Disney and Universal branding experiences. Disney cruises, while featuring limited immersive experiences like the Star Wars Day at Sea, thrives on the Disney brand as its draw. People go on Disney cruises to experience a "plussed" cruise, complete with characters both within and without the movie franchises (Mickey and Minnie aren't tied to a certain franchise, but the brand itself). Universal doesn't have the same draw as a brand. They would do well to offer immersive cruise experiences, like a Harry Potter cruise, but a whole cruise line? Doubtful. Though, now that I think about it, who wouldn't love a "Xfinity Customer Support Day at Sea"?!
January 26, 2018 at 1:09 PM · Universal has almost exhausted its catalogue. The Secret Life of Pets is rumored to become the next dark ride. Fast and Furious is opening soon in Orlando. ET was removed in USH. Despicable Me and Jurassic Park/World is already there. This means only Sing is untapped. Universal can’t license out Harry Potter. That’s Warner Bros’ and JK Rowling’s decision.

Universal needs to revamp how it decides to do its next films.

January 26, 2018 at 1:30 PM · Why does it matter? Universal isn't allowed to have a diverse release schedule? Horror movies have proven to be extremely profitable because they can be made on shoestring budgets and rake in comparatively handsome profits if marketed correctly. Let's take a look...

Happy Death Day - $4.8M budget versus $55.7M gross (terrible movie IMHO)
Get Out - $4.5M budget versus $175.7M gross (plus Oscar nominations, including Best Picture)
Split - $9M budget versus $138.3M gross (so good that Universal green-lit a sequel that comes in after Unbreakable called Glass)
Ouiji - Origin on Evil - $9M budget versus $35M gross (terrible)
Purge Election Year - $10M versus $79M gross (solid though cliched)

and so on...

I think Universal has found something in their horror franchises through Blumhouse's shrewd business practices that has led to repeated successes. Every movie doesn't have to be suitable for a theme park attraction or family meet and greet, and if nothing else, it makes it easy for the parks to license for their highly profitable HHN events. I agree that Universal probably could use a fresh hit beyond what Illumination and Dreamworks produces to be suitable for the theme park crowd. Jurassic Park and F&F can only go so far, and Harry Potter has significant constraints out of Universal's control, but Universal has been doing just fine (made $1.53B at the box office in 2017, which was good for 3rd behind Disney with $2.41B and WB at $2.04B). I think Mortal Engines, currently scheduled for a December 2018 release, might be the next big hit that is perfect for a theme park application, but speculating on movie successes outside of proven performers can be a fool's errand sometimes, especially 10+ months in advance.

The bottom line is that a movie studio like Comcast/Universal shouldn't be making decisions based solely on whether a film is appropriate for a theme park. Leave the theme parks to the theme park people, and if there aren't any in-house IPs that the theme park creators want to tap, then they need to include licensing costs into their proposals. Universal has already demonstrated that it doesn't have to do things the way Disney does to be successful.

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