Innovative New Interactive “Harry Potter” Dark Ride Coming to Universal Orlando?

WWHP_LogoRecently, there have been rumors floating around regarding a possible new addition to Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure. Between the recent acquisition of the film rights to the Harry Potter franchise and the the newly uncovered patent, these evidences provide support that assists in substantiating these rumors; however, there has yet to be a formal announcement. This possible new addition brings up some issues to consider. Already, there are park regulars who are not welcoming this decision. Why not? Because Universal would tear down the Dragon Challenge (formerly Dueling Dragons) roller coaster in Hogsmeade and replace it with an interactive dark ride that would enable park guests to test out their technique and spells. Think Toy Story Midway Mania but perfected and with an increased experiential factor. Even before this rumor, Universal is increasingly being thought of as a theme park overrun with 3D screen attractions. Anecdotally, this is an accurate observation since the most recent additions to the park are all on similar ride platforms (just with different thumbing). One of the elements that I have researched is the requirement that the park guest experience physical movement and be emerged into a psychical atmosphere that transports the guest from the real world into a world of fantasy, adventure, or horror. Although this new ride sounds impressive and innovative, it bears a striking resemblance to many of the attractions that already exist. While no one would really complain about an indoor attraction, as Florida is notoriously hot and humid more than half the year, the concept of a ride moving in front of 3D screens does not appear to be eliciting the response that was intended.

CedarPointOne of the primary elements that separates a theme park from an amusement park is the concept of continuous storytelling complete with proprietary theming. While amusement parks build more rollercoasters and other visceral thrill rides, theme parks create thrilling atmospheres and experiences. It’s a fine line. Take Cedar Point v. Walt Disney World for instance (while ignoring the former’s seasonal operation). Both parks offer amusement, thrill, and entertainment; yet, they are both vastly different experiences. Remember in geometry: while both are polygons, every square is a rectangle but not every rectangle is a square? That principle applies to this analogy as well with WDW being the square and Cedar Point being the rectangle. What makes the difference? Intellectual property, theming, and story. If one were to total up the number of roller coasters or traditional thrill rides at both Cedar Point and WDW respectively, obviously Cedar Point’s numbers would dwarf WDW’s. That’s because the focus of the park experience is different at both places. The focus of Cedar Point is on the thrill while the focus at WDW is the experience (or immersion). The former does not adhere to any cohearant or continuous theming while the latter has built a vast empire on theming and story. A similar argument can be made with cinema. Literary and cinema researchers Linda Williams and Geoff King both write about narrative vs spectacle. Amusement Parks like Cedar Point are almost entirely focussed on the spectacle of the park experience while WDW concerns itself more with the narrative of the experience (although, WDW does strike a balance between the two). Much like WDW, Universal Orlando Resort (and Universal Studios Hollywood) seek to create a thrilling atmosphere complete with rides, shows, and a high caliber experiential factor. Whether it’s the story OF the movies or about the stories told by cinema, Disney and Universal Parks transport the park guest from reality into fantasy.

Dragon-Challenge-695x361So, what does all that have to do with this possible (but likely) new Harry Potter dark ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure (IOA)? A lot, actually. The controversy or concerns seem to stem from Universal’s trend away from physical to virtual environments. Not that 3D/virtual environments aren’t accompanied by the physical. For example, Escape from Gringotts pairs simulated elements with physical production design; however, there is a measurable trend to relying heavily upon 3D IMAX screens as opposed to tangible production design. A great example of this trend is the new King Kong attraction at IOA. The outside of the show building and the queue are impressive. It looks and feels just like you are a character in the movie–cool right? After you pass through the massive gates to Kong’s jungle, the attraction is 75-80% 3D screens. Likewise, the Transformers attraction at Universal Studios Florida/Hollywood is also comprised of mostly 3D screens.

DragonChallengeLosing a traditional roller coaster in exchange for another 3D dark ride could likely rub some park guests the wrong way. Although park guests of the Disney and Universal Parks are there for the experience, story, and incredible themed design, this does not negate the desire for more traditional amusement within these worlds of fantasy. Looking at the parks of Central/West Central Florida, it is clear that Busch Gardens has the largest number of roller coasters, and there are many park regulars, including myself, who go there for the traditional thrill rides. On a side note: I also find the methods Busch Gardens integrates the animal encounters and experiences outstanding–best of what a zoo and amusement park offers. Anyway. With Universal possibly removing a roller coaster that can cycle guests very quickly (due to the two tracks of Fire/Ice) and replacing it with a greatly mitigated cycling attraction like a 3D dark ride, it could prompt longer waits for a similar experience (Transformers v Spider-Man) that can be had at the other 3D attractions. Another forecasted closure in the near future is Revenge of the Mummy. Again, this is a popular traditional (indoor) high speed roller coaster that may be replaced by a 3D style attraction. Even though Universal and Disneyland has to work around issue of being land-locked when planning expansions and improvements whereas WDW has geographic room for expansions, is replacing traditional roller coasters with 3D dark rides the way to go?

I am totally excited for expansions to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWHP) in light of the film rights acquisition and the new movies. I am even more excited to see additions made to the parks that I frequent the most! However, I don’t believe it best planning to sacrifice more traditional rides. The best solution would be to design an attraction that would provide a platform for gusts to test out their magical skills while experiencing the visceral thrill of a coaster type ride. As with all industries, theme parks too have to change with time and with the desires of those who buy the tickets. Theme parks are a business model usually owned by media conglomerates. If the addition of 3D attractions is what increases revenue, then that is the decision that is to be made. The business of filmmaking is also very similar in that respect. I hope that the possible new attraction is one that breaks the mold of the typical 3D screen moving ride and reaches new innovative design heights! We will just have to wait and see and we learn more about these upcoming changes.

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License to Create: Theme Parks and Intellectual Property

ThemeParkHighAngleLicense and registration please. With 20th Century Fox, Sony Entertainment, and Paramount Pictures entering the themed entertainment game as potential heavy hitters, and to some extent Warner Bros. as well, questions about cinema, television, and video game intellectual property (IP) begin to rise. Only having really had two main players in the industry for the last couple of decades, unless you count CBS/Paramount before selling off the amusement park investments to Cedar Fair, Disney and Comcast (parent company to NBC Universal) utilize their own respective IP libraries as well as licensed properties from other media companies. Not having as vast an IP library as Disney, many of Universal’s theme park properties have come from companies like TimeWarner, Viacom, and Fox. Whereas Disney primarily uses their own extensive library, they too have licensed other companies’ IP such as MGM Holdings, 20th Century Fox, and CBS. Although some of the once-licensed properties by either Disney or Universal have now been officially procured (i.e. Disney’s LucasFilm and Universal’s DreamWorks Animation), a common practice in the themed entertainment industry is to license, borrow, barter, trade, etc. But, with these new players demanding a slice of the hospitality and tourism pie, could we see more original television programming or movies?

SpyroThink about it for a moment. Let’s look at some of the most well-known IPs from Sony, Fox, Paramount, and Warner Bros. Although there is a mild to moderate degree of subjectivity in what constitutes “well known,” I am going to go with commonly thought of properties. Starting with Sony. In no particular order, some of the most popular Sony properties include: James Bond (formerly MGM), Spider-Man, Men in Black, Smurfs, Terminator, Silence of the Lambs, Hotel Transylvania, Spyro, The Nanny, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Price is Right, Final Fantasy, and Crash Bandicoot. Switching gears to Fox. Some of the most well-known Fox properties include: Avatar, The Simpsons, Rocky Horror Picture Show, The X-Men, Bones, New Girl, American Horror Story, Alien, X-Files, Die Hard, Futurama, and Family Guy. Although not well known in the US, Warner Bros. operates a theme park in Australia and what is now called Movie Park Germany. Some of the most popular Warner Bros., IP are: Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Looney Tunes, DC Entertainment, Lord of the Rings, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Lego Entertainment. Viacom, parent company to Paramount Pictures, is one of the original Hollywood studios and owns IP such as: Mission Impossible, Titanic (partnership with Fox), Star Trek (films and TV shows), Forrest Gump, and the valuable Nickelodeon. Obviously the aforementioned lists are not exhaustive, but I wanted to try to paint as brief but effective a picture as possible to understand why IP is a hot topic.

JamesBondLogoRecognize some of those titles? You probably recognize most, if not all of them. Unfortunately, these companies have already licensed out some of those properties to Universal, Disney, and Six Flags. Avatar and Alien are licensed by Disney. Marvel Entertainment, Harry Potter, and Nintendo are licensed to Universal, DC Entertainment and Looney Tunes are licensed to Six Flags Parks, and the Nickelodeon IPs are split amongst different entities. Of course, when the licensing agreements were drawn up, it is unlikely that either Sony, Fox, Paramount, and to a lesser extent Warner Bros., thought that they would enter or re-enter into the themed entertainment industry. Now that this part of the tourism and hospitality (and live entertainment) is exploding, Sony, Fox, Paramount, and Warner Bros. need to rethink how to play catchup–and FAST. But, when you have licensed out some of your most valuable properties, how do you make up for it? The short answer is (1) refuse renewal when the license expires or (2) develop original content. Since some licenses run for decades, the former isn’t really an option unless the license is coming up for renewal in the next few years; so, we are left with one logical conclusion: pump out original content that is adaptable to a live experience. This is where research like mine comes into play since I have studied the relationship between cinema and theme parks, and moreover how to successfully translate a movie or TV show into an attraction. It’d be nice if one of these companies would snatch me up. But, I digress.

Film Strip BoardIt is entirely possible that Sony, Fox, Paramount, and Warner Bros. will be forced to generate new ideas for movies, tv shows, and video games. More specifically, original creative media content that can and needs to be able to be translated from the screen into a theme park near you. When developing original content that has the ability to be translated to a live experience, companies need to keep in mind that a high-concept plot with unique settings, characters, and action sequences are necessary for a movie turned attraction. There is a lot more to it than that, but at least this gives you an idea what is required and backed by empirical evidence. Although blockbusters are typically the sourced content for theme park attractions, not every blockbuster is appropriate. Take Titanic for example. It is a movie about the 20th century’s worst and most infamous maritime disaster. So, I don’t think Paramount or Fox will add “Titanic: Ride it Out” to its parks. The ability to cross-promote intellectual property is of great importance for the strategic exhibition and integration of movies, tv shows, or video games. One of the reasons why the Disney parks are so successful is because the Disney movies can be (1) seen in the cinema (2) character meet and greets in the parks (3) the platform for a video game (3) used in theming on the cruise line (4) A-list artists can record covers of the songs from musicals (and broadway musicals can be produced) and (5) the platform for attractions in the parks. Sony, Fox, Paramount, and Warner Bros. need to concentrate on producing movies and TV shows (and by extension video games) that can be used in strategic and creative cross-promotion.

X-Men TASReturning to the present state of IP in the parks. Fortunately, some of those companies still–at least to the best of my knowledge–retain the theme park licensing for a few of the properties that were mentioned earlier; but for the most part, the most well-known movies, video games, and TV shows are already licensed by other companies. Viacom/Paramount operates the Nick Hotel near Disney in Orlando, so it still retains some licensing to its Nick IPs. However, since other parks use some of the Nick characters, there is probably some red tape to go through in order to fully use them in the Paramount park in the United Kingdom near London that is under development. Just like Disney wants to get their hands on Universal’s Marvel properties, Fox really needs to work on getting the X-Men back. On that note: since The Avengers is Disney’s heaviest of hitters and the same for Fox and the X-Men, perhaps eventually we will see that Disney has access to The Avengers and Fox the X-Men. Disney doesn’t really need The Avengers as much as Fox needs the X-Men. The X-Men is arguably Fox’s most successful film franchise in the last couple of decades and it is still going strong. Another Fox property that is licensed by Disney is James Cameron’s Avatar. As for Sony, they have not licensed out as many of their properties to themed entertainment companies, with the obvious exceptions of Terminator and Men in Black. Another area to explore is the reason why non Disney and Universal parks are mostly being built overseas. But that is the topic for another article; however, it is directly linked to IP and copyright.

maps_game_of_thrones_a_song_of_1024x1024_wallpaperfo.comCurrent IPs that would make for great attractions in a U.S. Sony, Warner Bros., Paramount, or Fox theme park would be Game of Thrones, American Horror Story, X-Files, James Bond, Lord of the Rings (but that is a whole other discussion in and of itself), Hotel Transylvania, Spyro the Dragon, Maze Runner, Hunger Games (need to be licensed from Lionsgate), Ice Age, or Mission Impossible. Content is king. More innovative and original content from the big studios who also have theme park investments means that there will be more movies to see each year!! It will also open the door for new ideas from comics, literature, history, and legend. Instead of reboots and remakes, you will enjoy new ideas and narratives. So, the long and short of it is that media conglomerates with movie studio and theme park investments are at a crossroads. They can either not go full-force into themed entertainment and play around with the current IP in their respective libraries or can rise up to the challenge to develop original movies and tv shows that can also find their ways into theme parks in the U.S. and around the world.

“On Cinema and Theme Parks” (part 7)

My Book

In the current business model of theme parks, the park itself serves as an instant and rapid income generator for the larger parent corporation. “Immediate profits are made in much the same ways as in other mass entertainment industries, such as movies, rock concerts, and mass sports events” (Davis, 1996, p402).  However, the theme park differs from the amusement park because it depends on a narrative around which to build the rides, shows, shops, and restaurants (Herwig, 2006). And this is where the movie studio branches of these large corporations come into play. The movie (usually an epic, horror, or adventure) provides the narrative for the theme park (Herwig, 2006). Instead of the amusement park concept of hiring random performers, “the theme parks, by contrast, specialize in experiential homogeneity (Bristol, 1996). Simply stated, the theme park carefully crafts the types of performers that will be there. Ordinarily, the performers are in live shows directly associated with a work of cinema [e.g. Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage (Walt Disney World), Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue (Universal Studios), or Grinchmas (Universal Islands of Adventure)]. While, midway performers and carnival workers or the golden age of the circus or roller-coaster parks are a hodgepodge of different ideas, the theme park is centrally produced and conceptualized for an experience that transcends from the superficial down to the core (Block, 2012).

If a theme park is designed well, the park guests can easily describe the theme. For instance, Disneyland’s theme would be the Magic Kingdom of Disney fantasy; the guests at Universal Studios can easily understand the theme is the movies. Not all parks are able to draw on a vast film heritage (e.g. Six Flags, Cedar Point, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment). However, the parks with a direct connection to the cinema have consistently out performed their respective counterparts (IAAPA, 2014). There are exceptions to this rule of thumb, though. SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment does not have direct access to a vast film heritage (like Universal or Disney), but it perfected how to capitalize on theming from a historical perspective (as did Busch Gardens Williamsburg) and from a zoological perspective (as did SeaWorld Parks and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay) (Davis, 1996). However, in recent years, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment has tapped into the franchises of DreamWorks Pictures and Sesame Street because of the instant association with cinema and television entertainment (Niles, 2013).

Before tackling this paper’s over-arching concept of analyzing the convergence of theme parks and movies, the question of “why media conglomerates” needs to be explored. It is important to note that in her article entitled The Theme Park: a Global Industry, author Susan G. Davis (1996) tackles this very subject. She suggests that the short answer is the simple fact that well-produced and directed theme parks are extremely profitable in the short-run. But, the fact they are highly profitable quickly does not take away from the fact that they are a massive financial expenditure for years prior to opening the gates to audiences turned guests. Once up and running, these mass entertainment behemoths provide an extraordinary source of virtually endless income for the media conglomerates. This income is used to produce the movies that will eventually wind up in the parks, and are also used for park improvements as technology and public taste or opinion changes (1996).

The acquisition of an existing or development of a new park is a perfect way for media conglomerates to enter into the tourism industry, thus providing a greater array of diversification. By gaining access to the tourism industry, media conglomerates can not only continue to make the movies they want, but can license or operate cruise ships, golf courses, restaurants, hotels, and resorts. In effect, by entering into the tourism industry, the media conglomerate can essentially create an entire entertainment district that acts as the fabled goose that laid the golden egg.

You can always find out what you missed by buying my book on Amazon.

To go back to the beginning of the series, click HERE.