What's Next for SoCal Theme Parks, After Harry Potter?

April 9, 2016, 1:21 PM · The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened officially Thursday morning at Universal Studios Hollywood. As we enter Potter's first official weekend in Southern California, let's take a moment to consider this new land's impact upon the local theme park scene.

Universal did everything in its power to prevent a recurrence of the Wizarding World's original opening, at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure park in June 2010. It seemed that day that Universal had been caught unaware of the turnout that the new land would elicit. Traffic backed up from Universal's parking structure onto Interstate 4, as crowds began amassing in the middle of the night before the land's opening, long before the garages opened at 5:30am. Tens of thousands of fans snaked through the park and out into CityWalk by mid-morning, as the wait time just to enter the land exceeded eight hours.

This time, Universal opened the Wizarding World in Hollywood on a Thursday during the school year. It moved the opening time up to 6:30am, both to minimize the turn-out and to avoid any conflict with the notoriously congested rush hour traffic on the adjoining U.S. 101 freeway. The park introduced a new ticketing system that encouraged people to buy date-specific tickets in advance, then cut off sales for the date of the opening. And the park revamped its annual pass system, cutting off all AP sales for months before the opening, then introducing new passes that blacked out the opening date and initial weekend. A couple weeks before the premiere, Universal did offer a new 365-day AP — at a price of $589.

Thursday wasn't really the first day of operation for the Wizarding World Hollywood, either. It was just the "official" opening — the land began soft openings on February 12. And everything in the land was fully operational from day one of its "technical rehearsals," something that hadn't always happened with previous Wizarding World soft opens. That allows hundreds of thousands of local theme park fans to get into the land before its official opening.

And yet, this still happened:

A few hundred fans camped out overnight for the Hollywood debut, but Universal was ready for them, keeping the garages open all night and implementing a wristband system to hold people's place in a virtual line, then an actual physical queue in front of the park for them once CityWalk had closed after midnight. At 4am, Universal began letting fans into the park, where they were held in another queue the park has established in Universal Plaza. Once the Wizarding World was filled after 7am, Universal activated its timed-entry ticket system for the land.

And then... it rained. While Southern California's theme park fans might love a magical British village, they will not stand for anything remotely resembling British weather. The slightest drizzle of rain clears all SoCal theme parks, and since the rain began falling across Southern California on Thursday afternoon, I've not seen the wait time for Forbidden Journey exceed one hour, monitoring the park's official USHWaitTimes.com site. (The rain is expected to continue through much of the upcoming week.)

With an extended soft opening and a smoothly managed official debut, the story of the Wizarding World Hollywood won't be of the huge initial crowds, as it was in Orlando, but of the land itself. Which is what Universal wanted. The park is blanketing the market with ads for the Wizarding World, but it needs strong word of mouth to elevate Potter beyond Fast & Furious, Springfield, and Despicable Me — all which boosted Universal's attendance nicely, but failed to elevate the park to the level of adoration among locals that Disneyland enjoys.

Potter has the potential to help do that, but Universal needs local fans' first impression of the land to be the land itself, and not a crushing hours-long wait to get into and through it. That is why the park started offering date-specific tickets, a long soft open, and a revamped AP system. (And probably why a lot of operations team members are quietly fist-pumping this weekend, as the ongoing rain holds down the crowds.)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter establishes a new template for theme park attractions. The Wizarding World is not simply a well-decorated collection of commonly-themed rides, shows, restaurants, and shops, as so many of the best theme park lands have been in the past. It is an attraction unto itself — a platform upon which all its attractions stand... and upon which fans can create their own adventures, as participants in the land, rather than mere visitors to it.

Want to fully experience the Wizarding World? Put on your house robes, get an interactive wand, and start casting spells at the shop windows. Hungry? The Three Broomsticks isn't just a place to take a break and get some refreshment for the rest of your visit. It's an integral part of the experience, where the food supports and enhances the theme, rather than distracting from it. There's no Coke, no burger, no pizza here — just the pub food, pumpkin juice, and yes, Butterbeer that fans read about and saw in the Harry Potter books and films. The Wizarding World envelopes you and all of your senses.

This isn't a theme park land so much as it is a MMORPG — a massively multi-player, off-line role-playing game. It's addictive. Even if you walk in knowing nothing about Harry Potter, the community of fans who do can help make the experience relevant to you, as actor James Phelps explained:

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter celebrates the magic of community as much as it depicts a community of magic. That sort of experience is exactly the thing that Universal Studios Hollywood needs to become a place where local theme park fans just want to go to hang out together (like Disneyland), instead of a place where you go to once every year or so, when you're hosting friends or family from out of town.

Of course, no one else in this business is just going to sit around while Universal makes this play to expand its market share. Disney's already responded, revamping its plans for Star Wars Land to create an immersive platform along the lines of what Universal created with Potter. Knott's is planning to transform its Ghost Town into the same sort of interactive experience with this summer's Ghost Town Alive!, where actors will portray residents of Calico, creating an ongoing narrative within which visitors can participate. Even Six Flags and Legoland are stepping up with fresh experiences — a virtual reality coaster at Magic Mountain and a Ninjago-themed controller-free interactive dark ride at Legoland.

But until Star Wars Land debuts, sometime in 2019 or 2020, Harry Potter remains the most popular and powerful franchise to have its own land in a Southern California theme park. And until someone else tops it, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains the immersive, interactive standard for theme park lands around the world.

Our Complete Wizarding World Coverage:

Replies (17)

April 9, 2016 at 3:30 PM · This article is making me reminisce over when I visited WWOHP for the first time in Orlando. Aaaah, good times...

Piece of advice about the Butterbeer, though: if they make it the same way they do in Orlando, then I recommend only having it once just to say that you did it. It's not the worst thing ever by any stretch, but it's basically just a glorified cream soda. A very "meh" glorified cream soda. I personally think the Pumpkin Juice and other WWOHP beverages are much better. Although, granted, the Butterbeers do have some pretty cool souvenir mugs...

April 9, 2016 at 3:54 PM · I LOVE Butterbeer, and I love Pumpkin Juice, too. But my favorite is Otter's Fizzy Orange Juice, which they do not have in Hollywood, alas.

Not matter what I choose, though, I've put myself on a strict one-drink-a-day limit now that WWoHP is open near me. They're all just too sweet for me to enjoy more often than that.

April 9, 2016 at 4:25 PM · Universal is too aggressive in pricing. The crowding on opening day is to be expected. I wasn't expecting the park to clear out from slight rain. It wasn't raining that hard. Based on this, Universal is likely to not suffer too much from long lines for Forbidden Journey in the summer. Disney's plans are already laid out so there's nothing more to imagine until after Star Wars opens; however, this is a game of ping pong and the next ping is for Universal to come up with a sequel to Harry Potter after Star Wars Land opens. Can they come up with a huge addition with the limited land in the backlot?
April 9, 2016 at 5:01 PM · I live near Universal Orlando, & got to go to there a few months ago. Did not care the Pumpkin Juice but LOVED the Butterbeer! I think you need to like caramel and/or butterscotch flavors. Can't wait to go again when it is Hot - a frozen one will be perfect.
Used to live on SoCal; hoping to move back within the year. It is so nice to know that all I've enjoyed here will be there & then some! :-)
April 10, 2016 at 3:39 AM · 2019/2020 for Star Wars ?! I truely dispair at the state of the current regime at Disney. Bob Iger is literally the worst thing to happen to theme parks in America. He's a movies man, no love at all for the parks. Utter shambles.
April 10, 2016 at 8:49 AM · Great article. You really captured the immersive quality of HP and why it's so different than any other experience in the theme park world. And this comes from one (me) who didn't read the Potter books or watch more than a few snippets of the films. And, the amazing thing is that Diagon is probably two to three times better than Hogsmeade. Universal really nailed it.
April 10, 2016 at 2:06 PM · A 2019/2020 debut for Star Wars Land is not unreasonable at all. In fact, given the size of Star Wars Land, it will be done faster than Harry Potter, again, accounting for size. Bob Iger has been a great CEO for the Walt Disney Company, including Parks and Resorts.
April 10, 2016 at 7:31 PM · After seeing the results, I have to say that USH did a perfect job managing the opening of Wizarding World of Harry Potter. While many fans were displeased, reformatting the ticket and pass system worked very well to prevent a total onslaught on opening day. Additionally, having the land open for nearly 2 months certainly decreased demand at opening. Waiting until after spring break and opening it on a weekday were very smart moves as well. Lastly, weather certainly played a part as well. The end result? An opening day that was busy but manageable for USH, and a land that has not seen the oppressive crowds that plagued Islands of Adventure for months in 2010. Once So Cal gets its sun back in the next couple days I do expect crowds to go up, but even when summer hits I don't think it will wind up being overwhelming.

I also agree with the assessment of the land as an MMORPG. Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the only place where I felt the land itself was an attraction rather than just a theme used to tie together separate attractions. I do think this has both good and bad components. If you're into the IP, it is great as you can fully immerse yourself. If you're not into it, however, you could be overwhelmed and end up not enjoying the area. I don't think every theme park land should be like this, but for those based on an extremely popular IP that visitors can easily become immersed in it may be a worthwhile investment.

What's next for SoCal? My hunch is that the rest of 2016, as well as 2017/2018 will likely be dominated by the regional parks, but there are big things on the horizon at Disney and Universal. From what I've heard, there are currently three lands in development for each park (Star Wars, Marvel, and Tomorrowland overhaul at Disneyland; Jurassic World, Nintendo, and Harry Potter Part 2 at USH), and with all of this supposedly opening by the middle of the next decade So Cal fans have a lot to look forward to.

April 11, 2016 at 8:49 AM · @AJ, I do agree with you as well about the good and bad components of the land being an MMORPG. I saw the first two films and have never read the books. I know who Harry is and the general idea behind the franchise...but I honestly don't care. I'd like to walk through it from a park enthusiast perspective but not a fan of the IP.

Sadly I feel this way with Star Wars Land too. It's just not my "thing" and I wonder how much of the details I will miss out not knowing enough about it. I come to places like TPI to explain to me exactly what I'm missing out on!

April 11, 2016 at 10:18 AM · Sarah - you ought to go to WWOHP and then write a story for TPI recounting your experiences as a person with no background in the HP IP. Would be very interesting to see it through your eyes.
April 11, 2016 at 10:37 AM · Rob, consider it DONE!! It might take a year until I get there however and by then, WWOHP will be the equivalent of Swiss Family Robinson Tree House...lightly attended and rarely mentioned! OK, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration!! LOL!
April 11, 2016 at 11:13 PM · I'll never understand why Cali theme park (and Potter) fans don't visit Orlando. It's a short plane ride away. Are they really going to wait several more years before experiencing Diagon Alley (IF and when USH somehow finds enough room, and decides to build another one)?
April 12, 2016 at 8:03 AM · Re-Sylvian.

Because such a trip would be expensive as hell.

First, flights are NOT cheap, and I wouldn't exactly call it a "short" flight considering the fact that both states are on the exact opposite sides of the country from each other; both times I've flown to California, we had to take a connecting flight somewhere in the Midwest region.

Plus you gotta find out a place to sleep, a place to eat....and if you plan on bringing your family, they're probably gonna wanna do more than just visit a theme park.

Speaking of which, did I forget to mention that you'd have to pay for both you and your party's admission tickets?

Welcome to reality, Sylvian, where long-distance trips require months worth of planning and saving money.

April 12, 2016 at 8:35 PM · If the U.S. parks were as unique as they COULD be, then I'd travel to take in the other unique experiences offered at the other parks. Unfortunately (I guess) the parks seem to clone just about everything and the best of Orlando seems to make it's way out here (in Cali) eventually and vice versa. I have been patient and have been rewarded with many attractions that have been cloned just for this purpose.
April 13, 2016 at 12:14 AM · Welcome to reality, indeed. I should know, since I've planned lots of those long distance trips. My reality is that I save money all year in order to travel, at considerable expense, to both destinations. Both are different enough, and offer plenty of attractions not available at the other place. Florida is much closer to where I live, so it would be easier for me to just go there. But I know it's worth it to visit both.

Crazee4mm knows all that about me, since I've met up with him in Cali several times already. I'm lucky to know such a great guy and local parks expert :)

April 13, 2016 at 11:14 AM · If I ever make it to Orlando, it will be after my kids are grown. I know they have the bigger, better theme park experience, but even the 12-hour drive to California is a huge, expensive deal that we plan and save for. We loved Disneyland when we went three years ago, and someday we'll go again, but Harry Potter is my family's reigning fandom, and I'm so glad they've made a west-side Harry Potter land just for us. ;)
April 13, 2016 at 5:37 PM · Regarding Sylvain's comment, here's my perspective as someone who has lived in Orange County, CA for their entire life.

At the moment, I can get a year of the Disneyland Resort and USH for about $500 (plus about $50 per visit for parking and food). To do a week at WDW and UO, it would likely cost in the neighborhood of $3,000 (not including food and souvenirs). Therefore, I'm not going to travel for anything that I'm certain I can get at a local park. While there may be some small differences, roughly 1/3 of the attractions at the Florida parks are also represented at the California parks. This greatly decreases the value of Florida for a So Cal resident over someone living virtually anywhere else in the country.

Does that mean I'll never go to Florida? Absolutely not, as there are plenty of unique attractions there as well. But with the expense involved in such a trip, it is likely to be a once a decade deal (or perhaps twice if a lot of unique attractions opened). That's also a double-edged sword as well...you need to time the trip to hit as many of the new unique attractions as possible without just missing something. At the moment, it's looking like 2018/2019 may be a sweet spot, as Avatar Land and Toy Story Land should be open by then and the projects following that period are also happening in California. Unless I happen to get gifted a trip, that is likely when I'll shoot for.

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