What is 'The Magic,' and Which Theme Park Has The Most?
What is "The Magic?"
It is something that you recognize instantly when you feel it — just like love, brain freezes, or nausea at Adam Sandler movies.
When you feel the magic, you know it. Maybe joy or happiness or serenity washes over you — you get chills or goose bumps, a sense that all is right with the world. You feel comfortable enough to act like a kid again. Although each person might feel something different, the end result ultimately remains the same. It's as if every person gets his or her own puzzle pieces, but when combined they all create the same image.
I believe this is the single most important force driving theme park attendance. Disney has enjoyed unrivaled success in its parks because Walt and his successors realized this truism a long time ago. And the reason that Universal finally has been able to rally and become a viable challenger to Disney is because it now understands the importance of the magic. But can Universal create magic of its own?
The Magic of Disney
The word "magic" has become synonymous with the Disney brand, and that's certainly not a coincidence. They market it, advertise it, and sell it. Look at some of their slogans over the years:
- "The Most Magical Place on Earth"
- "The Magic of Disney"
- "Where Magic Lives"
- "Magic Happens"
- "There is Magic in the Air"
- "The Magical Place to Be"
- "Remember the Magic" – This is an important one, I'll talk more about it soon.
- "Experience the Magic"
- "Celebrate the Magic"
However, just because they're advertising it doesn't make it inauthentic. It's there, obviously, and Disney knows it. They're just reminding you.
As I said, everyone's particular experience is different, and listing everything would make this article longer than the time it's taking to build the Pandora — The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom (for the record, announced in 2011) but just to give you an example, here's one of mine.
We are lucky to live close enough that Disney World is a four-hour drive or so, depending on the season. At the wrong time of year, a very leisurely jaunt can quickly become a live-action replay of a convoy pursuit scene from a Mad Max movie… Except replace the masked warrior lunatics with Canadians and other assorted snowbirds doing the evil bidding of their disembodied GPS leaders, often from the left lane at roughly half speed limit.
But more often than not, it is during this drive that we start to relax. I can feel the stress melting away - work and school and responsibility fading – as the drive continues, excitement building, as we get closer and closer to our destination.
The mere anticipation of feeling the magic grows overwhelming until joy erupts when we see the entrance and the "Welcome to Walt Disney World" signs. One sign in particular really stands out.
No, not the Animal Kingdom one that says "Nahtazu." (Dear Animal Kingdom, You are a zoo. You have more animals than cast members.)
It's the Magic Kingdom.
Therein lies Disney's advantage. I mean, that's hard to beat. It's got Magic right there in the name! Granted, all four Walt Disney World parks have something to offer that is exciting and fun and amazing, but the Magic Kingdom stands turrets and towers above its sister parks in the magic department. Is there anything more amazing or magical than walking down Main Street USA and seeing Cinderella's Castle looming grandiosely at the end? Okay, I'll give you childbirth, marriage (the first time), assorted things I can't mention in a family-oriented website... plus, the day you sell your boat.
For you Californians, I'm sure it's a very similar feeling when you enter Disneyland, except for the part where you have to whip out your binoculars and magnifying glasses to try and see your castle. Ours is bigger. You're jelly. Just sayin'.
If you've ever been to the Magic Kingdom even once, I will bet you can close your eyes right now and picture that view down Main Street to the Castle. You can probably even picture it decked out in Christmas décor, and maybe even in its fall/Halloween attire.
Whether you were a child or a grown-up, you will remember the first time you took in that world-famous, photographed-a-million-times view. It's probably a feeling that only you can put in your own words, but it's a common experience. One that stays with you your whole life.
The Circle of Life
Did you remember "Remember the Magic?" I told you this was an important one. Especially for people who first visit the Magic Kingdom as children, there is a history and nostalgia that weaves itself into the fabric of your life. This is particularly true if one of your favorite family traditions was taking trips to the Walt Disney World Resort.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and it motivates repeat business to relive those fond experiences and happy memories. Now in a past article I've mentioned that I believe Disney loses its audience somewhat (both boys and girls) after 10 years old, but the circle of life is always revolving and many of those kids do come back.
As you enter your late teens, there is a return to theme parks (kind of like Return to Oz, but more fun and less creepy), with more emphasis on either bringing your friends along or finally achieving the rite of passage that is going to Disney without your parents (e.g. Grad Nite, ahh how we miss you even if the cast members don't.) I remember in my late teens driving up with a good friend of mine for the day and driving back at night.
Then we progress to the ultimate date... taking a boyfriend or girlfriend to Disney World. Maybe they know less about Disney than you since their nickname in seventh-grade wasn't "Walt" (I mean, theoretically, someone other than me personally).
So it's exciting to show them "your place," which is obviously much more impressive than your real actual living place which does not have a castle, Country Bears, any sort of mountain other than one composed of dirty clothes, or mice that wear clothes.
As a young adult, you can experience not only the magic but other facets of Disney - the Food and Wine Festival, the Flower and Garden Festival, thrill rides, a huge variety of dining options....
Next up? Parenthood! And what new parent can wait to bring their child to Disney World so they can enjoy all that wonder, such as sleeping in a stroller while the Electrical Parade goes by, crying loudly on the monorail, loudly announcing they have to pee when you are one family away from meeting Elsa and Anna, and running away from the giant two-legged dog in the green hat with the two big teeth?
Seriously though, there is nothing more amazing than seeing Disney all over again through your children's eyes. All the magic that you thought got sucked out of the wishing well of your life due to spending years in the adult wonderland of cynicism, career advancement, and the evening news suddenly gets refilled to the brim.
Watching them hug their favorite character, get an autograph from a princess whose movie they've watched no fewer than 31 times, finally become tall enough to ride a "Big Kid" ride the first time, or discover a favorite treat in the park... it is a true pleasure to behold their joy. Savor those moments like your favorite adult beverage because regretfully they will not always be there.
Generations experience this magic as they progress through the stages of life, and it's always wonderful to see three or four generations strolling the Magic Kingdom together, just hopefully not in line ahead of you in Pirates of the Caribbean.
For years, Disney has enjoyed a monopoly on the magic. Until a certain boy wizard came to Orlando.
But is Magic Universal?
Before we continue in the present, let's dive into the Pensieve and take a gander at the past, shall we?
When Universal Studios Florida debuted, not only was it utterly bereft of the magic, but its shtick was to go one step further and actually expose the magic. Instead of attempting to match Disney by creating magic of its own, Universal was the studio park that lifted the curtain and showed its audience how the magician accomplished his tricks.
They demonstrated how the movies were made, exposed the illusions, and poked fun at the idea that magic was anything other than a craft, all with a decidedly sarcastic and snarky tone. (To quote Robert: "They were the Penn and Teller of the movie business before Penn and Teller.")
However, as all studios began pulling back the curtain on production secrets through things such as DVD extras, cable TV shows, and the Internet, things began to change dramatically. People started making their own films with digital cameras and even cell phones, so there wasn't as much appeal in learning the secrets that by now just about everyone knew.
So what did Universal do? They made a course adjustment and started trying to make the same theme park magic that Disney always had. That's the reason we are now getting these entirely immersive lands for Harry Potter and The Simpsons' Springfield. Even their stand-alone attractions have shifted, and we are getting play-it-straight rides from Fast & Furious to Skull Island: Reign of Kong — not the "tear back the studio wall" versions we would have gotten (and in the case of Kong did get) decades ago.
Ironically, even Disney aped (pun intended) this approach a bit here and there in the original Disney-MGM Studios. Let me give you an example that has now come around 180 degrees from where it started — Star Tours. For those who remember the original attraction, it was presented with a knowing wink and built as if on a soundstage, which in my opinion severely detracted from the immersion factor of the ride and the Star Wars experience within.
Well, to quote everyone's favorite husky-voiced man in black (hint: not Johnny Cash), the circle is now complete. Not only has Disney removed all traces of the backstage/soundstage environment from the attraction, but now is expanding Star Wars into a massive, immersive land of its own. And from what I've seen of the artist renderings of the forthcoming land devoted to that galaxy far, far away, Star Wars fans will get to experience their own specific magic.
Now as wonderful as this specific magic is, it is not quite the same as the general magic that nearly everyone who visits the Magic Kingdom experiences. Star Wars Land will truly only affect those who are fans of Star Wars; an Achilles Heel that is shared by Universal's boy who lived (and who also saved a theme park), Harry Potter.
I would say that Universal, while a fun place to visit with great rides and attractions, never was able to offer any of the magic to its guests until the Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuted. But once again this is a specific sort of magic. I know it may be hard to believe, but for those people out there who don't know a hippogriff from a hippopotamus, there's just not the same appeal as the more general (or dare I say it, "universal") Disney magic.
Don't get me wrong... as a Potterhead I had tears in my eyes and goosebumps the first time I walked under the iron gates of Hogsmeade, saw the spires of Hogwarts Castle rising into a clear blue sky, and heard the Hogwarts Express steaming, all while taking sip after divine sip of Butterbeer.
And I have no doubt that I will be similarly affected as I take my first steps into Star Wars Land as John Williams' unmistakable score blares triumphantly in the background. As an adult (although my wife may argue that I act more like a kid most of the time) I can appreciate this more specific magic.
However for the target theme park audience of young children, though, there is simply no comparison… The magic means one thing and one thing only: Disney. And, boy, does Disney deliver.
Just stroll down Main Street toward the castle, holding your child's hand, and take a look at their face.
That is the magic.
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That's a lovely article! And I agree that's how it felt when the kids were little. However they have aged out of Disney and to us the magic is now at Wizarding World. It's something all of us enjoy as a family. Seeing that dragon, walking through the bricks takes our breath away. My kids (and my husband) dread the crowds, parking nightmare, lengthy monorail/ferry ride, Fastpass system,and generally find no magic at the MK anymore. I will have to wait 20 years for grandbabies to enjoy it again--unless I can go with your family!
Another great article, Paul!!
Good article, and I agree with much of what you have to say, except for having to be a Potter fan to get the magic. My GF and I never read a Potter book, didn't watch the movies and definitely didn't know a Hippo from a Hippogriff. But we "love" what Universal has done to create the most immersive environment in theme parks. Last Universal vacation we spent apx. 40 hrs. just in Diagon alley. We did the green screen video,and I bought my GF an interactive wand, which she had the time of her life with. Then there's the shops, food, shows & everything else. I was on stage for Celistina and hammed it up impromptu dancing with the girls. The list goes on and on. We're doing our once every three years (used to be every year) vacation to WDW in a few weeks but we're taking two side trips to Universal which weren't in our original plans because we miss the Diagon/Hogsmeade MAGIC. And now we're going to Universal twice a year, with HP being one of the major reasons. And I'm sure there are multitudes like us. That's a primary reason for the Universal attendance explosion.
I know exactly how you feel, Paul, and completely agree. For theme park magic, Main Street, USA, on either coast, simply cannot be beat. No amount of speed, thrills, light sabers, or Butterbeer will ever replace that feeling of both being somewhere/when else, and yet completely at home. And it is included with your park ticket! You don't need to schedule a fastpass+ or a pay a $45 upcharge to experience it.
I've always felt a bit awkward walking down a victorian turn of the century american town towards a renaissance european castle. It works well for the orignal Disneyland but I always wished imagineers would try different concepts instead of copying Disneyland 4 times over. I've always thought that inverting fantasyland with the european village leading up to the castle would work better (instead of hiding behind it) keeping a coherent theme.
Please try to write more to the point and lucidly. The scattershot staccato style is a bit hard on the eyes. (just my opinion, I'm sure others would disagree with me)
Universal's Islands of Adventure has also always had that magic--when walking thru the Port of Entry, the arches of Jurassic Park or into the JP Discovery Center thru the amber doors just like in the films, and the original (pre-Potter) Lost Continent!
I keep wondering when James is going to stop the stupid "upcharge" argument, but I guess it's like waiting for Disney to finish building something.
In my eyes, the magic is the cast members. Yes, some of the rides are very magical (can we talk about Enchanted Tales with Belle) and the shows bring the movies to life, and seeing your favorite character is just as rewarding as doing anything else in the park, but I believe it is the cast who make the magic.
Great article, Paul. I visited WDW a couple of times back in the 70's as a child and every time I step into a Disney park I feel like I'm 7 again. I've taken my kids innumerable times since then and I believe they will feel the same way when they visit the parks as adults.
Thanks for the interesting article!
I agree 100% with this, im 17 and i remember about a 2 years ago i went to Disney for the first time with my friends without my parents and it was awesome, We even got to meet some cheerleaders and went on a couple of rides with them. I been going to disney since I was 2 and I will always feel the magic when I walk down main street.
Disney and Universal parks seem to be the only franchises with any magic. Most parks are a bunch of roller coasters with very little theming. However, I did not get the movie magic vibe at Universal Studios Singapore.
It all comes down to your state of mind and which park gets you to feel it, at least for me.
Agree with disneyversal. Dismey and Universal are the only ones in the game. Disney will always hold a special place, but they are letting the magic slip. The mistake has started with FP+ and how it has inflated wait times across the parks. You may disagree how Universal's Express Pass works, but I would rather pay a little more and actually experience the parks. Further, Disney parks have rested on their laurels and really let Universal pass them up on the attractions. All that being said, the new lands that have been announced and will help. The problem is that they will take six years at least to get anything off the ground, while Universal will probably add many major attractions before that, and Disney will still have incredibly long lines. I will say there is one area that I believe Universal will never touch Disney: the food. Any top ten food list that has anything other than ten Disney restaurants is either biased or by somebody with defective taste buds.
I get that big coasters aren't for everyone, but I thought it was pretty magical when I drove up to Cedar Point last year. It's quite an amazing sight to see all those steel and wood behemoths rising from the water out of nowhere.
22.214.171.124: "They just don't give you a themed way of transporting from one park to the other. They stick you on a city bus."
I have one child, DS11, who I've taken to Orlando annually the past 7 years. It's fading fast, but there's still some magic there. Instead of playing along, he now investigates and points out how things are fake. I think our days at Disney are numbered, but he's still fully immersed in the Harry Potter worlds.
Just finally went to DL for the first time. Great experience, great parks. I agree with the commentator who said it's all about the cast members. One gripe though, I felt that the new fireworks show was bombastic and tacky. It was supposed to make me feel the magic, but it made me want to cower under a rock. After a great day of riding rides and experiencing the intimacy of this charming park (I grew up with WDW), I couldn't believe that they would end with something so loud and garish.
Both parks are truly magical in their own way but for me nothing beats the joy I feel when I see my Grandchildren's face light up as they do when they are at Disney. I am sure that when they get a little older they will enjoy Universal as well but it will not but the same sense of magic as it is now.
I've always felt the "magic" in Islands of Adventure. I grew up going to that park, and still love it. The magic was even there for me before WWoHP, with the old Lost Continent.
Universal is an amazing collection of attractions. However, outside of harry potter, I don't feel much magic. There are a few exceptions but not many. My most magical theme parks:
Great article! But I would have to disagree with the point that Universal did not have magic until the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened. They were wowing their guests with amazing attractions and effects years before, using technology that even Disney has not caught up to yet.
Universal until recently has offered a different experience than Disney. Has that been a good experience? That's debatable, but for many it has. Then Harry Potter came along and it changed everything. But other than Potter, Universal is just another theme park. They've made lots of good attractions, but they don't really go together other than being based on films. Disney on the other hand has always focused on the overall experience, not just rides. Their parks are designed to take you to another time and place when you enter, that prepares you for the rest of the park. Universal on the other hand was a working film studio, a visit to the actual place where their iconic movies were filmed, with attractions added to enhance the experience. They have shifted their focus to the attractions, not just a visit to where their films are made. Walt originally had the same idea for his park, but he realized filmmaking was not as interesting as creating the world his films took place in. Something Eisner should of realized when making Disney MGM. The result was Disney's worst park, one that coped Universal and took away what Disney was known for. As the working studio shut down, the park became a mix of Hollywood themed attractions and too little to see or do for the admission cost. Universal changed course, but the had no choice because all they were were studio parks. People can complain all they want about Disney but disputed their shortcomings, they've done what Universal has started to do for over half a century. They don't need to build 2 E tickets every year, they have more than Universal could ever make room for. Disney has attractions that have been favorites for generations and people are more than willing to pay to see them again. Disney does need to do more to keep improving every park on an annual basis, but they already have what people want. And that is parks that take you to different places and time, not just a recent blockbuster. With Frozen and Avatar Disney may be trying to do just that, but they have much of what has made them so successful in the first place. Universal is finally finding their niche. Disney is on the other hand, is figuring out how to please it's existing fans, as well as new ones and stay at the top.
I forget who said this but someone stated a nice allusion to the Universal Disney conflict, with Queen Elsa fighting Harry Potter and decimating SeaWorld. Queen Elsa barely wins. Genius allusion by whoever said this by the way. Disney was indisputed as the best theme park chain and still is but now it realizes that it may have some competition from Universal. In the wake all other parks lose attendance with Universal and Disney attracting people away from the other parks. With Universal and Disney making so much magic, it leaves such a huge gap in attendance, quality, and immersive atmospheres from everything else.
Great article. Universal Florida has made enormous progress these years, however their parks are not as transgenerational as Disney's. And I think it's not a lack of know-how, but a clever marketing choice. It's obvious when you look at what Disney and Universal are doing for Halloween. Universal is proposing something scary and gore while Disney plays it fun and just a little spooky. Of course, with Potter, Universal is more transgenerational. But, for the moment and from my point of view, Universal still lacks something very important for the "magic": it's the concept of "architecture of reassurance", thought by Walt Disney and crafted in details by John Hench and the imagineers. A fantastic concept where the architecture of the parks and land conveys a "feel good" feeling to the guests that explains why Disney is for the moment the leader in "magic".
The most magical and relaxing place I recently visited was Djurs Sommerland in Denmark. Some amazing rides, and a very very relaxed atmosphere without the constant attempts at selling merch or even food.
"For you Californians, I'm sure it's a very similar feeling when you enter Disneyland, except for the part where you have to whip out your binoculars and magnifying glasses to try and see your castle. Ours is bigger. You're jelly. Just sayin'"
Hi, I am writing from England and have been to orlando 3 times and am returning in November with my wife and 2 children. I am envious of the magic I feel when walking into both Magic Kingdom and Universal. The feeling of main St usa and seeing the castle is only rivalled by port of entry at universal, I'm my opinion. We don't get this theming or feeling in the UK parks and I cannot wait to experience it with my children. I only wish we weren't so far away!!
I felt no magic when walking through Port of Entry at Islands of Adventure. I mean there is nice themeing there and shops but not much else. Contrasted with Main street USA (in Disneyland as I've never been to MK) there is 1. full service restaurants such as carnation cafe 2. Live entertainment like the disneyland band 3. Main street vehicles 4. The cinema 5. The opera house 6. The art gellery 7. The train and station 8. And most importantly the wienie, sleeping beauty castle. All of those elements create the magic and a true theme park land not just a shopping entrance/exit for the park.
I think you left out one amazing "Magic". The cruise ship Disney Magic (or Wonder, Dream or Fantasy). Every time we board it feels like returning to an old friend. The staff make us feel special, remembering that my wife loves crème brulee from the sailing before and having some ready the first night of the next cruise. That is magic to us.
You had me up until you said there was no magic at Universal until Harry Potter.
Disney parks have magic because babies grow up in Disney rooms. How many parents put Harry Potter dolls or collectibles in baby rooms? Marvel? Snoopy? Nope, it's Disney. The brain washing starts at an early age, and continues through life.
Harry Potter is more of a adolescent learning phase. From early childhood, when you can actually retain your memories, kids can step into the Wizarding World. I remember when the Goblet of Fire had come out when I was five and I've loved the series. DIsney is still king, but Universal is the only challenger who comes even close. And also to Mark, Knott's lost its magic when Cedar Fair moved in and took out classics.
Very well written.
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