Disney recently announced the acquisition of the Star Wars Empire for a tidy $4 billion. Bravo to George Lucas for creating a set of compelling characters and plot lines, which together seem like such a natural fit for Disney’s entertainment empire. (But could Walt Disney ever have imagined owning Darth Vader??)
The topic of this post is that in addition to the obvious film and character tie-ins, there’s an additional dimension worth noting, the theme park possibilities.
To consider what this could mean, it’s helpful to step back and think about the recent success of Disney’s theme park competitor, Universal. When the Harry Potter books came up for bid, Universal stepped up and risked tens of millions to build out a huge complex at their Orlando theme park, and while the global fan base for Potter and company was undeniable, there still must have been considerable trepidation in making a move of such boldness. Who could have known if it would really succeed, and if it had failed certainly some careers would have taken a tumble.
In those days, Universal was a chronic second place finisher to Disney’s Orlando parks in terms of attendance, and much like the Coke vs Pepsi wars, the pride of both franchises rode heavily on their attendance figures. Completion of the Harry Potter park (named The Wizarding World of Harry Potter) significantly altered the competitive landscape, and Universal soon began outdrawing Disney for the first time in history, and the lure of Mr. Potter was the key factor. A friend who happens to live in Orlando mentioned that once Universal’s attendance consistently passed Disney’s, the embarrassed Disney quietly stopped publicly reporting its figures. The inconceivable had occurred!
So what was it about The Wizarding World that has produced such compelling results? In a sense, once could say that Universal out-Disneyed Disney, as The Wizarding World park is a an immersive experience, much like Disneyland, but in this case one built around a set of stories and characters that have sold how many millions of books? Crowds of kids, teens, and adults pack into the Wizarding World to see and feel and touch what they have seen in the movies, read in the books, and most importantly imagined!
As the parent of a couple of dedicated Harry Potter fans who themselves began planning our trip to Orlando as soon as Universal’s plans for the park were announced, and years before it actually opened, it was only a matter of months after the June 2010 park opening that we were there. This was, as it turned out, not an original idea. The place was mobbed, packed, and jammed with people, so much so that by midday the park staff was letting in people one at a time from a massive line, because the park itself was just too full. You could hardly move…
The line for the signature ride was an hour or longer, and so there we stood in the withering Orlando August heat, slathered with sun block and slurping butter beer and trying not to bake. Annoyance was felt but the complaints were few, the enthusiasm just so great. The experience of actually being in Hogsmeade and Hogwarts was nearly transcendent for them. Oh, wait … we weren’t really in Hogwarts, but in Universal’s brilliantly executed version.
Indeed, Universal has done a stunningly good job at capturing the core of the Harry Potter stories with magnificent attention to detail and faithful adherence to the narrative and tone of the books. And so after a few days it was with a pronounced sense of sadness that we left the park to return to the drab and dreaded muggle world. What a sorry come down.
Yes we left, but a considerable portion of our treasure had been extracted from the ATM beside Gringotts, and faithfully remained behind. In fact, the Wizarding World is an impressive money machine, filling up the park and the hotels and the restaurants with passionate fans, and filling the coffers of Universal. Hotel occupancy rates at the park climbed from respectable to packed even in the off season periods, the increase universally attributed to Mr. Potter and friends. Apparently there is no off-season at Universal now.
And so, after managing the packed house for months, Universal smartly announced plans to expand the Wizarding World portion of the Orlando park to double it’s size, and then to build a second Wizarding World at its Los Angeles property.
This experience got us thinking about the other literary properties that had attracted such a fan base and embodied such compelling storylines and imagery that they, too, could sustain such an immersive experience and become the anchors of a theme park empire.
And of course Star Wars came immediately to mind. While there is a modest Star Wars ride at Disneyland, the success of The Wizarding World shows clearly where Disney’s thinking ought to be headed. How long will it be until Disney announces a dedicated Star Wars theme park in Orlando? Not so long, I would conjecture.
So let’s look more deeply at the characteristics which suggest that what works for Harry will also work for Luke, for not only are the fans of both franchises deeply dedicated to their literary imaginary true homes, the literary parallels are notable. One a fantasy and the other is fantasy science fiction; both are coming of age stories, both involving young protagonists (Luke Skywalker and Harry) who discover their latent magical powers through the guidance of ageless mentors (Yoda and Dumbledore). Both are orphans, and alter-egos of their authors (Lucas and Rowling), both stories evoke the universal theme of struggle for control of the known universe between the forces of good and evil. Even the names of the antagonists are stunningly similar (Darth Vader meet the Death Eaters).
Further, both stories provide an ever-expanding encyclopedia of characters, creatures, locations, technologies, inventions, and mystery, with more and more layers of detail revealed in each successive book / episode. Both stories ascend towards a crescendo in which the ultimate showdown between good and evil is fought to the death; etc. etc.
These are in fact the universal themes of mythology and literature reflecting thousands of years of human storytelling, from the Greek myths and the Odyssey to the Bible to MacBeth and King Lear. (If this theme interests you, you may also be interested in Joseph Campbell’s magnificent study of mythology, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, a book from which Lucas drew explicitly in crafting the Star Wars saga.)
In this respect then, what we experience at The Wizarding World is just the latest in humanity’s quest for self-awareness, the search to know who we are and why we’re here. So your kids may be pestering you for a trip to Orlando to ride the rides and perhaps to buy a wand at Olivander’s shop, but what they’re really interested in is knowing how it feels to be in that fantastic castle that they read about in the books, and saw in the movies, and wished so hard was their own school. They want to know that there is magic in themselves, and to find it and experience it and so to transcend the dull shabbiness of muggle life, to become so much more, the brilliant witch or wizard of their aspirations, imaginations, and dreams. If Disney aims high, it can also create some of this magic in the new Star Wars theme parks, and in so doing it will most likely reap a huge economic reward and a handsome return on its $4 billion investment.
And then the search begins for the next transcendent story, the next epic of human growth and development, the next blockbuster theme park experience. It will be a universal story about realization, maturity, and the challenges facing all of humanity, as embodied in one iconic every/man/woman/hero/magician/jedi/savior. Has it yet been written?
Photo, August 2010, Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando. There was a thunderstorm and lightening illuminated Hogwarts Castle above Hogsmeade.