Universal's impending PR problem with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

September 15, 2009, 9:55 PM · Universal Orlando managers must be enjoying the avalanche of coverage that their webcast today has generated for Islands of Adventure's upcoming Wizarding World of Harry Potter development.

But could that coverage be creating a PR problem for Universal?

Take a look at some of today's headlines:

These are among the biggest and most influential major media outlets in the country. And they all say the same thing: Not that Harry Potter will be a new land within Islands of Adventure. No, the headlines say that Harry Potter will be a new theme park.

And that could turn out to be a huge problem for Universal.

One bad scenario for Universal: Folks expecting an entirely new theme park will be confused when they get to the ticket booths or Universal website and don't find "the Harry Potter park" as one of their ticket options. They'll wonder that it is not open yet, or worry that they're being conned into buying a ticket for a park that they might not want in order to get into Harry Potter.

A slightly worse scenario: Even before getting to that ticket purchase, people will factor the cost of visiting an additional theme park into their planned Orlando vacation, and some might skip looking into a visit as a result, without knowing that Harry Potter is included in the cost of admission to IOA.

The worst case for Universal: People find the right ticket option, buy it and visit - only to discover that the "new theme park" is really just three rides (and only one of them new) and no shows. Expecting a full-fledged Harry Potter theme park, they get mad that they didn't find that and turn to e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, online message boards and all their friends to complain. Loudly.

Blame the company for its silly "theme park within a theme park" verbiage. Rather than just come out and say Harry Potter would be a new themed land, or "island" if you will, within Islands of Adventure, Universal has lost an opportunity to create needed brand recognition for IOA, while potentially leading many future visitors to expect something that Universal Orlando will not deliver - an entire theme park devoted to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Universal needs to spend the months between now and next spring clarifying this Wizarding World, heavily promoting it as a land within IOA: "Want to see the 'Wizarding World of Harry Potter'? It's only in Universal's Islands of Adventure!" etc. The news media coverage, as shown by the headlines today, is moving in a direction that Universal shouldn't want; Universal needs to hit hard with advertising, online and on air, in order to better manage public expectations for the new land.

This doesn't mean that Universal has to play down WWOHP. This looks like it will be one of the most impressive new projects within a theme park in years. But it will be a project within an existing theme park, and Universal's looking at a PR nightmare if the public fails to comprehend that.

Replies (27)

September 15, 2009 at 10:50 PM · To answer your direct question, I came to your site after reading all the other press. It wasn't confusing AT ALL in the reading. The narrative is very clear it's inside of Universal's Island of Adventures. I think your press analysis is a bit over the top.
September 16, 2009 at 2:41 AM · If I had one reservation about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter area it was that there was a potential for it to overshadow, media wise, the rest of IOA.

Robert's right. It hasn't been marketed particularly well and if the media boys perpetuate any confusion over it's place, content and scale then there could be trouble ahead.

How absurd would it be if what should have been an exciting event ends up as a disappointment. Not because of what it actually is but because of the expectation of it being anything more.

Perhaps the PR boys just got a little too excited and got ahead of themselves. It's easily done with something of this magnitude. Universal have done well to complete this project in such a good time scale and they deserve all the plaudits for that. Don't spoil the ship for an Ha'peth of tar. Promote it sensibly and WWOHP will be an unmitigated success.

September 16, 2009 at 3:20 AM · With all due respect to Mr. Niles, I don't think this will have much of an impact. And if it does it will be short term -- especially if 'HPATFJ' is a spectatcular addition to the Universal Orlando resort. Judging on Unoversal Creative's extraordinary work in the past they should not be a problem.

The only thing that would hamper this project from a PR standpoint would be if it had opening delays -- a la RR&R. But I suspect Universal has learned its lesson and is confident that it will be ready to go.

September 16, 2009 at 3:34 AM · Visitors "not-in-the-know" will be pleasantly surprised at what they find when they visit IOA.

Can you imagine someone who has never been to Universal stumbling on to Spider-Man for the very first time? Wow...I wish every time could be like the first time! Uh, when riding theme park attractions, I mean. ;)

September 16, 2009 at 4:12 AM · I really don't think that Universal would intentionally leave out the fact that Harry Potter is opening within IOA. Perhaps they understated it a little, but they didn't misrepresent like these stories have. I don't particularly fault Universal so much as I fault half-arsed journalism and failure to research and be clear on the simplest, yet very important details. The reason I say that is because all of the industry and fan websites had (and have had for weeks) it right. Why? because they care about the industry. Journalists for mainstream media outlets...if you can call some of them that anymore, should care at least for the sake of being accurate and informative. Taking 5 minutes to google this topic before writing, editing, printing, or reposting via AP, would have made the missed detail crystal clear.

I'll concede that a story on Universal in Florida is a minor blip on the radar compared to all the other news around the world and that maybe it doesn't merit the extra 5 minutes to a large media outlet. I'm just saying that if you are going to report it, please be as completely informative and factual as you can.

edit: I agree with TH that I don't think it will have a huge impact on visit planning and all that stuff. People trip planning to Universal will likely get info about Harry Potter and Universal from their website or a site like this one. Something like this is just a small example of a problem with the media. Half and 3/4 truths are becoming commonplace within our news.

September 16, 2009 at 4:35 AM · I agree with Robert on the point of guest confusion. Believe me, you really have to spell things out to some people when it comes to their vacations (esp. theme parks). People do become dumber when they're on vacation or even while planning one. While working at Epcot, i couldn't tell you how many guests came up to me asking where Disney World is. Of course the CM's were taught that the guests meant Magic Kingdom. I read a few comment boards and the majority of people are saying that they are excited for the Harry Potter THEME PARK. The press releases really don't say anything about it being a land within IOA. They all say theme park within a theme park. For a while even I thought that it was going to be a separate gate. I can see this becoming a problem if Universal does not spell out exactly what some call Potter Land really is.
September 16, 2009 at 4:37 AM · No offense Robert, but I pretty much disagree with your analysis of the PR for HP. Recently, especially now that we have the ability to discuss theme parks extensively in forums, blogs, and other online groups, a major misconception has been brewing. It is easy to dismiss Universal's new attraction as something less than it is. "It only has three rides, only one of them new." has been bantered around on the internet since yesterday afternoon. Rides and shows are important, yes. But Universal has only begun to unveil the shops and overall themeing of the area. People who are excited about HP are for the most part excited about stepping into the world that they've read in the books (or seen in the films). They want to "be" a witch or wizard for a few moments. Live in the shadow of Hogwarts. Leave the real world behind. That's what Universal is building. That IS what a theme park does, and why "theme park within a theme park" is NOT misleading. People for the most part understand that. The press isn't confusing the issue. They're pretty clear about where the area is being built. And there's plenty of room for future expansion too. Leaving room for more later is good forward-thinking strategy.

Think about Star Wars weekends. They are among the best attended weekends at DHS. What's special about them? Star Tours is open. Ah, but it's open all the time. There's walkaround characters. And a few extra trivia shows and behind the scenes previews. And the stars. The people behind the masks if you will. All in all, not that much of a change to the park's overall makeup. But why do people attend? They love the world of Star Wars and want to be a part of it. They want the stormtroopers wandering around as if they live there. They want to wear their Jedi robes and look normal. They love the Ewok trying to steal their stroller. Sure, they love to meet the celebrities too. But I wager a bet the main reason they go is to be part of the all-inclusive Star Wars galaxy that DHS turns into several weekends a year.

THAT is why Harry Potter will be a success at IOA. Not because the ride is spectacular (I have it on the best authority it will be) or there's a great roller coaster (DD is a great coaster and will continue to be). And not because a future attraction or show is state of the art either. People will come to BE a student at Hogwarts. Even for just a couple of hours.

September 16, 2009 at 5:57 AM · I myself wonder if there will be web backlash against HarryPotterland solely based on the two rethemed rides, one new ride, an zero shows. Doesn't really excite me to go see what is essentially only one new ride...
September 16, 2009 at 7:01 AM · I agree a little bit with what you say Robert, but I do not think its such a huge problem.

The issue is that I do not think the press in some outlets were not clear on what exactly was going on. Sorry to all you press people out there, but sometimes they get it wrong or misunderstand a quote and turn a story in a way that is not completly true.

Then again, Robert has a point. Many people do not really research what they are getting into when going to the Orlando Area. Many assume that Dora, Sesame Street, Shrek, and Madagascar are in Disney World so a new park would not be far fetched for them. Also, we gotta rememebr for the people who are not of this site, most do not even know what Universal Orlando or Disney World actually physically look like. It would be close to impossible for Universal to open another Gate at this point.

So yeah, people just read headlines sometimes and there will be people no matter what you tell them will think its a whole new park, but Universal can clarify it quickly. Though I wonder, if the headlines were Universal's exact words? (Conspiracy Theory anyone??)

September 16, 2009 at 9:21 AM · My Spider-Sense is tingling. I think a miserable experience is on the horizon for the hundreds of thousands who will flock to IOA only for the WWOHP next year. Parents are going to first be routed through a number of shops, that while well themed, will make their kids want to buy overpriced wands, collectibles and candy. Dad better double up on the ButterBeer at this point. The re-themed Flying Unicorn will now attract a lot more guests, but will still have a very low put-through for a 30 second kiddie coaster. Imagine waiting 2 hours for that! I'm sure the wait line for the Dueling Dragons inside the castle will be really cool now, and it better be. You'll be in there a long time. And then there will be only ONE NEW RIDE for anyone who has never been to IOA before. It will be amazing, but you'll have to wait at least 3 to 4 hours for one ride in the first couple of years, so forget "Let's do that again!" It's a one time deal. Hopefully, they'll have a no-wait return time program so you'll have more time to spend money in the shops. Yikes!
September 16, 2009 at 9:25 AM · Also, I wonder if Universal will still allow guests staying at one of their hotels to skip lines at the WWOHP with their room key? If they do, I predict solidly booked hotels and standard lines that barely move at all.
September 16, 2009 at 10:03 AM · Allow me to clarify: I'm not talking about the millions of people who read websites like ThemeParkInsider.com or otherwise research deeply their Orlando vacations. Those folks know what WWOHP is, are psyched for it and, I expect, will be wowed.

I'm writing about the millions of other visitors - the schlubs who arrive at the park at 11am, without having bought tickets. Who think that Epcot is part of the Magic Kingdom. Or that Universal is part of Disney World. The people who ask "What time is the three o'clock parade?" The folks who get a FastPass with a return time three hours from now... and dutifully avoid riding any other rides until then. In short, the clueless masses forming the crowds that we who go online do the research to avoid.

Those people, whose money nevertheless makes the theme parks we love possible.

All they know about WWOHP is what they've seen in the headlines from USA Today and EW. I don't doubt that many, if not most, of them will be very pleased once they get to IOA.

But a few thousand - heck, even a few hundred - visitors in those first weeks feeling that they've been short-changed by not getting an entire theme park could be enough to create a PR backlash against the project. (And, trust me, there will be some Disney loyalists online egging them on, hyping the complaints in the misguided belief that anything anti-Universal must somehow help Disney.)

Why take this risk? Why continue to use misleading verbiage to describe this exciting project? Why not get in front of the public message with an aggressive ad campaign that promotes the IOA brand?

Here's another suggested pitch: "Why wait for three years for a new Fantasyland when you can see Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure this summer?"

Get aggressive, Universal. Don't let uniformed copy editors at places like USA Today and EW define this project for you.

September 16, 2009 at 10:10 AM · As a new transplant to Orlando, I cannot believe how many of my well-educated friends don't realize that Universal and Disney are separate ENTITIES when they mention visiting me. Let alone trying to explain the separation of the parks within each franchise. They seem to think the "Park Hopper" tickets mean "Orlando Attraction Hopper" (which also magically includes Busch Gardens in Tampa).

I can easily imagine this will be a recurring issue for Customer Service, but nothing they can't handle with years of practice dealing with that FAQ.

September 16, 2009 at 10:57 AM · Robert's assesment of some of the guests to the Orlando theme parks is spot on. Its really turned into a game with my family to see what crazy thing we can see or hear on our annual trip to Disney World. I am going to the Food and Wine Festival so who knows what drunken guest interaction I will see.....

And Rob is right too. The place is going to be swarmed and suck the money out of families, but then again, thats the point I would see! Its like the outlandish lines for Fantasmic, still after all these years. Though, I wouldn't mind a wand myself :)

September 16, 2009 at 12:21 PM · Those families, the uneducated masses, will be clueless with or without PR help from the parks. Marketing and information have always been somewhat mutually exclusive. In order to build excitement and buzz, you have to show your best attractions. Doing so presents a park with only those attractions, all neatly lined up in a row for guests to visit. The reality is those rides are sometimes whole parks apart. Marketing shows families jumping right on the rides. You wouldn't sell visits to the park if you depicted guests waiting in an hour long line to ride. Parks use marketing slogans like "be a princess" or "own the park" and we all know those aren't really true. They're marketing tools to create excitement. Calling WWHP "a theme park within a theme park" is the same thing. It builds buzz, and creates excitement. Will some of our less educated guests be disapointed that it's not really a whole theme park? Maybe. Those same guests are also disappointed that Spiderman isn't right next to the Simpsons ride, and that the park isn't included in their Disney pass. The goal has to be to create buzz for everyone, and create an experience varied and enjoyable enough to keep a majority of the guests, whether educated or not, happy. Can they please everyone? No, nor should they try. That's setting them up for failure. Can they create a highly themed, interactive experience with something for most people to enjoy? Yes, I think they can and if their advance preview is accurate that's exactly what they are doing. Expectations are high for this project, and meeting or exceeding those expectations will be difficult just simply because the audience expects so much. It's unreasonable to hold them to an experience that satisfies 100% of the people 100%.

That being said, Universal does have a PR problem, and that's Rockit. Any announced opening date for WWHP is going to be deemed a lie based on the problems with getting Rockit opened this year. WWHP is right on track for a spring opening like they say, but convincing the masses, and especially convincing the bloggers and press, is going to be very difficult. If I were UO, I would be pushing the marketing department to really stress that the dates are in fact legitimate. I would be constantly doing interviews and belaying fears. I would set a grand opening date in stone (and make it an achievable one) and put so much stock in having to meet that goal that naysayers can't argue that it's false. That's the real PR hurdle; not worrying about whether the average guest thinks a "park within a park" means a whole separate entity or just a totally emmersive interactive experience.

September 16, 2009 at 12:23 PM · I am surprised how much media this is actually getting. They had a segment on a national radio station(KISS FM) this morning about it, right when I was going to school. They were making it seem like Dueling Dragons was new, and not just getting renovated to be themed to Harry Potter. That may also be confusing to people is if they have visited IOA before, and are now expecting a new coaster at WWOHP only to find Dueling Dragons that they rode a couple years back.
September 16, 2009 at 1:32 PM · Mr. Niles, I think you misread the newspaper articles.

They didn't say 'Wizarding World of Harry Potter' will be a new theme park, but that it will be a new theme park area.

But you do raise some interesting questions. I'm eager to see how Universal handles this.

September 16, 2009 at 3:27 PM · Robert, I heard you this morning on NPR's Morning Edition- you sounded great!
September 16, 2009 at 4:45 PM · One comment really got my eye: "...I predict solidly booked [on-site] hotels and standard lines that barely move at all."

Universal would absolutely LOVE to have that particular problem! ;)

September 16, 2009 at 4:49 PM · I think a lot of folks might be surprised by news industry eyetracking data that shows just how few people read the articles beyond the headlines (and, maybe, the lead).

We often write for a tiny audience in reality, even though so many people supposedly read us.

September 16, 2009 at 7:30 PM · I think this is a bit of over-analysis. Most guests going to Orlando don't know the difference between the four Disney parks until they show up. If you've ever watch the Disney World trip planning DVD, they're constantly emphasizing that Disney World is much more than the Magic Kingdom. Average guests going to IOA for the first time, will just want to know where Harry Potter is, and once they find it, they'll be more than satisfied.
September 16, 2009 at 9:48 PM · I just think it's funny that this is getting so much attention now when the project was announced over two years ago especially since this announcement wasn't even that significant or say much of anything new.
September 17, 2009 at 8:04 AM · I agree that there will be a problem with people understanding that it is only a section of an entire themepark. I was reading an article about it on another site and they called it a theme park in the title and the article. The reason I think people will be confused is because of some of the comments with people saying that with only three rides it wouldn't be worth it going to this theme park as they need more rides. The general public doesn't do the research and will be confused about it.

I used to work in Washington DC at the US Capitol Building and I can't count the number of times I was asked by people ,that were from America and would come right up to me in front of the Capitol Building, where the Capitol Building was. I was sometimes even asked which room the President lived in.

September 17, 2009 at 12:10 PM · I think the problem here is not Universal's fault. These major media outlets either didn't do their research or wanted a more sensationalized headline by calling it a theme park and not just a land.

However, I think this could actually help Universal, assuming tourists are smart, which can be a stretch ;) because people will see the headline "Harry Potter Theme Park" and be more apt to read the article then if it read "New Harry Potter Land within IOA" and once they read the article, if they plan to vacation there, they will do the research and realize it is just a land in IOA before showing up bewildered at the gates.

And even if it were just a ride, I still think Harry Potter faithful would flock to Universal for it...I know if they were to build a new ride based on Indiana Jones or the Pirates movies, I would be on a plane to that park ASAP

September 17, 2009 at 12:42 PM · Of course, the real lesson here is to quit reading newspapers and watching TV for your theme park-related news, and to start reading TPI daily.... ;-)
September 17, 2009 at 9:51 PM · You would be surprised just how many guests come to Universal Orlando and have no idea what Islands of Adventure is or that it even exists. They just know they are coming to Universal Studios. Many are angry when they find out they are prevented from visiting Spiderman or Jurassic Park without buying a separate ticket. Same goes for Disney. Many tourists just do not realize that there are separate parks. And don't get me started on people asking where an attraction is at Universal, yet they are asking for a Disney attraction.
September 17, 2009 at 11:29 PM · I think the headlines are very misleading in calling the new land a theme park, and that is what most people read in this faster paced age of electronic info.
Maybe they did do it purposely - any publicity is good publicity - hoping to stir things up a bit and get more attention. That, or a big slip up.

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