Some thoughts on Universal and the theme park rights to Lord of the Rings

January 3, 2013, 12:49 PM · Earlier today, blew up the theme park community with news that Universal had acquired the theme park rights to Lord of the Rings. A few hours later, however, the website backed off and now is reporting that Universal is "close to acquiring the rights."

Well, no kidding.

Hobbiton. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Middle Earth, coming to a Universal theme park someday? Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

That Universal wants the rights to Lord of the Rings is hardly a secret. We've had plenty of threads on this site where readers have offered their wishes and suggestions for what Universal should do with the franchise. By all accounts, Universal Creative and LOTR/Hobbit director Peter Jackson have a strong working relationship, dating to Jackson's work on the King Kong 360/3D experience at Universal Studios Hollywood. New Line Cinema, which produces the Lord of the Rings films, has worked with the Universal theme parks on Halloween Horror Nights attractions, and now is a subsidiary of Warner Bros., which is quite pleased with how Universal handled that other little film franchise it runs: Harry Potter.

The only connections missing are the blessings of Tolkien family, and of course, the little matter of money. Film rights are not theme park rights, and that deal would have to be negotiated separately, with all parties involved.

And that's where we've been. The Tolkien family's not taken an aggressive role in the development of Lord of the Rings, and apparently isn't all that happy with the resulting films (link in French). I've not heard any reputable reports about any potential relationship between Christopher Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, either, so I don't know if she'd be able to convince the Tolkien family to sign off on a deal.

But Universal Creative has impressed many people in the film industry with its handling of franchises such as Potter, Kong and Transformers. And Universal finally now enjoys stable ownership, with Comcast acquiring full control of the Universal Orlando Resort and demonstrating that it's willing to spend money to support its parks, with major expansions underway in Orlando, Hollywood and Japan. (Singapore lacks the room for any significant expansion, though it is getting a new Sesame Street dark ride this spring.)

Perhaps Disney can swoop in and write a bigger check than Comcast would be willing to put on the table. Perhaps the Tolkien family might decide that it'd rather not see a Lord of the Rings theme park land, no matter how credible Universal Creative and Comcast's money might be. But if those don't happen, Lord of the Rings at Universal seems a matter of "when" and not "if."

Replies (31)

January 3, 2013 at 1:02 PM · Buzz Killington here!

One thing to remember is this: The Tolkien estate fought against The Hobbit movies from being made, and has been generally displeased with all of the movies, and generally with Peter Jackson. They don't seem pleased with the commercialization of Middle Earth.

I think we are a long time away from having Lord of the Rings in a theme park. The family is the biggest stumbling block, and they tend to be exceedingly protective of Tolkien's works. Maybe, when the next generation takes over, something will happen (and that will happen sooner than one might think, Christopher Tolkien is in his late 80's), but until then, I really don't see the family signing off on anything anytime soon. Which is disappointing, I would love to see what Universal Creative or Disney (who will never get this license due to Tolkien's loathing for all things Disney) could do with this.

January 3, 2013 at 1:04 PM · So let's see if where there's smoke there's fire
January 3, 2013 at 1:16 PM · Robert Niles: "I've not heard any reputable reports about any potential relationship between Christopher Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, either, so I don't know if she'd be able to convince the Tolkien family to sign off on a deal."

I Respond: Why would she even try?


(Related): It seems reasonable to question if the Tolkien family would EVER do anything with Disney.

From a previous post offered by Mr. Tim Odom:

"It might be advisable [...] to let the Americans do what seems good to them — as long as it was possible [...] to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing)."
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #13

"I recognize [Walt Disney's] talent, but it has always seemed to me hopelessly corrupted. Though in most of the 'pictures' proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them to me is disgusting. Some have given me nausea"
– Letter to Miss J.L. Curry, of 15 July 1964

January 3, 2013 at 1:19 PM · I'm both excited and worried by this potential development.
Excited because the possibilities of a true 'Lord of the Rings' land at a major theme park are simply mind-blowing.
But worried because... well because universal has a habit of turning every attraction into an extreme event... Last November in both Universal parks I left early, not because the quality of the attractions wasn't good - they were excellent - but because after almost every single Universal attraction I emerge feeling as if I've been sat in a chair and slapped around the face with a wet fish for 5 minutes. Universal seems to have one setting and only one setting - 'HIGH DRAMA EXCITEMENT PERIL DANGER EXTEMIS!!!!!!!' and frankly it's exhausting.
'Lord of the Rings' clearly lends itself to some high drama attractions, but I'd want to see some gentleness and softness in there too to give it depth and substance and I'm just not certain Universal would do that...

Then again I might just be getting old.....

January 3, 2013 at 1:32 PM · If Universal can't get the LotR rights from the Tolkien family, maybe they can acquire the rights to The Hobbit menu from Denny's and use it to replace one of their awful counter service restaurants.
January 3, 2013 at 1:33 PM · If Universal can't get the LotR rights from the Tolkien family, maybe they can acquire the rights to The Hobbit menu from Denny's and use it to replace one of their awful counter service restaurants.

(sorry for the double post when the non-logged in comment appears.)

January 3, 2013 at 1:47 PM · . I'm very, very excited for this!
January 3, 2013 at 1:46 PM · Gotta LOVE the comment from Jack Curley. Apparently the Tolkien family's hardcore protection of the artistic credibility of the LOTR and Hobbit franchises ends at a Grand Slam Breakfast.
January 3, 2013 at 1:54 PM · @David: You're just getting old, man. Universal's picked a contrast compared to Disney that appeals more to teens and young adults, and that's a smart deal, really. Kids these days have a ton of cash to throw around because their parents don't know any better, so if they live in or around Orlando, they're going to get year passes and spend money on food and souvenirs.

Anyway, I find it amusing that the Tolkien family doesn't seem to like the commercialization of Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit. I thought Peter Jackson did a good job with the Lord of the Rings films, I thought The Hobbit was an excellent movie.. what aspect of money is there not to like? As long as the films don't suck and the source material can be handled properly and respectfully to J.R.R. Tolkien's work, what's the issue? I don't honestly see one.

Then again, I'm not some old eighty-something.

January 3, 2013 at 2:05 PM · Yeah nothing says credible for the family of tolken like a 5.99 Denny's grad slam lord of the menus. There's a waitress with a staff slamming it down in front of customers yelling, "You shall not pass!". While a deformed split personality cook is looking down at a ball of grease and grime repeating to himself, "My Precious" while the tolken family is sitting in one of those round booths smirking, "One menu to rule them all"

Class act those people.......

By the way I'm hungry now....

January 3, 2013 at 2:06 PM · Mr. Malone writes: Kids these days have a ton of cash to throw around because their parents don't know any better, so if they live in or around Orlando, they're going to get year passes and spend money on food and souvenirs.

I Respond: I don't know the actual economics of WHY, but I was in a meeting once where a theme park executive (a VP) indicated that when an AP holder visits the park more than seven or eight times the park begins losing money on the deal.

January 3, 2013 at 2:28 PM · I have to admit, I had the Hobbit Grand Slam at Denny's. What can I say, I am a sucker for greasy Denny's food every now and again. And, yeah, the hilarity of the Tolkien's being against commercialization when you can get Hobbit-themed Denny's food is right there. But, it is what it is with the Tolkiens. I want nothing more than them to prove me wrong, for Christopher Tolkien to be at a Universal Studios Press Conference heralding the agreement to construct a LOTR themed land, but I am pessimistic that will ever happen.

But, I will say, the pancakes in that Grand Slam were pretty awesome.

January 3, 2013 at 3:38 PM · @Jack - that comment was worth posting twice. Priceless! =D
January 3, 2013 at 3:45 PM · I can't understand what all the fuss is about a movie they couldn't even be bothered with finishing.
January 3, 2013 at 4:07 PM · The funny thing is, I have never seen any of the LOTR movies. For once, I don't have an opinion. :)

This is probably the only blockbuster series of movies I have no desire to watch. My brother-in-law bought me a box set a while ago because he always buys movies that he likes for other people instead of what they like. They are still shrink wrapped and have never been opened.

January 3, 2013 at 5:20 PM · Well if they ever did build a LOTR land where would it go? It seems too similar to Potter (similar in genre not in details, I don't mean to offend any fans here) to me to share a theme park. It would be like building a star trek land, and battle star galactica land in the same similar and redundant in terms of genre. And since Orlando is now completely Potterfied in both Parks I just don't see where they'd put this land.
January 3, 2013 at 6:23 PM · I really hope universal gets this, with Disney having avatar and Star Wars this is the last massive franchise out there apart from maybe DC and Star Trek can't think of any others
January 3, 2013 at 8:36 PM · Saw the first 3 films and enjoyed them. Found them to be a fun adventure to go on. That being said, I never felt inspired to see the franchise in a theme park, though I'm sure plenty of attractions can be drawn up from the source material. I would definitely be excited to visit a themed land based off of these works if executed properly though. Either way, seeing Universal just keep on plowing forward is very exciting and dizzying all at the same time. Universal these days is to exciting cutting edge theme park attractions, what Disney is to cutting edge interactive queues, and ride/food reservation systems <----some sarcasm intended. I hope Uni does get the rights, it could only help nudge Disney forward in the attractions department.
January 4, 2013 at 12:43 AM · Can't wait for Universal to bring the excitement of the Lord of the Rings trilogy ie, walking around in a circle for 12 hours.
January 4, 2013 at 2:55 AM · Just to add spice to the debate here's a link for those of you who have never found it to a guy with a real sense of imagination - it's his take on how a Lord of the Rings themed land could work in an existing theme park, (in this case Disney's Hollywood Studios).

Total blue-sky thinking (imagineering?) of course but sometimes it helps to be able to visualise an idea...

January 4, 2013 at 2:55 AM · Just to add spice to the debate here's a link for those of you who have never found it to a guy with a real sense of imagination - it's his take on how a Lord of the Rings themed land could work in an existing theme park, (in this case Disney's Hollywood Studios).

Total blue-sky thinking (imagineering?) of course but sometimes it helps to be able to visualise an idea...

January 4, 2013 at 8:08 AM · I think LOTR would be a HUGE mistake for Universal in Orlando. They already have so much invested in Harry Potter, to bring in another beloved fantasy franchise to live alongside a HUGE hit like the Wizarding World could devalue both franchises. If the rumors are true about the costs of LOTR and consider the $1+ billion spent on the rights and first phase of HP land in IOA and the projected nearly $500 million being invested in phase 2, it just doesn't make sense to have over $3 billion invested into a single resort that is already overflowing with muggles.

Now, put LOTR in Hollywood in lieu of the planned HP land, and I think they would have a serious hit. Instead of copying what has been done in Orlando, Hollywood would have their own unique land that would drive attendance from around the country, and compete head to head with Disneyland and DCA. While plans are already in motion for HP land in Hollywood, they could probably be relatively easily converted to LOTR since the two franchises have similar styles. A Forbidden Journey-style attraction themed to LOTR wouldn't be that difficult to convert with Ringwraiths filling in for the dementors, the Battle of Pelanor Fields filling in for the Quiddich match, and the Battle at the Black Gate and casting the Ring into Mt. Doom creating the climax.

I'm all for cloning successful rides on opposing coasts, but if Universal is going to spend billions purchasing the rights to the LOTR franchise, they should let it stand on its own before placing it alongside an already successful fantasy novel series turned theme park land.

January 4, 2013 at 11:23 AM · Russell, FWIW (which ain't much, I understand), I completely agree with you.

However, I could see Universal canceling the planned HP London expansion at USF and replacing it with LOTR. That switch could work. Then they could put the Grigotts coaster and all the London stuff in Hollywood instead of a clone of IOA's Wizarding World.

January 4, 2013 at 11:38 AM · I doubt they can put the brakes on the WW expansion now. It would take far to long to get the approvals to reverse course on the new Orlando development and convert it to Harry Potter now that so much groundwork has already been layed. A "train" would never work in the LOTR environment, so all of the infrastructure that has already been put into place for that would be wasted.

However, I could see them scrapping the HP plans for Hollywood and creating a LOTR land there in lieu of a clone of IOA's Wizarding World. That would make far more sense since field work has yet to begin and minor tweaks could be made to the plans to suit the LOTR universe.

Unless, of course Universal Creative has plans on the book to make the Orlando expansion in the LOTR universe, and has been using HP as a front all along and a fallback if the LOTR deal never got done. Now that would work, because it would put LOTR as a separate admission from HP.

January 4, 2013 at 1:20 PM · If in fact Universal is finally getting the rights to Middle Earth it would first go to their "crown jewel" in Orlando and then world wide like they are doing with WWOHP.

So in Orlando the options are:

Studios: Large tract of land behind Simpsons and MIB is often discussed but entrance would be awkward.

But here is another option for that land

Enter through Kidzone as its rethemed for the Shire, with the Coaster being a ride on one of Gandalfs fireworks, ET could be a dark ride, and have it themed to Bilbo's Birthday everyday and with a festival feel.

Then use the large tract of land to open up to Rivendale, Lonely Mountain and of course in the back Mordor


Lost Continent: but could be awkward this close to WWOHP and kinda small for all the trouble

Marvel: Solves two problems...and could claim the unused amphitheater land

Jurassic Park: Plenty of land...but again maybe to close to WWOHP

Toon Lagoon: Solves problem of theme that is losing relevance

Best Option: Theme Toon Lagoon for Hobbit Trilogy & theme Marvel Superhero Island for the LOTR Trilogy


January 4, 2013 at 2:03 PM · I just don't see it working or fitting in at IOA. If LOTR takes over an existing island, it's going to make a mess of the park for almost 2 years. That's just not going to fly with guests spending $80/day when half of the park is off limits because of construction. When WW was being built, it was in a corner of the park that was relatively undeveloped, and only caused minor closures of existing rides and attractions. Even with the current WW expansion, a lot of the new construction is being conducted in former backstage areas and on the Jaws footprint.

While you could take Dudley Doo Right or Bluto's Bilge Barges offline for a few months at a time, it would take over a year to repurpose that land for a non-water based attraction. Look at Jaws, it's been almost a year since work started, and the new attraction isn't likely to open for another year and a half. It doesn't hurt USF because there's plenty of other stuff to do, but do that to IOA, and you've got a serious problem.

Imagine tearing down all of Toon Lagoon for LOTR. The only way it could be done "right" would be to completely cut off access to the entire island, which eliminates the circular traffic around the park, creating dead ends at Spiderman and JP. Also, with the new on-site resort under construction just beyond the southern boundary of IOA, there's not a lot of space behind DDR or JP to work with for a new attraction or expansion of the area they could use (the Toon Lagoon Theater space could be used though).

Marvel Island is off limits until Disney pushes the issue. They just plunked a bunch of money to upgrade Spiderman, I doubt they would retheme one of the best rides on the planet for a new property. Again, to do it "right", that entire island would need to close and all of the intricate themeing around Hulk, Dr. Doom, and Spiderman would need to be completely reworked. That's 2 of the 5 "big" rides in the park that would be closed for nearly 2 years---not going to fly with park guests.

It makes a lot more sense for Studios, but I just don't see that park getting another huge investment after it has been almost completely revitalized over the past 5-7 years with Mummy, Despicable Me, Rip Ride Rocket, Transformers, Simpsons, and the new HP expansion. Also, there's existing space within the park that needs attention (T2 and Twister) before they expand the footprint anymore.

The only way it makes sense to put LOTR into Orlando would be to make an entirely new theme park. Putting LOTR in Hollywood makes far more logical sense because that park needs to maintain the momentum created by Transformers, and start turning itself into a destination instead of an also-ran.

January 4, 2013 at 2:13 PM · LOTR 12 hour Trilogy of small folks walking about alot....
I kid, alot of positives here but i will put the question to you wouldnt the themeparks invest their cash more wisely in a lasting original theme rather then chasing a franchise with a limited shelf life, Journey to the centre of the earth in Disney Sea springs to mind.... I agree with the previous comments about universal being a bit in your face..... best way i can describe is this, i dont just want to see the trailer i want to see the film, universal just feels like a series of fast paced trailers, Harry potter for all its amazing themeing the ride itself seemed muddled and without any plot or point i felt like "what am i looking at...." the themeing is without doubt the best i have seen in any park but the ride itself i cant remeber what it was about...... if universal get LOTR rights lets hope they make something decent form it..... I think US and IOA are following the Micheal Bay formula lots of noise lots of action no depth character or coherent plot..... USF you have a huge catalogue of themes and shown in the past you have the knowledge to emerse guests into exiting rides and themes ..... The classic monsters, Scifi B movies, dinosaurs, pirates, themes that stand the test of time make new orginal rides that stand the test of time, must ..... just my 2 cents worth.
January 4, 2013 at 2:21 PM · @TH Creative, Not sure how the parks lose on Annual Passholders coming often. The parks are VERY, VERY seldom filled to capacity and something is better than nothing.

As to Lord of The Rings, Universal is the logical place for a park IF one is done. Universal is probably just trying to set itself up for the franchise whenever it is available. They have enough on their plates right now

January 4, 2013 at 6:52 PM · the comment concerning LOTR & Hobbit being movies and not a long term themed land.

Note at the end of the 20th century the surveyed British and American Booksellers and Libarians for the greatest english written novels of the century.

Only two books appeared in the top ten of all four list

The Hobbit and To Kill a Mockingbird and LOTR as a collection was in the top 20 for all 4.

So even if you don't go to the movies most people have read the books over the last seventy some years

Also most people refer to Tolkein as inspiring many if not all the fantasy writers since then.

I think a dual trilogy where every movie makes almost if not exceeds a billion dollars in revenue, that when done will probably exceed Star Wars current total and get pretty close to Harry Potters for eight films

and 3/4 so far have been nominated for Best Picture

and heck some of the most immersive themed aread imaginable

If this isnt the recipe for a Theme Park land, I don't know what is

on a side note the main difference between rowling's and tolkein's worlds is this:

Rowling integrates Wizards and other creatures into our world and explains how we miss them

Tolkein instead creates his own world with the creatures and men live and yes walk alot

January 4, 2013 at 7:18 PM · Merlin could buy the rights and do a park exclusive for middle earth. They have the funds and an English company would be more aceptable for tolkien's family.
January 8, 2013 at 8:04 AM · I'm surprisingly indifferent to this. To begin with I think it was a rash of a choice to acquire the franchise like it was for Disney to get Avatar. It's one of those situations where something may earn box office bucks, but doesn't fit very well into the landscape of existing theme parks.

On that note, both in Avatar and LOTR, a chunk of their film's brilliance is the scope and scale that cannot be reflected in a single land alone.

And too like Avatar, what are the rides going to be? Ride a tree? Pet an uruk? (hoever you spell it).

The one thing that LOTR has that Avatar hasn't is the thoroughly established universe that will be profitable with merchandise and food, but isn't that what the Tolkein family is wanting to avoid?

And is make a mediocre segue, LOTR's universe is only mostly well known by those able to tackle the books. Unlike Potter, the majority of the LOTR fans probably have only seen the movies, which are very abridged versions of hte universe, so aside from selling a lot of rings, I'm not sure what other merchandise might have importance to the regular guest.

Utlimately, I think, again just like Avatar, this was a grab just to have it so others would not- even considering the low probability of Disney ever getting the rights. I think it was a rash response to Disney owning Lucas Film.

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