What Convinced Nintendo to Get into the Theme Park Business?

May 14, 2015, 9:22 AM · A just-published English translation of a conversation with Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo, reveals more about how the video game company's deal with Universal Parks & Resorts happened.

Nintendo characters

Nintendo and Universal last week announced that Universal Creative would develop Nintendo-themed attractions for the Universal Studios theme parks worldwide. In his responses, Mr. Iwata reveals that Universal approached Nintendo with a proposal, ultimately winning over Nintendo executives with the detail of their its as well as its track record working with outside intellectual property on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

In the case of our first meeting with Universal Parks & Resorts, they provided us with a very detailed proposal right from the beginning. Also, as we met right after they had opened the Harry Potter attractions, we were able to learn precisely how they had been created. We received a great deal of useful information from the first meeting for us to review if they possessed a corporate culture which would ensure us the ability to license our IP to them and to work well together. Since the proposal was so specific, as soon as I returned to Japan, I informed Mr. Miyamoto, of our company, and told him that I wanted to give positive consideration to it. Since then, we have met with them several times in Japan and in the U.S., and not only me and people who carry out our negotiations but also members from each company's creative side, namely, people who will be assigned to make the actual attractions and Nintendo's game producers who have been creating our games for many years. As a result, we confirmed that we share a lot of common ground between our corporate cultures, and because parts of the proposal made us really excited, we have decided to work together on a long-term basis.

Here are two remarkable take-aways from Mr. Iwata's response:

1. Universal essentially designed a Nintendo land before even talking with Nintendo.

Keep this in mind the next time you hear a rumor from someone who knows someone in Universal Creative, Walt Disney Imagineering, or any other themed attraction design shop. Theme park designers work on an immense number of projects that never make it to construction, including many that they develop on spec. Some projects eventually morph into another thing that does get built, some get set aside for years before proceeding, and some just never emerge beyond the concept stage. Some of these designs can proceed to a very detailed level before stalling. So just because someone knows that someone is working on plans for a particular project shouldn't lead anyone to believe that fans will be getting to go on that ride anytime soon.

2. Harry Potter continues to reshape the theme park industry.

Does Universal land Nintendo without The Wizarding World of Harry Potter providing a highly lucrative and critically acclaimed, physical example of how Universal can develop and care for another company's IP? I don't think so. Potter showed everyone in the creative arts industry that Universal Creative isn't just talk and spec plans — that it can develop an IP into a world-class attraction that enriches all parties involved. Furthermore, Potter's recency assures potential IP partners that they will be working with the same creative teams at Universal that developed Potter — Universal isn't riding on the work of past generations of designers who have retired or passed away. All this shows IP owners that they have an option other than Disney or going it on their own if they want to expand their franchise into a theme park property. This new industry dynamic has now drawn Nintendo into the theme park business. Who else might it draw off the sidelines and into the game?

h/t to Parkscope for the interview link.

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Replies (17)

May 14, 2015 at 9:34 AM · The results are always going to be better when the creative people are the ones pushing for it. Unlike Disney, with Avatar, where the top brass told WDI what the direction was first.
May 14, 2015 at 10:10 AM · Harry Potter is a great example of Universal's ability to execute, but your second point is completely invalid. It's also kind of insulting to Universal's team.

You're basically saying that Universal cannot make a deal with a creative company to use their intellectual company without Harry Potter. So how did Universal land Harry Potter without that as the example?

It's a complete false assumption you're making. Harry Potter, as an example, makes it easier to make a deal since it shows the final product and they're able to discuss the process related to that project, but it is absolutely not necessary. Clearly the company was able to make a pitch to J. K. Rowling and land a deal with her. And if they can do that then they can make deals with others without Harry Potter!

May 14, 2015 at 10:27 AM · @50. I don't think that's accurate. The top brass pushed the proposal to James Cameron after Disney already developed the technology in-house.

Universal has more licensed properties than Disney since they have less franchises available to utilize. I would like to know how Nintendo came on Universal's radar. It would never occur to me. It's counterintuitive and counter-Disney.

Wizarding World came about mostly as a result of JK Rowling insistence of a high quality interpretation. Disney would have done what they usually do, which is an one-off attraction instead of a new dedicated land. No matter how elaborate Indiana Jones Adventure, it was part of the existing Adventureland, which is no different than Star Tours is part of Tomorrowland. Wizarding World became the model for Carsland. Carsland is Disney's current greatest creation, but we all pine for the Wizarding World.

"All this shows IP owners that they have an option other than Disney or going it on their own if they want to expand their franchise into a theme park property."

I don't foresee a list of companies making proposals to enter the theme park business. IP owners want revenue making opportunities to feed their core business so the theme park attractions are ancillary. Perhaps Nintendo see a revenue stream from merchandising and licensing that can improve their marketshare in the video games. Everything has to work together. Nintendo responded to the equivalent of a cold call.

May 14, 2015 at 1:23 PM · What Convinced Nintendo to Get into the Theme Park Business? Cause Nintendo is strapped for cash after the Wii U bombed... :D

I'm just glad one of the two top theme park chain won Nintendo over as opposed to say Six Flags.

May 17, 2015 at 3:56 PM · I would have to argue that Indiana Jones land wouldn't make sense. Harry Potter and Cars are no brainiers because they exist in a world that doesn't actually exist. Star Tours was worked into an existing building and land at Disneyland and then found a home in Flordia. Star Wars could easily have its own theme park, and so could Harry Potter. But the great thing about Disney in the past was that it used IP as well as original concepts. Now everything is about synergy and easy money, which Walt was never about. Sure he practically invented synergy, but Disneyland spoke for itself. He Lived in the real world and he did cut budgets of his films and theme parks. That said, he still took lots of risks, Disneyland itself being his biggest one. Today Universal as well as Disney are all about making what's most likely going to be a hit. This has meant new rides that are only based on successful franchises, and lots of movies that are remakes sequels and spinoffs. This doesn't mean Universal and Disney arent making great things, just that's it's nothing new.
May 14, 2015 at 1:57 PM · "Sadly everything is about synergy and easy money, which Walt was never about."

You don't know until after its built as to whether it will be a success so we assume the risk doesn't exist. Previous to Nintendo, have video games been a basis for theme park attractions? No, it's mostly live action film and animated films. Nintendo is actually a risk since it's hardware has declined in popularity.

It takes a lot of money to make a lot of money. Not. Easy.

May 14, 2015 at 2:03 PM · Didn't Nintendo have a pretty good death grip on their IP when it came to theme parks? And look now. Can anyone else think of a group tight in control of a really hot IP, one I'm sure Universal would love to have?
May 14, 2015 at 5:35 PM · Any financial investment is a gamble, but Disney as well as Universal only does what they think will be highly successful, and rides based on franchises are a fairly safe bet. Every new ride is based on a franchise because it's less likely to fail. Iger said that himself. Disney wants to avoid making another Superstar Limo but it's also avoiding making the next Haunted Mansion or Space Mountain. Recreating a movie can be awesome but it's not the only thing Disney has to offer.
May 14, 2015 at 6:19 PM · Harry Potter: the messiah of both the Wizard World and of Universal parks! That's one talented kid right there! His parents must be so proud! Oh, wait...

Also, I completely agree with Anon. Don't get me wrong, I understand where you're coming from! Everything seems to be about branding nowadays. Not just theme parks, but movies and video games as well! In movies, 2015 is the year of unoriginality. Let's run down the list:

-a 2nd Avengers movie

-a 7th Star Wars movie

-a 5th Terminator movie

-a 4th Jurrassic Park movie

-a 7th Fast & Furious movie

-a 4th Hunger Games movie

-a 2nd Spongebob movie

-a 2nd Divergent movie

-a 24th James Bond movie

-and a bajillionth Cinderella movie

As for video games let's look at the Wii. For that system, we got all the Usual Suspects: Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Smash Bros, Sonic...but how many people played Okami, a truly groundbreaking game that featured an original story with original characters?

So, yeah, needless to say, originality is a lot harder to find nowadays. Universal, however, can get away with it. Don't forget, their original park started as a working film studio, and still is to this very day! So, all of their attractions pretty much have to do with being put right in the middle of the action with favorite pop culture icons.

Wait...am I actually defending Universal instead of nagging about how Disney is so much better? I think I just saw a pig fly!!!

Speaking of whom, I wouldn't say that Disney has completely abandoned originality. While their definitely making more attractions based on already-existing IPs, they've still made original ones such as Everest (as long as something is less than a decade old, I still consider it recent!) and other rides in Asia such as Mystic Manor and Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars. And we can certainly expect at least a couple more in the near-future for attractions furthering the exploits of a certain secret society ;)

May 14, 2015 at 8:22 PM · As awesome as Harry Potter 1&2 are, this seems sketchy. Sure, you can do your research on how many impressions the key demographic that they target and frame that up with how many of them grew up on Nintendo systems.
Does that translate into wanting to buy a ticket to see it come to life? Even in an interactive forum? I hope they can sell enough tshirts and sippy cups to make this endeavor pay for itself.
They should have struck a deal with Xbox to bring Halo to life.
I'm sure they tried.
May 14, 2015 at 9:59 PM · "Disney wants to avoid making another Superstar Limo but it's also avoiding making the next Haunted Mansion or Space Mountain."

The next Haunted Mansion was already created as Mystic Manor and Tower of Terror. You want another one? After Space Mountain, they made Rock and Rollercoaster. Avoiding mistakes is a good idea. How many iterations of Imagination or Test Track do you want? So many Disney rides are not classics so they have to keep updating them. Sticking to an IP might be necessary in the end to save a ride.

Universal's whole existence isn't about original attractions. We can be sure they won't have legions of fans handicapping its efforts.

May 15, 2015 at 3:50 AM · Yeah, I'm kinda confused as to why we're bashing Disney and Universal here. As Anon said, the entire point of Universal is that their attractions are based on existing IPs. They pretty much want to put you right in the middle of the action of your favorite movies and shows. (And apparently video games) The only popular Universal ride technically not based on an IP is Rip Ride Rockit; which is a great ride, but as far as theming goes, not so much (" are you ready to rock out and make music video history? Heck Yeah! Hasta...Rasta...Pasta...whatever it is they say!")

And Disney, while definetely turning out more rides with IPs than ever before, haven't completely abandoned originality. In California, you got Soarin and Grizzly River Run. In Florida, you got another Soarin, Rock n Roller Coaster and Everest. Outside the States, you got Raging Spirits, Tokyo's Tower of Terror, Big Grizzly and Phantom/Mystic Manor.

May 15, 2015 at 11:25 AM · I love Nintendo and I can't wait!
May 15, 2015 at 12:45 PM · Nintendo has something that (relatively) new video game franchises like Halo do not have: A big audience and nostalgia to draw on. Generations of non-gamers have grown up with Nintendo properties (that Mario guy is still pretty popular) and that wide spread is what, to me, makes this a good idea.

At this point, Universal has asserted itself as a powerhouse in Orlando and as long as they keep the bar high people will keep coming to see what they're doing.

Or, I will, anyway.

Also, good lord does every single thing Universal does have to become a referendum on Disney? And vice versa? Reminds me of this tweet: https://twitter.com/probirdrights/status/368542088897372161

May 15, 2015 at 5:11 PM · "As for video games let's look at the Wii. For that system, we got all the Usual Suspects: Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Smash Bros, Sonic...but how many people played Okami, a truly groundbreaking game that featured an original story with original characters?"

Just to clarify, Nintendo does not own all the characters in Super Smash Bros. Many are licensed or used under permission from other studios. Sonic the Hedgehog, as well as Okami are not owned by Nintendo and would not be allowed to have dedicated attractions under this agreement. Sonic is owned fully by Sega, and Okami is owned by Capcom/Activision. Just because a game is playable on a Wii console, does not mean that game is owned by Nintendo. It was just made for their hardware.

Also like to point out that while Okami was "groundbreaking" in the way the game was played and well reviewed, it only sold modestly well. The games developer Clover Studios was closed soon after the game was released.

May 16, 2015 at 12:44 PM · Court E, I know that Sonic and Okami aren't owned by Nintendo. I was trying to make a point of how nostalgic franchises (like Sonic) sold much better on the wii then Okami.

But, still, I guess someone had to say what you said so that I don't confuse any non gamers, so thanks for posting that anyways

May 16, 2015 at 2:42 PM · Oh, wait just reread your comment and saw you weren't trying to correct me. Sorry!

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