Can you imagine what would have happened if Harry Potter had become a Disney franchise, like Pixar and Star Wars? It almost happened. And in some ways it’s kind of sad that it didn’t. But in other ways, I think it’s a REALLY good thing that it didn’t. Here’s why…
Harry Potter, along with the rest of J.K. Rowling’s entire Wizarding World is, of course, HUGE. I mean, the seven-book series of fantasy novels had turned into a franchise worth an estimated $25 billion as of 2016.
Of course, such a popular franchise caught the attention of those who run some of the biggest theme park companies in the world and as per Wikipedia, “A Harry Potter-themed attraction at either a Disney or Universal park was rumored in 2003. However, the rights to the Harry Potter franchise had been acquired by Warner Bros., who denied all rumors. Both Disney and Universal entered bidding negotiations with Warner Bros. and Rowling for the theme park rights to Harry Potter. In 2004, Rowling signed a letter-of-intent with Disney, with the company intending to develop a Harry Potter section within the Magic Kingdom park at Walt Disney World. Ultimately, Disney pulled out of negotiations, citing that Rowling’s creative influence and the terms established by Warner Bros. was too stringent.”
But WAS that why Disney pulled out? According to writer, blogger, and theme park historian Jim Hill, maybe not so much.
I’ve read and listened to Jim Hill for a long time; like 20+ years long. Whatever kind of “ins” he has when it comes to Disney, he always has something interesting to say when it comes to future projects, and what he says about Disney history can be really cool to hear/read, too. Is it all true? Who knows? But a lot of what he says makes sense, and that’s particularly the case when it comes to Disney and the Harry Potter franchise.
In a recent podcast (start listening around 10:25 or so), Jim suggested that the reason Universal eventually got to make The Wizarding World was that when Disney pitched their ideas to J.K. Rowling, she was kind of underwhelmed. They were suggesting a small land that would be where the back part of New Fantasyland eventually wound up and would include just 2 small attractions and a place to get food:
- An omnimover system that would be like Buzz Lightyear’s Astroblasters, but with a wand instead of a space gun.
- A “care of magical creatures” petting zoo that was, essentially, a copy of Universal’s Triceratops Encounter (that attraction is long gone. The experience gave park goers the ability to get up close to an animatronic triceratops – you can learn more about it here. The Disney/Harry Potter version would have been very similar, but with a Hippogriff.
- A small quick service restaurant themed like The Leaky Cauldron.
Now, I’ll grant you that J.K. Rowling appears to be VERY protective and she’s not one to allow the Harry Potter franchise to be portrayed with anything less than the respect it deserves and the imaginative control she wants, in order to maintain the integrity of her brand. And who could blame her, right? So I could definitely see her saying, essentially, “That’s it? Ummmm….thanks but no thanks.”
Friends, I love Disney as much as the next person but they’ve definitely had a history of cutting corners and saving money when they can. Just take a look at the “updated” versions of Journey Into Imagination and Spaceship Earth in comparison to their original forms, and you can see that “exceeding expectations” is not necessarily the 100% rule of thumb anymore, especially in comparison to what they were doing previous to the mid-1990s or so.
So if Disney offered something that was relatively “meh” and Rowling told them no, I could see the spin of Disney saying the problem was, “Rowling’s creative influence and the terms established by Warner Bros. was too stringent,” instead of, “They wanted us to spend more money to make something better and we didn’t want to do that.” In fact, Tom Williams, Chairman and CEO of Universal Parks and Resorts even said, ““We are going to devote more time, more money, more expertise and more executive talent from throughout our entire organization and creative team—as well as from Warner Bros., our partners—to ensure that this entire environment is second-to-none.” I don’t know about you, but based on what was being opened during that time frame (The Magic Carpets of Aladdin, Mickey’s Philharmagic, Pooh’s Playful Spot, the retrofitted Stitch’s Great Escape) I could never see Disney putting out that kind of money or resources during the lean years of the early 2000s.
(By the way, if you don’t trust Jim’s story, there’s also this, which was put out on the ‘net over 6 months before Jim’s podcast. Not the exact same story in terms of what Disney put on the table in terms of potential attractions, but still the same ending – Disney wasn’t willing to spend the money required to make J.K. Rowling’s demands for her brand a reality.)
Well, whatever the history is, the bottom line is that Harry Potter went to Universal instead of to Disney, and Universal spent $200 million to ensure the land, which was announced in 2007 and opened in 2010, would be “right.” Of course, the theme park sector of the Harry Potter franchise has since thrived, to the extent than another Harry Potter land was opened in 2014, at a cost of $256 million, to say nothing of the Wizarding Worlds in Universal Studios Hollywood and Osaka, and those three Universal theme parks’ respective attendance continue to increase wildly because of it.
Now, I know an awful lot of Disney fans who don’t like Universal and/or The Wizarding World, simply because it’s competition for Disney. But you know what? Competition is one of the best things that can happen between theme parks. If not for the success of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I sincerely doubt Disney would have invested in the Marvel or Star Wars franchises, or put nearly as much money as they did into New Fantasyland, the Pandora franchise or Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge. But perhaps knowing that The Boy Who Lived is just down the road, coupled with seeing their own attendance decline during the year that Harry Potter opened (in 2009, WDW has 47,513,000 guests; in 2010, only 47,086,000. Meanwhile, Universal Orlando’s attendance jumped nearly 10% that year, from 5,530,000 in 2009 to 5,925,000 in 2010), it kind of gives them a kick in the behind to not rest on their laurels and to spend the money necessary to make stellar lands and E Ticket attractions. You know, like they used to.
And who are the biggest winners for all this money being spent? Us, of course!
But yeah, if that’s all Disney was going to offer in terms of Harry Potter way back then, I don’t know about you, but I’m REALLY glad Universal got the franchise. 😉
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary