Published: July 6, 2015 at 3:28 PM
In the column, I look at the effect upon attendance that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has had in Orlando and Tokyo and crunch the Southern California theme park numbers to suggest that Universal Studios Hollywood could catch Disney California Adventure in annual attendance by the end of 2016, unless Disney offers a response beyond the current 60th anniversary offerings.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, under construction at Universal Studios Hollywood
But what's good for Universal doesn't have to be bad for Disney. If Potter brings more tourists to Southern California, that influx almost certainly will help Disney, too. The companies have coexisted well in the past in Southern California.
Disney and Universal weren't always adversaries, said Sam Gennawey, a Los Angeles author who wrote Universal versus Disney: The Unofficial Guide to American Theme Parks' Greatest Rivalry.
"Disneyland and the Universal Studios Tour started out as complementary entertainment activities. Disneyland was the ultimate world of fantasy where you become a player in the show. Universal was set in an authentic working studio with guests experiencing the world's greatest industrial tour with attractions designed to scare you into laughter," Gennawey said.
"That changed in the 1980's when Universal wanted to export their formula to Florida [for Universal Orlando] and new leadership at Disney fiercely resisted. Jay Stein at Universal fought back and modified his plans to beat Disney at their own game. It took 25 years but it seems to be working. Now that formula is being applied right here in LA."
Disney, of course, tried to secure the theme park rights to the Harry Potter franchise but lost them to Universal in what Tony Baxter, the former senior vice president of creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering, called the company's "biggest misstep."
"There are people who have come of age between 2000 and now for whom the world of Harry Potter was incredibly influential," Baxter told me in a 2013 interview. "In the end, what [Universal has] done is link that park with one of the major demographics that go to theme parks today."
Disneyland has spent 60 years working to make its name synonymous with magic. But next year will bring a new brand of magic to town. If Disneyland wants its 61st year to be as successful as its first 60, it will need to cast a new spell or two to match the ones it will soon face from Universal and Harry Potter.