Harry versus Luke: The Battle to Watch in 2016

By Chad Emerson

 2016 will be the year that Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker finally do battle.

When it comes to fictional franchises, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and George Lucas’ Star Wars are among the most popular – and profitable – ever.  That’s why it’s hardly a surprise that Universal and Disney respectively paid millions if not billions for the rights to these characters and the worlds in which they live.

And a large chunk of this investment has found, and will continue to find itself, at Universal and Disney’s signature parks in Central Florida.  For Universal, the two-phased Harry Potter mini-worlds in Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure started in 2010 with the Wizarding World and culminated in 2014 with a Diagon Alley re-creation.

Single handedly, Universal’s big bet on Potter changed the dynamic of the Central Florida (and quite frankly National) theme park market more than almost any effort to date.  Combined with a major investment in new hotels and collateral attractions, Universal’s Florida property for the first time began to compete with Disney World as a guest alternative rather than simply as a Mickey-centric vacation add-on.

For Disney, this new paradigm created a real threat to its dominance as the destination of choice for international theme park guests.  While it stumbled early with underwhelming responses framed around the Avatar franchise, Disney’s multi-billion dollar purchase of the Star Wars franchise in 2012 offered a formidable response to Universal’s Potter parlay.

With Skywalker, Solo, and Company in hand, Disney now had an opportunity to fully invest in immersive Star Wars-themed attractions.  Until then, Disney operated Star Wars attractions under a limited license from its creator George Lucas—a license that multiple Disney officials have told The Large Park Report over the years have made a significant investment difficult.

Ownership of the creative content changed that and, as The Large Park Report was one of the first to report when the purchase was announced, Disney’s leadership quickly greenlighted plans to introduce Star Wars into its theme park properties in an expansive way.

Gone were the days of a single Star Tours attraction at a theme park.  From the very top of the Disney echelon, the dictate was to develop Star Wars themed attractions, shows, dining, merchandise and more that would position Disney as the exclusive destination for the Star Wars experience after the 2015 debut of the first of three (at least) new Star Wars feature films.

The big question mark for this big best was whether Star Wars could become a multi-generational franchise.  Lucasfilm’s attempt to revitalize the franchise with three new prequels beginning in 1999 were roundly panned as ill-conceived.  Very little of the creative content from the three films has passed muster in the overall Star Wars universe.

Disney’s purchase changed expectations though.  With superstar director JJ Abrams (he of the X-Files, Alias, Lost and others) at the helm, anticipation has built that the next three Star Wars movies could rival the original three in popularity.  Even if they only come close, a major question is how they translate into the theme park world.

For Disney, the Star Wars storyline and characters offer a worthy foe to Universal’s Harry Potter-Land.  The combination of fantasy with human characters that can be related to (arguably Avatar’s big failure) means that Disney’s multiple Star Wars theme park experiences can re-invigorate its audience as well as find a new audience like Potter did for Universal.

The big “if” is what happens if the new Star Wars films fall flat and do little to engage a new generation of fans.  While early expectations discount that possibility, were it to happen, Disney would find itself with an aged franchise whose primary audience were fans from the late 1970s.  On the other hand, if the Star Wars re-set engages a new millennial generation, then Disney has discovered new guests whose returning engagement could extend for an entire generation.

Which returns us to the Universal/Harry Potter situation.  Unlike George Lucas, Potter-creator JK Rowling has remained fairly steadfast that the franchise is essentially complete.  If that’s the case, then Universal has to hope that its two Harry Potter mini-lands age well because there will be little, if any, new content for subsequent generations to embrace.  Under this scenario, Universal has to hope that Harry becomes the modern day equivalent of Snow White, Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh—that is, creative content that has bridged multiple generations without building upon the original story in significant ways.

On the other hand, two industry sources have told The Large Park Report that Universal has an option on developing new Potter attractions if Ms. Rowling decides to develop new Potter books or content.  The end result is that this creative quid pro quo between Disney and Universal presents a fascinating example of billion-dollar bets whose outcome could directly affect the future of theme park experiences both domestically and internationally.

All of this will come to bear in 2016 when Disney debuts its first Star Wars mini-world at Hollywood Studios in Central Florida.  The seriousness of this major investment is evidenced on a personnel level when Disney moved long-time Magic Kingdom head, Phil Holmes, to ostensibly lead the Star Wars build-out and roll-out.

These are high stakes in the theme park world with one former Disney official suggesting that Disney views a re-invigorated Star Wars experience as the opportunity to stop Universal’s Potter gambit in its tracks with new audiences.

For industry followers – and theme park guests – 2016 is shaping up to be one of those giant years where epic creative content faces each other head to head.

Will it be the Skywalker Force or the Potter Magic or an unexpected combination of both that transform next year into a banner year for the large park and resorts industry?

Stay tuned in 2016.

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