The 20-year history of Universal Orlando’s second theme park can be broken into two distinct eras: before and after Harry Potter.
When Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, Universal Orlando seemed poised to become a true multi-day destination — at least on paper — and the park was considered a critical success out of the gate.
“It has become my favorite theme park,” said theme park historian Sam Gennawey. “It has a great blend of IPs, it’s easy to get around, it provides quiet spaces along the lagoon, and it has Mythos. It is strengthened by having a complete resort within walking distance. This is something that Disney cannot duplicate.”
But Islands of Adventure was far from duplicating anything Disney produced in terms of crowds and revenue.
As documented in Gennawey’s book “Universal vs. Disney,” the park’s first half-year of attendance was only 3.4 million. The disappointing response was partially blamed on a poor marketing strategy, as the company pushed the name “Universal Studios Escape” for the entire Orlando resort rather than spotlighting the brand new park. In mid-2000, the “Escape” moniker was abandoned for the simpler Universal Orlando.
The first Potter pitch
It was that same year Universal first flirted with the idea of bringing “Harry Potter” into its theme parks.
Phil Hettema was Universal’s senior vice president of attraction development during the conception, construction, and earliest years of Islands of Adventure. He presented a concept to Warner Bros. (which was producing the first “Potter” film at the time) and J.K. Rowling for a Potter-themed special effects stage show, but no deal came of those discussions.
“We did a big pitch to get the property, Hettema told Orlando Rising. “I’d like to think that at least planted a seed, but honestly, I had nothing to do with what they did with Harry Potter ultimately.”
A different Universal
Executives may have also insisted on a very different approach if those early plans had gone ahead.
Ownership of Universal transferred numerous times following the opening of Universal Studios Florida, first from Japanese electronics company Matsushita Electric to Seagram’s in 1995, then from Seagram’s to French conglomerate Vivendi in 2000.
During the years under Vivendi, investment in the parks (and Islands of Adventure) was minimal. The company even sold off an expansion plot near Orange County Convention Center that Universal later reacquired and plans to use for the Epic Universe theme park.
“The theme park division, even after we opened Islands, was not seen as a major revenue producer,” Hettema said.
GE to Comcast
General Electric, which bought Universal from Vivendi in 2004, saw the parks in much the same way.
Even after securing the “Harry Potter” rights — according to theme park historian and podcaster Jim Hill, Rowling rejected Disney’s smaller plans for a Potter mini-land in Magic Kingdom — GE wouldn’t open the purse strings. According to an April 2016 Wall Street Journal article, Universal’s park division was forced to pay the $250 million construction price for the Wizarding World section of Islands of Adventure out of its own cash flow.
In December 2009, ownership was set to change again, as Comcast announced its intent to buy NBCUniversal. According to later reporting from The Orlando Sentinel and Variety, there was speculation at the time that the cable giant would sell off the Universal theme parks — though Gennawey doubts the outlook was really that dire.
“GE didn’t care about the parks, but it did provide cash flow, a big positive, and they really could not sell them to anybody else. The contracts were too complicated,” he told Orlando Rising.
‘It saved the theme park industry’
If Comcast had truly thought about selling off Universal theme parks, the June 2010 opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure gave them many reasons to change course.
In the first quarter after the land opened, attendance was up 36 percent year-over-year. Annual attendance at Islands of Adventure climbed from around 4.6 million visitors in 2009 to 5.9 million in 2010 and then 7.6 million in 2011, the land’s first full year of operation.
To Gennawey, to say the Wizarding World of Harry Potter saved Universal parks is an understatement.
“Frankly, it saved the theme park industry,” he said. “Disney is still trying to catch up.”
Following that 65 percent attendance jump over two years, Comcast spent more than $1 billion to acquire full ownership in Universal Orlando in June 2011, just months after its acquisition of NBCUniversal had closed.
And just like that, Universal parks had an owner that saw the value in investing in the theme parks.
In contrast to when GE made the parks division pay for Hogsmeade out of its own cash flow, Comcast spent $2 billion on theme park capital expenditures between 2013 and 2015. After the old Universal went quiet on hotel expansion after 2002, the resort has added more than 4,500 hotel rooms between 2014 and 2019, with another 2,050 set to come in 2020.
That’s not to say fans haven’t found negatives in the post-Potter Universal.
For one, the opening of Hogsmeade meant the loss of the Merlinwood area a decade after it debuted with the rest of Islands of Adventure. Its legacy was further removed from the park with the 2017 closure of the former Dueling Dragons, which drew a crowd of dedicated fans for an impromptu ceremony.
But Hettema — who left Universal in 2001 — bears no ill will for Hogsmeade having replaced part of the park he helped create.
“Was I sad to see a little bit of Merlinwood repurposed? A little bit, but I I think it’s so much in the character in the park that Potter was added and what it brings to the park mix is fantastic,” Hettema said.
Since Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley opened, Disney has been looking to match its appeal in immersing guests in a familiar environment — first with Pandora – The World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom and then Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
By Gennawey’s thinking, this could be seen as a return to “Walt Disney’s idea of placing a guest on a stage and allowing allowing theme to express their inner storylines” — or executives could use the Wizarding World’s success as an excuse for synergistic goals.
“It will go wrong when it is only about expressing the intellectual property,” he said. “I fear that this will most likely happen.”
The future of the Wizarding World
Hogsmeade got its first major addition since opening with the addition of Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in June 2019. There is some available space nearby, as the former Eighth Voyage of Sindbad theater that borders Hogsmeade Station has sat empty since the stunt show closed in September 2018.
Any further Wizarding World expansion may have to wait for Universal’s next theme park, Epic Universe, which is heavily rumored to include a section themed after the “Fantastic Beasts” film series.
“There is limited room to expand within Islands borders, but Universal has been very successful in acquiring IPs and bringing them to life,” Gennawey said. “Universal knows it has Disney on the run and Florida will continue to thrive — unless Universal gets sold again, for that is really the history of the parks.”
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