Universal Orlando’s Food Theming Work Pays Off

Wizarding World of Harry Potter Update

Who would have thought that a single Boy Wizard could bring such financial magic to the theme park industry?  Yet, that’s exactly what has happened with Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened two summers ago to great fanfare in Central Florida.
Harry’s World is comprised of two existing attractions that were rethemed (the success of which has been widely debated) as well as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a ground-breaking attraction that mixes stunning visuals with a cutting-edge ride mechanism.  Yet, despite these three different thrills, the real story behind the success of Universal’s Harry Potter world centers around the less publicized but higher profit food, beverage, and merchandise operations that seem to have cast an irresistible spell on guests and their pocket books.
This issue, the Large Park Report looks at how Butterbeer and other culinary visions from the mind of Harry Potter-creator J.K. Rowling should cause amusement facilities of all sizes to reevaluate their food and beverage strategies.

The Magic of Three Broomsticks

The idea of themed dining has been around the industry for many years.  Disney has long been the leader in transforming a meal into an entertainment experience with other industry players such as Busch Gardens and the Rainforest Café-family of restaurants also adding storylines, animatronics and other special effects to dining options both inside and outside of theme parks.  Indeed, one stroll through the Downtown Disney complex at the Walt Disney World resort is almost like taking s walking tour of the latest in themed-dining concepts with venues like T-Rex and House of Blues.
According to Brent Young, the president of Super 78, a visual solutions company with deep roots in the theme park industry, “it is well known in the creative community that theming food and beverage creates a consistent guest experience and park attendees are much more likely to want to interact with the themed environment in a real way.”
This is what makes the food and beverage operations at the Wizarding World even more impressive:  Universal was able to take an existing concept, themed dining, and transform it into part of the overall “storyline” while still making mounds of money in the process.
When Universal announced the Wizarding World in 2007, many questions quickly jumped to the minds of excited fans.  Among those were how successfully a theme park could recreate the vivid sights, sounds and even tastes that Rowling had intricately developed in her Potter novels.  And, with Harry Potter fans being among the most intense and informed of any creative brand, Universal faced a discerning audience that expected an authentic experience on all levels.  The company’s decision to retain the same level of theming (and thus development costs) for the food and beverage venues as it did for the rides was a important step toward establishing an immersive world of Potter.
“If you put a fast food chain into the Wizarding World, it would not be consistent with the theme and it would most likely have a negative impact on the brand,” explained Young.   “Themed food and beverage venues like Hog’s Head Pub and Three Broomsticks that fit into the story are wildly successful because they allow the guest to interact with the story.”

A Case in Point: Butterbeer

Up until the Wizarding World debuted, the fascinating drinks and meals that Rowling created in Harry’s World had been intricately described by the author but never really tasted.  After all, these dishes and beverages never actually exist beyond the pages of the novels.  This meant that, in developing the culinary side of Harry Potter’s world, Universal had to transform fictional items to real-world tastes.
An easy and less expensive route could have been to de-emphasize the culinary authenticity of that part of the Wizarding World.  Sources close to the project, though, explain that Rowling would have none of this.  Her dictate was that all aspects, not just the attractions and physical buildings, must transport the guest into Harry’s world.
As a result, Universal spent large amounts of time and money to refine the recipe for the iconic Butterbeer beverage from the Potter novels.  Numerous recipes and taste tests were held to refine every aspect from the first sip to the final aftertaste.  This was all done to insure that Butterbeer was not too sweet nor too bitter, not too syrupy nor too watery.  Not too everything nor too everything else but instead the perfect replication of a heretofore fictional drink.
The end product was one of the amusement industry’s most expensively designed beverages ever, and, according to these same sources, one of the most financially successful ones ever.  Indeed, this investment has yielded amazing revenue for Universal, more so than even their most optimistic expectations.
Brent Young chalks this up to that early investment in immersive theming, both in a physical setting sense and in a taste profile one.
“By enjoying a Butterbeer you are now having the very real experience of consuming food in the Harry Potter world. This is a valuable experience for the guest,” explained Young.
Significantly though, Young also noted that the benefits of well-themed food and beverage venues aren’t limited to multi-million theme park worlds.  Indeed, as Young noted, “this strategy can translate to a zoo or science center. For instance if you are in a zoo with an Asian section of the park, having Asian food in an Asian themed venue is organic to the story you are telling. Having a hot dog cart is not. People want to feel transported to another place. And themed food and beverage helps create that experience.”
Ultimately, as every revenue opportunity in the industry becomes more important to fully maximize, a renewed attention to food and beverage as an attraction in and of itself can be much more lucrative in the long run than simply treating it like a function that distracts guests from their overall experience and, thus, must be simplified and quickly concluded.
(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson at chaddemerson@gmail.com.)

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