Is Diagon Alley really a game-changer for the theme park industry?

September 18, 2014, 10:55 AM · Universal Orlando's new Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley clearly sets a new standard for themed entertainment environments in the United States. No other theme park land in the country so thoroughly infuses its space with all the elements that transport visitors into its narrative.

But, when we look back at Diagon Alley in several years, will we see it as an outlier — an excellent space that remains far above all other theme park lands, or will we view it as a game-changer — a development that inspired theme park companies to rethink they way they develop their lands, to emulate what Universal Creative did with Diagon Alley?

Diagon Alley

We won't have the answer to that question for many years. But we will be able to see clues along that way.

Disney and Universal already have several new themed lands in development. Even Six Flags, not typically known for creating immersive environments, is developing a themed dark ride for two of its parks. If nothing else, the continued success of Universal's Harry Potter lands has made business case to multiple companies for the expansion of themed environments in parks. But is Potter's influence to be limited to the finance sheet, or will it have a creative influence on the industry, as well?

Let's start with the Big Cheese: Disney. Construction has begun on the Avatar land at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida. Star Wars Land remains in early stages of development. And Disney announced last week, that it will be bringing its newest franchise, Frozen, to Epcot's World Showcase.

But can Disney create a truly immersive themed environment, a la Universal's Diagon Alley? That question came up in a recent discussion about Star Wars Land. Disney creates consistently well-themed and finely-decorated environments, but it also rarely misses the opportunity to ensure that every element in its theme parks is, ultimately, themed as "Disney." As one commentator wrote, "The first time you see Micky Mouse dressed as a Jedi or R2D2 with mouse ears you are out of any environment that Disney created -- the immersion is gone no matter how well themed the rest of the area is."

Can Disney resist that temptation? You don't see Minions wearing wizard robes in Diagon Alley, after all.

Disney has come close in Japan. Triton's Kingdom in Tokyo DisneySea creates a wildly immersive undersea space, but it offers standard midway kiddie rides. The Society of Explorers and Adventurers' Citadel comes closer, but lacks the scale of Diagon Alley. In the United States, Disney's best attempt at a truly immersive environment might be (my beloved) Tom Sawyer Island, but that's likely due more to the hassle of getting over to the island via rafts keeping Disney from hauling characters over there than due to any thematic discipline on Disney's part. (Plus, it's the stage for Fantasmic! in Disneyland, as well, which does rob the island of a bit of its uniqueness at the end of the day.)

Disney's next big theme park project will be Frozen, and anyone hoping for a Diagon Alley-level of immersion is certain to be disappointed. Why? For all the complaining about the presence of Frozen compromising the theme of World Showcase's Norway pavilion, let's not forget to look at this from the opposite direction — hosting a Frozen attraction in Norway compromises the immersiveness of Arendelle. It's supposed to be a mythical kingdom. But it can't be if Disney insists on tying Arendelle into a pavilion themed to a real-world nation.

We've discussed the challenges Disney faces in creating an immersive environment for Star Wars Land (Darth Goofy notwithstanding). So Avatar might be Disney's best attempt at meeting Diagon Alley's standard. But with so many of the company's fans apathetic, if not hostile, toward the Avatar project, will the company be able to resist the temptation to do something to win over those fans that would dilute the immersiveness of Pandora? ("Hey, I never knew that the Na'vi had princesses. Look, Daddy, it's Na'vi Elsa!")

We haven't heard of any major new projects coming from SeaWorld/Busch Gardens, but the company's latest two attempts at creating immersive environments haven't gone well. Sure, SeaWorld Orlando's Antarctica dazzles with its snow and rock formations in Central Florida's heat, but choosing to theme a land to the most inhospitable environment on Earth doesn't exactly endear people to a project. People want to see the penguins, and by making Antarctica so authentic with the bitter cold of its viewing area, SeaWorld ended up driving visitors away from the land's prime attraction. Over at Busch Gardens Tampa, Pantopia breaks up the beige monotone of its predecessor, but you can't create a thematically immersive land around a 300-foot drop tower. Ultimately, any such land is still going to end up looking like a carnival. (And that before we get into the whole delayed opening and missed summer after Flacon's Fury failed to open on time.)

It's heartening to see Six Flags make another attempt at themed entertainment, and with its partners on the new Justice League rides, Six Flags has given itself an opportunity to deliver its best themed ride ever. But Justice League is a ride and not a land. Perhaps if it succeeds, Justice League might inspire and enable Six Flags to keep moving in this direction.

Of all of Universal's competitors, the company that does the best job of creating truly immersive theme park lands might be Legoland. But Legoland faces the same problem with its themed environments that Disney faced with Cars Land in Disney California Adventure — human beings aren't part of the environment. Our presence destroys the sense of immersion. Human beings are part of the world in Avatar, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. They're not in Cars or Legos sets. Sure, Lego can do what it did at the end of The Lego Movie and bring us into that world as its shapers and creators, but that eliminates the "specialness" of the environment, and reduces it to a super-sized version of the play room at home. That's nice, but it's not like going to the "real" Diagon Alley, is it?

Finally, let's not forget Universal itself. Will Universal follow its own lead and create another land with the level of thematic cohesion and immersiveness it brought to Diagon Alley? We will find out as we learn more about the King Kong/Skull Island land under construction at Islands of Adventure. Perhaps it might take another land on the level of Diagon Alley to prod Universal's competition to spend the money necessary to compete at this level. Or, phrased another way, it might take Universal seizing more market share and more tourism income from another Diagon Alley-like land to convince Universal's competitors to step up. In the long run, it is up to us, the theme park consumers, to determine whether Diagon Alley remains an outlier or a trend-setter. Let's flip the message that Ray Kinsella heard: If we come, they will build it.


Replies (50)

September 18, 2014 at 11:15 AM · "Avatar"-land essentially ensures I won't ever be visiting Disney's "Animal Kingdom" again. It's already a 1-ride park (Everest); and that 1 ride is broken, and most likely, won't ever be repaired.

I actively loathe the insipid "Avatar" film. Slapping it in to a Disney park is absolute sacrilege. Especially when you KNOW this land will consist of "Soaring Over Pandora" and some glowing shrubberies.

September 18, 2014 at 11:28 AM · I would argue that Disneyland and Disney World already assumes you're entering Disney's special place. Immersion beyond Disney creates an additional immersive layer.

Universal's theming style was about the movies. It wasn't a lifestyle choice unlike Disney, which evolved into it. Thus, Universal never could have been immersive without it's approach to Harry Potter. Previously, Universal always approached its theming from an amusement park approach as an "add-on" (fourth wall).

For Disney to have it's own Diagon Alley, it needs to be immersive in its own self-contained environment. Thus, it needs to take its queue not from the park it is part of, but to break-off into its own separate world.

September 18, 2014 at 11:31 AM · Good article, but how can you discuss themed lands and not mention Cars Land? It is immersive, beautiful, thematically complete and has a great E Ticket. To me, it looks like you walked right into the Radiator Springs depicted in the movies.

As for Avatar or Star Wars land, I'm sure the shops will have Jedi R2D2 or similar merch. Honestly, if the land and rides are well executed, only a complete purist would feel that such minor details "break the illusion." Most visitors will be charmed.

Also, I don't feel that every new development has to be a themed land. What's wrong with a great new ride which immerses you in the theme when you get in the queue? A new land occupies a giant footprint. Personally, while I appreciate Wizarding World and Cars Land, I would appreciate more rides and less walk through in those spaces.

September 18, 2014 at 11:31 AM · I actually think that Hogwarts (the 2010 opening) was the game-changer much more so than Diagon Alley. Diagon Alley is incredibly impressive, and an immediate step up in immersion from its companion land, but I really see the tide turning with the original opening of Harry Potter in IOA. The building of that area sparked a newfound excitement as well as greater expectation for immersive lands to come.
September 18, 2014 at 11:46 AM · It sure is a game changer for Universal.
The reason Universal got Potter is because they where able to work with JK. She wanted her brand to be presented for the fans in the best way possible.

Disney won't build a Star Wars land for the fans. They build it cheap and with the focus of lifestyle and revenue. Disney stepped out of the theme park business. What is there is will be used to generate more revenue with added schemes, When was the last time Disney did build a ride in WDW that wow-ed guests. The money is spent on the façade so guests can take a nice picture but it's not the amazement of what can be done.

Maybe that Texas park that is going to be build can fill those shoes, and will add the success of Universal to it's own portfolio.

September 18, 2014 at 11:49 AM · Diagon Alley is lightning in a bottle. You are LIVING the movie while you are there. Going around and shopping, eating, and performing "spells" could not and will never be replicated in quite the same way any other place. You cannot fly the Mellinium Falcon or hack through stormtroopers. You cannot beat up Lex Luthor or fly in Iron Man's suit. No other franchise can replicate the feeling of being in the movie

What makes Diagon so incredibly special is that for a couple of days, you truly are in the wizarding world doing the same thing Harry, Ron, and Hermione did. You bought stuff. You ate. You took in incredible sites unlike anything you have seen.

My wife, six year old, and myself went in August for 3 days. Of those three days, a solid two was spent in the wizarding world. It was amazing. The fact that two 30 year olds were fighting with their six year old over who got to do the next spell is a testement.

September 18, 2014 at 11:56 AM · The world of Harry Potter lends itself more easily to an immersive environment than most of Disney's Intellectual Properties - Harry Potter's world can, in essence, be boiled down to two major areas. London (Diagon Alley) and Hogwarts (Hogsmede) - I know there's lots more places, but I don't see a "Privet Drive Land" coming anytime soon. Both those places are described as real world places primarily populated by human beings. They are town locations with shops, and pubs and foods, and make perfect settings.
Avatar can be as immersive as you want it, but you are never going to be able to have a Na'vi restaurant, a tree trunk T-Shirt shop, or a ten foot tall blue cat person selling Mickey Mouse eared ice creams without bursting the immersive bubble.
In this way, Star Wars makes more sense - but then you're left with choosing a single planet to go visit (ie; Tatooine) and leaving out all the rest. The Star Wars universe is almost too expansive to boil down to one setting.
However, if you want to see Disney's ability to create nicely immersive environments, then you go to Epcot and look at fake Paris, or Fake Canada, or Fake Mexico (personal favorite)...or the one that started it all: Fake Main Street USA at Magic Kingdom. Fabricated little towns, working around a single theme with shops, and restaurants, and shop carts etc; etc;.
I can't think of any large scale IP that Disney has that would fit as perfectly as Harry Potter's two settings as a themed land (Pirates of the Carribean Land??).
September 18, 2014 at 12:07 PM · Coming from someone who generally detests vacations, especially theme parks, Diagon Alley was the most amazing vacation I have been on. The very act of purchasing things there felt right and added to immersion, not detracted from it. It really is Diagon Alley. I tried unsuccessfully to fight off a cheesey grin while eating at the leaky cauldron or riding the Hogwarts Express. Im a thirty year old high school teacher with two small kids. I am not a huge HP fan but that place had me grinning ear to ear. After we went my son wanted to call his grandparents to tell them what we did. I found myself excitedly telling them about it as well.

I have shown my students clips of my family "disappearing" into platform 9 3/4 on my phone for goodness sakes.

September 18, 2014 at 12:13 PM · I tend to agree with Nick. The original wizarding world was the game changer. Diagon alley is learning from their mistakes in the original. I don't think they thought it would be as popular as it was and while everything looked like it was in the movies, it was too small for the crowds of people who were coming to see it. Diagon alley has room for all the people so it doesn't feel as crowded as the original was.
September 18, 2014 at 12:16 PM · The logical next step is an immersive "stay" experience. Imagine arriving at Hogwarts, being sorted into which house (hotel) you are to stay in. Dinner served in Great Hall. Thats coming. They would be foolish not too. Interactive spells all throughout, including your room.
September 18, 2014 at 12:57 PM · Good article but I couldn't get away from the thoughts of how Avatar Land has to be about the worst idea Disney has had in my life time. Not only is there the aspect that the movie disappoints on a story and character level, but there is so little anticipation for even the second installment; much less an entire themed world. When all of the cgi effects fade, we're left with very little to inspire future audiences.

I'm also surprised, as someone who works in the environmental field, as to why Disney thought it would be a good idea to mix the fictional pseudo science behind Avatar on one side of the park and controversial aspects of environmental science on the other end of the park?

September 18, 2014 at 2:26 PM · We spent two days at UOR last week. Diagon Alley is really amazing and is as wonderful as folks have said. For those diehard Disney folks who seem determined to bad mouth it without seeing it, you really do need to experience it.

One of the most amazing parts of the two pieces of Harry Potter is that appeal across age groups. Little kids love it. Teens love it. Twenty-somethings love it. Old people (like me) love it. Folks go crazy over the magic wand operated effects. The Hogwarts Express experience is so believable that you can forget that you are on a ride.

My first visit to Disneyland happened in the first 18 months of the park's existence. Over the years, I've racked up quite a few visits and (now that I have retired to central FL), I now spend an average of a day per week in a Disney park.

Disney is in decline. The lack of new rides, the lack of maintenance of existing rides and facilities, the constant removal of theme elements, the decline of food into the abyss of hamburgers and turkey legs, the "extra change" for elements that were once free are the signs of a company trying to find a way to stay alive. What we do get is promises of wonderful things with a reality that fails to deliver (can you say "Seven Dwarfs"? or "new Soarin' movie"). The new Frozen ride will probably open just in time for everyone to be bored with Anna & Elsa. Avatar will open after the 2nd film bombs (in part because James Cameron will have gone off on some new adventure instead of paying attention to the movie.

Meanwhile, Universal is improving. Yeah, they had problems. Some of their rides were, well, less than spectacular. They have overcome that and are building interesting, innovative attractions.

I really knew Disney was in trouble is when I started to see a lots of Brazilian tour groups at Universal. They have replaced some WDW days with UOR days. Europeans are coming to UOR. Disney is smug in thinking that as long as they keep selling DVC and ADRs are srong, they are still in the lead. Yeah. But... Universal is moving up fast while they are fat, lazy, and can't keep up.

September 18, 2014 at 3:52 PM · Just to respond to the first post. It drives me nuts when people complain about the amount of rides in a theme park. Go to six flags or something if you want a ton of thrill rides. There is so much more to see and do in many of these parks than rides. This was part of my complaint about my latest trip to Disneyland, some of those in my group only wanted to do the "cool" things and we missed some of the hidden gems, especially things a 2 year old would love.

I don't think Disney can match universal when it comes to that complete immersion. Just because as Robert stated they will have their characters and such in the land. I do think they will make Disney do a better job but hands down they win immersion.

September 18, 2014 at 5:45 PM · The best thematic Land is still waiting: The Lord of the Rings. But I hope not in Disney's hands. I imagine deluxe hotel (Rivendel themed), moderate (The Shine) and value (Mordor themed)....
September 18, 2014 at 6:50 PM · Am I missing something? I have read about a bazillion negative comments over the last year or so about how much people hated - no, despised - Avatar. I mean, some downright nastiness has been written here. But, seriously, wasn't that movie like THE biggest box-office blockbuster ever? If everyone hated it, why did it do so well at the box office? If everyone hated it, why would anyone in their right mind risk making a sequel? Or building a theme park based on it?

You know, I love Universal Studios. I really do. I've loved it since the first time I visited the Hollywood park in 1985. I am thrilled at how successful they have been with the Wizarding World expansion. and they deserve the success - it is fantastic. But I love Disney too. For most people in this country, Disney is still the premier theme park experience. The place is magical, if you let it be so.

So, is anyone else tired of people bashing on it in their comments? "I'm never gonna go there again." "All Disney cares about is money." "They haven't built anything decent since I was a kid."

I swear, if Disney had come up with the Wizarding World and executed it exactly the same way Universal did, the whiners and trollers would still be bashing on Disney, talking about how they built it on the cheap and just repurposed a bunch of boring old rides. It's like Disney just cannot do anything right anymore. I'm so tired of hearing it.

Is it not possible to love both parks? Come on, people. Can't we all get along?

September 18, 2014 at 7:59 PM · I fail to see how Mysterious island, american waterfront, lost river delta, carsland and others don't match diagon alleys level of immersive themeing. If all we're talking about is theme specific merchandise well in 10 years from now I can guarantee that the merchandise will not be the same as it is now. Dont forget Disney's land used to have theme specific merchandise especially the original main street, frontierland and others. But after decades eventually disney has had to modify it's product to stay relevant to its customers. I imagine universal will have to do the same in the future in the potter lands.Eventually the demand for wands will subside.
September 18, 2014 at 8:21 PM · Because Lost River Delta has Disney character meet and greets. American Waterfront has Disney character shows multiple times a day, and a theater showing productions that don't fit the time and place of the rest of the land - not to mention Toy Story Mania.

Mysterious Island comes closest, but, frankly, lacks Diagon Alley's detail, save for the Citadel. You don't have the themed merchandise, themed food, and themed cast interaction in Mysterious Island that you'll find in Diagon Alley, either. And that wasn't eliminated due to lack of demand. It never was part of the environment.

September 18, 2014 at 8:18 PM · I'd like to see Disney put Star Wars into a new park, myself. Hollywood Studios would be better served with an expanded Pixar Place, where they could re-theme the Sci Fi Drive-In restaurant to Cars. The booths you sit in would be Cars-inspired, and the movie clips that play while you're eating could be a loop of all of the Pixar short movies. And let's have that Monsters Inc roller coaster, already!

But no. Sadly, I've lost faith in Disney's vision. They will come out with Avatar land after the second movie bombs, whereas Universal had all the confidence in the world in Harry Potter, as it had a proven track record of best-selling books and huge returns on the films.

They will give us some jacked up Star Wars land in Hollywood Studios that is a combination of 4 planets, each with their own little corner, but none large enough to immerse you. EPCOT's Frozen pavilion at Norway will be a poor re-theming of Maelstrom with lines 3 hours long, bottle-necking that entire side of World Showcase and causing all sorts of problems for China and Germany. Magic Kingdom is a mess. I was just there for Mickey's Halloween (MNSSHP) and 7 Dwarfs Mine Train was not running for almost 2 hours during the party.

They spend a good bit of money, but they need new decision-makers. They will always be Disney. They'll always have a brand, and they'll always be a destination, but mark my words - if Universal Orlando is ever able to open a third gate, Disney will feel some intense pressure like they have never felt before.

I love Disney, but I am hugely disappointed in them.

September 18, 2014 at 8:25 PM · Really?
September 18, 2014 at 9:33 PM · Disney all ready has an immersive environment, Carsland at Disney California Adventure. One could argue many of Disney's environments are immersive, starting with New Orleans Square, which opened in 1966.

Frontierland at Disneyland was immersive from Day One. So was Main Street and Fantasyland. Even Adventureland.

What Universal did was up the ante for new things, but they aren't the pioneers at it.

September 18, 2014 at 10:29 PM · I don't think that a lot of Disney fans understand the level to which Universal has carried through the detail in Diagon Alley. It simply blows away anything Disney or anyone else has done. There are no other non-Potter, Universal-affiliated characters inside the land. No Coca-Cola products, or other unthemed food and beverage. No generic merchandise. No generic costumes. It even has its own currency, if you should choose to engage at that level. The London-side (Muggle) Kings Cross team members even refuse to acknowledge that the Wizarding World exists (at least the ones doing their jobs well).

No exposed ride systems. No out-of-theme shows or meet-and-greets. This is different even from Hogsmeade, where as Evanna Lynch said, you can see the roller coaster tracks. All of these details matter to create something that goes to 99%, where the best Disney lands get only to 90-95% of the way there. (If Diagon Alley ditched the Universal Orlando merch bags, it would help get to 100%.)

September 18, 2014 at 10:57 PM · Some of you guys love to predict, against all odds, that the Avatar sequels will bomb. But really, how likely is that? When was the last time that a huge box office smash was followed by a bomb sequel? And we're talking about the biggest movie of all time.

As for the themed land, no one knows until it opens, and we actually get to experience it. I am cautiously optimistic that Disney will do a good or great job with Avatar and Star Wars, as they did with Cars Land. The stakes are high with both of those lands, and I think they realize that, and will commit the necessary resources.

P.S.: I'm sure I'll enjoy Diagon Alley, as I did the original Wizarding World. However, I didn't think it was the be all and end all of theme park lands.
And there's not much difference between 95 and 99%.

September 18, 2014 at 11:39 PM · Right but Disneys lands have always been a hyper real platfrom where multiple stories can be told under a single unified theme. Best example being Indy Jones, tiki room, and jungle cruise all different stories but under a unified theme of tropical adventure. These lands are not less immersive than Potter lands, but the difference is a singular story versus the ability to tell different stories. I contend the disney style land is superior in that it offers wider appeal and enduring flexibility. Universals attempts at this style land, such as Lost Continent have failed to produce disneys enduring appeal. Diagon alley can only tell harry potters story, and if that single story becomes unpopular, the land must be replaced.
Seeing a donald meet and greet in Lost river delta doesnt ruin the immersion for me because i know I'm not in the real Mexico, I am in Disney's hyper real mexico. Diagon alley isnt the real london, it is Harry potters fictional london. Again, not more immersive just a single story versus multiple stories.
Disney has some lands based on a singular story such as Carsland, Mysterious Island, bugs land, ratattouille mini land, mystic point, grizzly gulch and toy story land, although not as grandiose as diagon alley. The only story disney has that can compete with potter is Star Wars and that land is long oveoverdue. Personally disney hasn't shown they can build a single narrative land to rival diagon alley, but then again Universal has never been able to replicate the Disney style land of one enduring theme, with multiple stories within the theme, and that's why Disneys attendance is still far beyond any other theme parks.
September 18, 2014 at 11:50 PM · So Diagon Alley is definitely a game changer for universal. They've mastered the single story themed land and you can say have pioneered that style land. I hope they are successful and continue to wow us with their innovation. But the disney style hyper real land based on a romantic time and place has yet to be replicated by universal, and is still the theme park standard imo.
September 19, 2014 at 1:26 AM · I don't believe that the present day Disney company can do it because easy money trumps all. Look at Main Street USA at Magic Kingdom; the stores expanded over seating areas and family picture spots and all became a generic Disney store. The unique penny arcade and magic shop closed for profits at the expanse of theming and place making.

Universal leaves a lot of money on the table by having smaller stores authentic to the size of shops in the Harry Potter films but it makes them more special and unique.

Universal is also better then Disney at keeping IP in one logical themed area and resists milking IP to death across the property. Jurassic Park is only in Islands of Adventure. They don't have Jurassic Park summer fun or the musical like Finding Nemo at Animal Kingdom and Frozen at DHS which have no connection at all to the theme of those parks.

If Universal was Di$ney the Minions parade would be in Studios but to meet them you would have to go to Toon Lagoon in Islands of Adventure and Minion summer fun would be a $75 hard ticket event at Wet N Wild with $10 banana Minion cupcakes in a cheap temporary gift shop with gas station window peel and sticks for theming and a sing a long but you would not be allowed to meet them but they would give you a free Minion on a stick. ET would be shut down and changed over two years to a ride about Minions who launch a rocket in a forest and fly over a city before going to a Minion dance party on another planet and a re painted yellow ET/Minion with goggles will say banana at the end of the ride.

September 19, 2014 at 1:55 AM · I could be wrong but I believe the reason Avatar was a box office hit was because it was one of the first real 3d movies. Now that most everyone knows that that is an overpriced sham I suspect the turnout for the sequel will be much less.
September 19, 2014 at 5:49 AM · "When was the last time that a huge box office smash was followed by a bomb sequel?"

Speed, followed by Speed 2. Biggest box office smash to near-biggest flop of all time. It is much more likely that a sequel will bomb than that it will succeed, so not sure where that comes from.

I think readers are missing Robert's point when they point to an area like Cars Land as an equal example of immersion to Diagon Alley. Cars land is extensive, impressive, and most definitely representative of the Pixar film, but Disney cannot help itself but to impose on that original idea with Disney merchandise, Coke products, etc. It is this need to invade the story space that guarantees that Disney will not be able to meet or surpass Universal's commitment to immersion.

Immersion and success are two different things. I don't think Robert is saying that Diagon Alley is the most successful themed land of all time (although maybe he is, plus it's way too early to say), but that it is the most immersive experience ever created. There are other theme park additions, both current and historical, that have experience a ton of success. But do they put you so deeply into a particular story that no matter where you look, you are essentially IN that story? Based on that metric, Diagon Alley comes out on top.

September 19, 2014 at 7:03 AM · I disagree with Anon Mouse's comment.

Universal has had a ton of other immersively themed lands and attractions that aren't Potter... see all of Islands of Adventure.

September 19, 2014 at 7:51 AM · "Previously, Universal always approached its theming from an amusement park approach as an "add-on" (fourth wall)."

That may be true for the studio parks, but Islands of Adventure is completely different. The 4th wall is not broken there, even with the first land themed directly from a movie (Jurassic Park).

"When was the last time that a huge box office smash was followed by a bomb sequel?"

As far as movie sequels Sylvain, there are plenty of sequel bombs out there. In fact it's more often that sequels fail to meet the bar set by the original than the other way around. James Cameron's own Terminator series has had two bomb sequels (Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation) following the success of The Terminator and T2 Judgement Day. While Cameron did not direct the 2 bombs, he still had some involvement in the sequels. While it's not considered a "bomb", another Cameron sequel, Aliens, barely out-grossed Ridley Scott's predecessor Alien in non-adjusted gross ($86 million to $78 million), but fell far short in adjusted gross with a 7 year gap between releases ($187 million to $256 million).

It's difficult to tell how the Avatar sequels will do (the investment is tempered by the fact that Cameron is filming a 3 sequels simultaneously to reduce production costs), but analysis of the first film showed that people were drawn to the "wow" factor of the film more so than the story. That means Cameron would need to come up with some incredible visuals and experiences to draw fans back for more, unlike other sequels where fans come back for the stories and character development like Star Wars, Avengers, Dark Knight, and others. Maybe Cameron can strike gold again, but it's unlikely that any of the Avatar sequels will set new box office records like the first.

September 19, 2014 at 10:27 AM · The Islands of Adventure has a different approach than Universal Studios, but it is still an amusement park. The entry plaza of an Arabia bazaar is a mere facade to modern stores and restaurants. Toon Lagoon and Marvel are barely held together with any discernible theme. Jurassic Park, that's okay if palm trees and thatched roofs are considered theming. The remaining two lands are more fully realized. The Seuss area and The Lost Continent are well done. Barely less than half of IOA are themed immersively. Hogwarts certainly helps to rescue the park and people mostly seem to visit this portion.
September 19, 2014 at 11:05 AM · Speed 2? It came out in 1997. So the answer to my question is...17 years ago. I rest my case. It doesn't happen often that a sequel fails at the box office.
Oh, and T3? It made $433 million worldwide. That's what you call a bomb? Russell, maybe you should get your facts straight before you post something.
But even if (and that's a huge IF, especially given Cameron's incredible track record) the sequels somehow failed, Avatar Land could still be a major draw if it is well executed. Look at the success of Cars Land. Cars and its sequel did well at the worldwide box office, but they are among the least beloved of Pixar movies. But since the land opened, DCA has become as popular as Disneyland. And RSR fast passes are still the hottest ticket in the park, maybe the whole resort.
As for Diagon Alley, it may be a new level of obsessive immersiveness, and that's great. It's always good for us fans when a new development raises the bar. But I hear that the new ride is yet another 3D ride dominated by screens. I have nothing against that, but that can never match the magic of a ride like RSR, which has real sets, excellent AAs, and a variety of experiences within one ride (a coaster element outside, an impressive dark ride inside, etc.).
September 19, 2014 at 11:15 AM · I'm not sure what your point is Sylvain. Cars 2 did pretty tepid business by Pixar standards ($191 million domestic on a $200 million budget). As I noted to Anon in another thread, comparing past worldwide boxes is not a fair comparison because the world-wide market has changed dramatically in just the past 10 years with far more releases going overseas in recent years and distributing to far more markets than in the past. If you're just comparing movies over the past 5 years or so, you can use worldwide, but if you're going back any further, there's really no point in it. Toy Story 2, 3, and Monsters U ($245 million, $415 million, and $268 million) did far better than the Cars sequel and Planes spin-offs (originally destined for direct to video, but did reasonably decent business for what they were). Cars Land is so popular because it is so immersive. It has that "wow" factor that Disney had never done before where guests were literally transported into another world. RSR is essentially an overlay of EPCOT's TestTrack. They could have used Toy Story, Bug's Life, or Incredibles characters and would have gotten the same reaction. Disney is going to have to create that same "wow" factor with Avatar in order to be successful, because the characters in Cameron's head don't have an iota of the appeal of even the Cars characters let alone the Pixar universe.

"Cameron's incredible track record"

True that he has directed the two highest grossing films of all time, but he doesn't necessarily have the Midas touch...Here's his feature film director's filmography...

Piranha Part 2: The Spawning (1981) - no available data
The Terminator (1984) - $38 million on $6.4 million budget
Aliens (1986) - $85 million on $18.5 million budget
The Abyss (1989) - $54 million on $69.5 million budget
T2: Judgement Day - $204 million on $102 million budget
True Lies (1994) - $146 million on $115 million budget
Titanic (1997) - $658 million on $200 million budget
Avatar (2009) - $760 million on $237 million budget

True Lies and The Abyss (still one of my all-time favorites), were not successful. In fact True Lies often finds itself on lists showing the biggest flops of all time. That's 25% of his filmography that lost money, so if you were to look at the 4 Avatar films, the likelihood is that at least one of 3 sequels will not be successful. Unlike LOTR, The Hobbit, and Harry Potter, there's not a built in fanbase for Avatar. There are no books, TV shows, or anything else to whet fans' appetites while they wait for the sequels. It's very possible that the first sequel will do good business, but with the next 2 coming out in successive years, the market may fatigue and grow weary of the obvious cash-grab. This is not Marvel we're talking about, and is a world that only James Cameron has in his head. He's going to have to work like crazy to get people to invest in his sequels for three consecutive years. Disney, in turn is going to have to battle any animosity that develops over the sequels by creating a theme park environment unlike anything else. Can they do it? I think they can, but there are a lot of questions to be answered. If you're concerned about the 3-D screens in Diagon Alley, then Avatar will disappoint you, because the headline attraction is reported to be a Soarin'-esque attraction with people in front of a giant screen for virtually the entire experience. Animatronics are dying a slow death, and while they are useful in some applications, the use of high definition video is the future of dark rides and many theme park attractions.

If Speed 2 and the other movies I mentioned were too long ago for you to remember, perhaps some examples from this current year will convince you that sequels are not always what they're cracked up to be...

Sin City 2 - $13 million on unreleased budget (original Sin City cost $40 million) this movie is considered the bomb of the year so far
The Amazing Spiderman 2 - $202 million on $200 million budget
300: Rise of an Empire - $106 million on $110 budget
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - $50 million on $60 million budget
Robocop (not really a sequel as much as a reinvention) - $58 million on $100 million budget
Muppets Most Wanted - $51 million on $50 million budget
Expendables 3 - $38 million on unreported budget (Expendables 2 cost $92 million)

Those are just the losing sequels from 2014, and there are just as many, if not more every single year, so you're a bit off base in assuming that sequels always do better, and actually the reality is they rarely live up to the success of the original.

September 19, 2014 at 11:35 AM · "As I noted to Anon in another thread, comparing past worldwide boxes is not a fair comparison because the world-wide market has changed dramatically in just the past 10 years with far more releases going overseas in recent years and distributing to far more markets than in the past. If you're just comparing movies over the past 5 years or so, you can use worldwide, but if you're going back any further, there's really no point in it. "

Overseas financial markets are funding Hollywood film projects for a very long time. It isn't a recent occurrence. Yet you have two benchmarks right up there... five and ten year. So you can compare movies going back five years worldwide, but not going back ten years, or beyond ten years either.

The only ways to project how well a film has done is compare its total box office. Its the apparent price customers are willing to pay for a movie. This even includes 3D or Imax or both.

September 19, 2014 at 11:33 AM · You're kidding right Anon???

The Port of Entry is highly themed, and is very much like Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. If the theme is just a facade as you note, than Disney's pride and joy is nothing more than an amusement park.

I will agree that Marvel Superhero Island and Toon Lagoon are predominantly stand-ups and facades, but Jurassic Park puts guests right into the movie. The Discovery Center is straight out of the original film with the accompanying exhibits and trails/playgrounds placing guests into the film. The River Adventure is scripted as if guests were visiting the island like tourists from the movie. Maybe you never spent much time in Jurassic Park, but it's much more than "palm trees and thatched roofs". If that's you're how you view the themeing of JP, then I guess Adventureland doesn't have much themeing either.

People do visit Hogsmeade more than other areas of the park, but it probably has more to do with Harry Potter fanaticism than the level of themeing compared to other sections of the park.

September 19, 2014 at 11:41 AM · No kidding. You obviously believe in what you believe.

Port of Entry Dining

Start and end your day with a meal in Port of Entry®, where merchants, travelers and explorers from the four corners of the globe have brought with them exotic recipes and dishes for you to sample.

Confisco Grille® - Sandwiches, Burgers and Salads - Confisco's Spring Break Menu
Croissant Moon Bakery® - Deli Sandwiches, Paninis, Freshly Baked Pastries
Cinnabon® - Cinnabon® Classic Cinnamon Rolls, Caramel Pecanbon® Rolls, and Cinnabon Stix®
Arctic Express - Ice Cream

Is this immersive themed dining?

September 19, 2014 at 1:17 PM · About as themed as this, The Carnation Cafe on Main Street USA in Disneyland...

Satisfying Fare on the Main Thoroughfare

Sit under a candy-striped umbrella and watch the world pass by or head inside to the recently added dining room. The Carnation Café, with its revamped menu, is a delightful destination for breakfast, lunch or dinner!

Start with a bowl of our legendary loaded baked potato soup or our Parmesan-and-panko-coated fried pickles. Honor Walt’s memory with homemade meatloaf and chicken-fried chicken.

Among our lighter fare: the spinach salad with grilled chicken, sustainable catch of the day and the chef’s vegan burger. We also feature a selection of delectable house-made desserts. Just ask your server!

Budding little artists will love our PB&J Mickey Painter’s Palette, a fun activity-oriented entrée where kids can build their own sandwich and dress it up however they see fit. The meal comes with fun kid-sized fruit and vegetable sides.

Sounds like nothing more than a Cracker Barrel to me.

How about Tony's Town Square on Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom...

Relive the Romance

Share spaghetti and meatballs and more at this fun eatery near the entrance of Magic Kingdom park.

Step inside this charming turn-of-the-century trattoria on Main Street, U.S.A., with its whitewashed balustrades, French doors and expansive front porch, which offers a fantastic view of evening parades. Take in the classic 1955 film Lady and the Tramp playing in the lobby and pictures of the 2 pooches gracing the wall.

Hopeless romantics are bound to gush over the central fountain depicting the cute canine couple, and more characters and scenes from the movie get you in the mood for food, friends, fun times and perhaps even amore!

Wow..An Olive Garden showing a Disney movie on the wall. Ohhh, I'm in awe of the immersive dining.

And just to be clear, since you merely offered the truncated description of the eateries in Port of Entry...

Hungry for a taste of adventure? Satisfy your appetite at Confisco Grille®, where you’ll find an array of dishes from around the world including Grilled Sandwiches and Burgers, Soup, Salads, Fajitas, Pasta, and a Full Bar.

The moon may not be full, but your belly will be after a stop at the Croissant Moon Bakery®. Enjoy savory Deli Sandwiches, Paninis, Freshly Baked Pastries, and Cheesecakes. A great breakfast stop before your day’s journeys!

Just because you're blazing new trails doesn't mean you have to leave the familiar comforts of home behind. Satisfy your sweet tooth with everyone's favorite Cinnabon® Classic Cinnamon Rolls, Caramel Pecanbon® Rolls, and Cinnabon Stix®.

Stop for a welcome blast of frigid refreshment, direct from the polar regions of the north. Enjoy tasty treats including Waffle Cone Ice Cream, Sundaes, Funnel Cakes, and Root Beer Floats.

Yes, rather generic, but no more so than what the industry leader is offering in the entry plaza of it's theme parks.

September 19, 2014 at 1:49 PM · Your analysis of Islands of Adventure being an amusement park is hard for me to believe... In fact, impossible. Toon Lagoon and Marvel are certainly the weakest areas, but they have their strong points, and when you realize what they were trying to do with these areas, they were executed well. Not perfect though.

Port of Entry, Lost Continent, Seuss Landing, and WWoHP are all amazing, and are almost perfect in my opinion. Port of Entry IS perfect to me. Jurassic Park is amazing too, but the constant addition of game stalls and Time Share booths detract from the experience. The Discovery Center and Camp Jurassic are underrated works of art though.

But like you said,it truly is all a matter of opinion.

I also found most of the MSUSA interiors to be pretty, but all generic. Like shopping at Downtown Disney or a Disney store.

September 19, 2014 at 4:44 PM · The Main Street fare is closer to what you'll expect in a turn of century street and Disney does an excellent job of incorporating the corporate brands into the Main Street theme. It does seem like they modernized the timeline so it isn't as strict, but Port of Entry makes no attempt at any of that.

Not even pita bread or baklava? No Mediterranean food. Nothing middle eastern. They should at least have some curry.

September 19, 2014 at 8:06 PM · Russell, it makes no sense to tabulate only domestic grosses and ignore worldwide results. You're only looking at part of the picture, in order to make your argument. Many movies would be losing money if it were not for the overseas box office. Once you factor in the total worldwide grosses, then and only then do you get an accurate picture of how a movie performed.
As for RSR, yes it has the same track as TT in Epcot. So what? That has nothing to do with the quality of the ride. And, aside from similarities in the ride system, the two attraction are as different as night and day. I've even ridden Test Track many times, and I never would have noticed that the track moves the same way.
Spiderman/Transformers and Indy/Dinosaur are in the same situation. But they are all very different rides, and should be judged on their own merits.
September 20, 2014 at 7:39 AM · It is a game changer.
Or rather: over the past 2 decades, it counts as a game changer, because for instance (Walt) Disney accomplished this BEFORE, and Disney (Co.) did really everything that has been in their power to UN-do what Walt stood for.
Diagon Alley is, purely conceptually, a similar approach on a grander scale of New Orleans Square, for example.
It's "total-theming" in the outdoors environment, and nothing that throws a side-corner-atomic-bomb on this carefully accomplisched make believe, such as roller coaster tracks sticking out brutally over the 18th-19th century memory recall. Along with the coaster noise & screams, which destroy it as well, except for the deaf.
It is as if I knew this blog article was coming, when I posted my TaO tweet one month ago :

".. TaO-THINKIE ! You cannot theme roller coaster tracks succesfully, because roller coaster tracks un-theme any themed experience, fatally. .."

There, "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" killed in one haul the total make believe they tried to put in it, just by the vulgar noisy steel of the coaster.
To me it seems that Universal teams were shocked all by themselves, to see this blatant mistake. And, based on the movie success (NOT on the Wizzarding World success...) decided to do it a second time, but this time 100% right.
Of coarse, they should be brave and just cut out the visible and loudly hearable coasters from the Wizzarding-land site, and 100% remake that area.

Disney Co. once (almost 3 decades ago) got terrified by possible customer slaughter with them, through Six Flags, ... and in blind panic reaction (Eisner), started "Six-FlagiSation" of Disney parks, by smashing in here and there carnival rides and coasters, in what WAS (and still should be) immersive total themed areas. Like Big Thunder Mountain, breaking the "sounds of nature" theming of the rivers of America, or a ridiculous flying carpets fantasyland ride, in Adventureland, where the sounds and smells of the jungle should lead the way.
(Not to speak about the horrible Dinosaur carnival zone in DAK) Etc, Etc, Etc.
Walt would shiver through all these ugly ducks in the pond.

But, we must recognise that Disney started to UN-theme their own, previously immersive environments, and that now Universal seems to have found the way back !??

Yes, other parks in the world (and new parks, yet to come) will pick up the rope where it was broken, 30 years ago.
I am myself working in this respect, to get new (small) projects off the ground, based on "total theming" only. (including every view, every sound, every smell and every patch of dust.... by the way : most parks excell in breaking the immersion by their FLOORS, which are almost invariably, dull industrial, and almost blasphemic towards the theme)
Keep your eyes open ! ;-)


September 20, 2014 at 8:31 AM · REF : "From Anon Mouse on September 19, 2014 at 11:41 AM"
and "From Anon Mouse on September 19, 2014 at 4:44 PM"

Yes, Anon Mouse, your observation is very much to the point. The marketing message does clearly not match the content.
THE classic, gross amusement park error.

Article 1 : Success in themed design.
PART 1 : Let the experience be better then the promise from marketing side.


September 21, 2014 at 10:32 AM · I agree with most people that Hogsmeade really was the "game changer" in the industry. Diagon Alley was an improvement/ add on to that. It was when Hogsmeade first debuted in 2010 that got people to wait all day to get in the land opening day and got not only Universal, but the theme park industry in general to realize that you gotta theme a land entirely to one movie with the details taken from the actual film, both inside and out to make guests feel like they are actually there to have the most successful theme park area possible! There's no doubt Diagon Alley is the best one now, but Hogsmeade was the giant leap forward in the industry. If it hadn't been for Universal's close collaboration with JK Rowling and the set designers and actors from the film, it probably wouldn't have been as successful.

It's funny to think that Universal's become the new king of the theme park industry after Harry Potter. If it hadn't been for Harry Potter there would've been no Gru's neigborhood with Super Silly Fun Land and no Springfield, with Moe's and Krusty Burger either. Disney, on the other hand, is trying but just can't keep up with Universal these days. However, they still succeeded marvelously with Cars Land and the CA Adventure overhaul, as that was a clear footprint from Harry Potter. While Cars Land looks exactly like Radiator Springs from the film, the Cars franchise doesn't have their own "drinks" or "food" like Butterbeer from Potter or Flaming Moe's from the Simpsons. Disney had to come up with their own silly, and rather overpriced, drink recipe to compete. Disney also doesn't have as many IPs with creative food or drinks ideas as Universal. Unlike Cars Land, the New Fantasyland, while there are good details and architecture, doesn't work nearly as well since its 3 or 4 movies mashed in one land, not to mention there were "phases" when both Wizarding Worlds and Cars Land opened all at once, making it more possible to feel like you aren't in California or Florida anymore. Universal's also been so restless building and retheming many areas at once when Disney likes to relax and let things slide more.

September 21, 2014 at 3:43 PM · Max, I agree with a lot of your post, but how can you say that Universal is the new king of the theme park industry? Disney still has, far and away, the highest overall attendance in the industry, and most of the most popular parks belong to Disney. Universal is clearly making inroads, but Disney is still the industry leader.

I think the real question is whether that position is threatened in the future, and it may well be.

September 22, 2014 at 5:29 AM · I think one of the big differences at the Harry Potter environments is that there are very very few real world intrusions.

You just have the feeling that if Disney did recreate the Mos Eisley cantina you would be able to buy Coca-Cola and chicken nuggets. Universal have succeeded in making The Leaky Cauldron far more immersive by only offering beverages your would find in the Wizarding World and food typical to a British pub.

September 22, 2014 at 9:27 AM · Harry Potter is a better realized environment because of the details in the 7 lengthy books. Star Wars is mainly the movies despite the novelization of the movies. I read a few of the Star Wars books, which seems derivative and not really that good.

A Star Wars land works best if it conveys the environment of a few iconic locations like Tatooine, the swamp where Luke Skywalker found Yoda, Death Star, the Rebel base for instance. You can pretty much forget the locations in the prequel trilogy.

The food is the missing link. I do not think Disney can successfully dress up "earth" human food as the alien food from a galaxy far far away even it does exist in the books or seen in the movies. Food wasn't featured much. You can perhaps see the blue drink in the cantina. Luke barely touched his food (and it wasn't shown) at his uncle's house when he was told to stay home instead of going to the academy. What do the rebel alliance eat? Certainly not the live animals that Jabba the Hut enjoys.

The main characters are mostly not shown eating because they are too busy saying complex dialog like "Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader's leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board."

September 22, 2014 at 10:28 AM · Guys, don't take this the wrong way, but for 99% of guests, it will never matter whether or not the food is "themed." These are details that only purists will notice or care about.
September 22, 2014 at 11:13 AM · I'll admit I did not read through ALL of the comments before scrolling down to post my own. If I could weigh in with my humble opinion on a simple focus that might add some revival to Disney...I'd tell them to look back. Instead of trying to overhype each new movie that comes out with hopes that the fans love it for way longer than they probably will. One of my and my kids favorite things to do at Disney (since they were quite little in fact) was to visit the animation studio in Hollywood Studios and do the tour that ends with meeting an artist and sketching a character (which I will note, for us, has always been a "classic" Disney character). They need to bring the nerdiness back to Disney. They need to show fans where it all amazing the world of animation has become. They need to take the obvious focus off of selling themed merchandise (let's be honest, we fans will always buy it, but we don't want to feel like that is all they are luring us there for). Show kids how amazing it is to work on these movies, come up with the concepts, draw the characters. Focus on the artistry of the movies not just the characters that can be made into a stuffed animal. The magic is still there but I think they are a bit sidetracked on how to keep up. Yes, Universal Studios has brilliantly recreated the Harry Potter stories. My kids and I LOVE the HP lands and will go back again and again. But Disney needs to do what Disney has done best. Compete without copying. Use what made it such a family name in the first place and remind fans why they are fans. Remind them that when you are in a Disney Park everyone can be a kid. Every has a terrific imagination. Let them leave their troubles at the turnstyles and just be there in the moment. Because when my kids and I look back at pictures and remember our trips we don't remember how awesome it was that we got to take a photo with the newest princess we remember that for those few days we were all there together, mom acted like a kid and let them have mouse shaped ice cream bars for breakfast, and stay up last to watch the fireworks. Those are the memories we cherish.
September 22, 2014 at 11:17 AM · I'll admit I did not read through ALL of the comments before scrolling down to post my own. If I could weigh in with my humble opinion on a simple focus that might add some revival to Disney...I'd tell them to look back. Instead of trying to overhype each new movie that comes out with hopes that the fans love it for way longer than they probably will. One of my and my kids favorite things to do at Disney (since they were quite little in fact) was to visit the animation studio in Hollywood Studios and do the tour that ends with meeting an artist and sketching a character (which I will note, for us, has always been a "classic" Disney character). They need to bring the nerdiness back to Disney. They need to show fans where it all amazing the world of animation has become. They need to take the obvious focus off of selling themed merchandise (let's be honest, we fans will always buy it, but we don't want to feel like that is all they are luring us there for). Show kids how amazing it is to work on these movies, come up with the concepts, draw the characters. Focus on the artistry of the movies not just the characters that can be made into a stuffed animal. The magic is still there but I think they are a bit sidetracked on how to keep up. Yes, Universal Studios has brilliantly recreated the Harry Potter stories. My kids and I LOVE the HP lands and will go back again and again. But Disney needs to do what Disney has done best. Compete without copying. Use what made it such a family name in the first place and remind fans why they are fans. Remind them that when you are in a Disney Park everyone can be a kid. Every has a terrific imagination. Let them leave their troubles at the turnstyles and just be there in the moment. Because when my kids and I look back at pictures and remember our trips we don't remember how awesome it was that we got to take a photo with the newest princess we remember that for those few days we were all there together, mom acted like a kid and let them have mouse shaped ice cream bars for breakfast, and stay up last to watch the fireworks. Those are the memories we cherish.
September 23, 2014 at 9:23 AM · Even though I am a Disney fanatic, the Rides at Universal , hands down , are better. The Only issue I have was the locker at the most traffic rides - Charging after 15 minuets ($3) when you wait a minimum of 20 to 25 minutes. And sometimes the locker (electronic) break down.
September 23, 2014 at 2:13 PM · Unless they've changed the rules recently, lockers outside of major bag-restricted attractions at Universal are free for the length of the current line plus a little extra (if the wait is posted at 45 minutes, they'll typically give you an hour or 75 minutes). Has the policy changed? Other big coaster parks do not do this, but Universal has, because unlike Disney they cannot allow bags onto all of their rides. You can still take bags onto Spiderman, Transformers, and others, so long as they fit into the mesh bags on the ride vehicles. The bag restriction is pretty much limited to MIB and the coasters.

The water rides at IOA (Jurassic Park, Dudley Do-Right, and Bluto's Bilge Barges) have always charged for lockers, but you're welcome to take your bags on board (just like Splash Mountain and Kali). I typically use a backpack that has a rain cover that I put on when I ride the water rides to keep the contents dry and keep from having to rent a locker.

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