BYLINE: Sandra Pedicini
SECTION: A SECTION; A; Pg. 1
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Harry Potter fans are converging upon Universal Orlando this weekend for its fourth annual event devoted to the boy wizard.
The Celebration of Harry Potter is one example of how Universal has continued capitalizing on a franchise that generated huge attendance gains and made its Orlando resort a more formidable competitor for Walt Disney World.
“I think the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the next step in evolution of what we do in terms of the authenticity, the fun and the scale and scope of what we create,” Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said.
“A Celebration of Harry Potter” began in 2014, the same year Universal opened its second Wizarding World themed land based on the J.K. Rowling books and movies.
The weekend event includes appearances by the films’ actors and an expo featuring businesses associated with the Potter franchise.
This year, Universal has expanded the expo to two sound stages.
“It really needed more space to make it the best it can be,” said Taylor Strickland, editor of the Universal-focused Orlando Informer website. “Going forward, I wouldn’t be shocked if eventually it became more than one weekend.”
Strickland also thinks the Orlando resort will continue adding wizarding-themed events. Last year, his blog reported that Universal had surveyed guests about possible events including a Harry Potter-themed holiday party. Universal already has a Potter Christmas celebration in Japan, where it debuted a Wizarding World in 2014.
“I think eventually holiday offerings come stateside, especially Orlando,” Strickland said. “I think that’s one of the ways you see Universal try to keep crowds away from Avatar land and Star Wars land.”
He’s referring to the themed areas Disney World will open – Pandora: The World of Avatar set to debut this summer and a Star Wars land now under construction.
Both Avatar and Star Wars have movies coming out that should generate more interest in those new attractions.
And the world of Harry Potter is still going strong, even though the original series of seven books and eight movies ended with the final film in 2011.
The play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” debuted in London last year. The script became a two-part book that was last year’s No. 1 Amazon best-seller.
In 2012, Rowling started digital entertainment and e-commerce company Pottermore, which features a website. Last year, the first of five “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” movies came out. They are based on a fictional textbook about magical creatures referenced in the Harry Potter series.
Last year, Comcast’s NBCUniversal division announced a seven-year deal with Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution for exclusive broadcast and basic cable rights to Potter. NBCUniversal said the deal would allow the theme parks to explore new opportunities including fan events, movie screenings and promotional opportunities tied to Potter and Fantastic Beasts.
“I think as long as J.K. doesn’t stop writing, it’s a … viable brand,” said Jerry Pierson, vice president of ITECEntertainment, an Orlando themed design firm that worked on the Wizarding World. “Those fans are unbelievably dedicated to that genre.”
Last year Universal Studios Hollywood became the third theme-park resort to introduce a Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The first opened in Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 2010.
Based on the village of Hogsmeade, it attracted industry attention for its detailed theming and its cutting-edge flagship ride combining screens, props and a vehicle controlled by a robotic arm. The meticulously detailed books and movies also provided a plethora of merchandise and food-and-beverage opportunities. Many consider a visit to the Wizarding World incomplete without a $6.99 glass of butterbeer or the purchase of a wand, starting at $39.95.
The area transformed Islands of Adventure into the world’s fastest-growing big theme park in 2010. The double-digit growth slowed down two years after.
“Basically it gave new life to Universal,” Strickland said.
The second land that opened in 2014 at Universal Studios Florida took guests to the narrow shopping district of Diagon Alley.
The new area included interactive wands that “cast spells” such as making water rain down from an overhead umbrella. It also features another unusual ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which combines an indoor roller coaster with 3-D effects.
The second Wizarding World also allowed Universal to introduce an incentive to buy a ticket for both theme parks: Doing so was the only way guests could travel on the Hogwarts Express train that ran between the two.
Universal is hoping Nintendo can work similar magic. It signed a licensing deal with the video-game maker last year and plans Nintendo lands at its Orlando, Holllywood and Japan parks based on the video games.
Harry Potter set a high bar. But “we always want to do bigger, better for our guests,” Schroder said. “We’re sort of our own competition. We’re always challenging ourselves to go much further than we’ve already gone and the guest wins.”
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LOAD-DATE: January 28, 2017
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