Universal Studios made the television premier of the ad for the new park The Wizarding World of Harry Potter an “event” by scheduling it during the Super Bowl. The ad itself is not particularly magical; the Universal Studios website for the theme park captures significantly more of the films’ wonder. Still, the theme park itself is a crucial extension of the Harry Potter franchise and one that may have significant impact on the franchise’s future.
The Harry Potter franchise is a great example of Henry Jenkin’s concept of “world-making.” The novels’ careful description of the intricate wizarding world is nearly as much of its appeal as the story’s narrative. One of the benefits of world-making is the potential for expanding the franchise into a variety of narratives, or ,as Linda Hutcheon points out, adapting the franchise into interactive spaces where users can create their own narratives. In a promotional video for the park Emma Watson, the actress who plays Hermione in the films, talks about all the children who have told her that they wished they could enter the world of Harry Potter. Universal Studios is banking on this desire. Indeed, the success of video games like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix capitalize on this desire to immerse oneself in the world of the franchise. The game ends with a sandbox environment where players can simply explore the castle and be part of the world of Harry Potter. The Universal Studios theme park, which consists of the Hogwarts Castle, Hogsmeade village, and three rides, will create a much larger sandbox for interactive play with the franchise.
Any time a beloved text is adapted, there is the risk that the adaptation will deviate significantly from the world that readers have imagined; however Universal has an already accepted template provided by the films and the video games on which to base their theme park, significantly reducing this risk. The real gamble here, and the question the theme park most pressingly begs, is how the franchise will be kept alive after the final film is released in 2011. Paratexts, as Jonathan Gray points out in Show Sold Separately, are a vital part of any text’s life, and this is particularly true of the franchise. Harry Potter has done well with paratexts, spinning out not only video games and board games but also toys, candy, Halloween costumes, etc. However, paratexts are most effective in conversation with a primary text – but soon all of the planned narrative texts for the Harry Potter franchise, both films and novels, will have been released.
Of course the world of Harry Potter will live on long after 2011 in the imaginations of the franchise’s fans and this is what Universal Studies is counting on. Yet the investment laid out by Universal Studios is too much to be justified by the fans that Harry Potter has today. While certainly rides are based around now defunct films like Water World or Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the construction of small theme parks around a single textual worlds are very rare. The unusual focus of an entire park on a single text indicates a faith in a franchise, like Star Wars and Batman, with long-term cultural currency. (And even Star Wars only has one ride, one stage show and occasional “Star Wars” Weekends at Walt Disney World.)
The question left by the announcement of this theme park is not whether or not it will succeed – children everywhere will have ruined the rest of the Super Bowl begging their parents for a trip to Orlando – but how the franchise will be kept alive to reward Universal Studios’ investment? There are three possibilities: 1) the world made by the Harry Potter franchise has such mythic power that the existing texts are enough for fans to return to again and again, for generations to come. 2) Universal Studios is counting on the fans to keep the world alive. This wouldn’t be a bad bet given the massive amount of fan texts created around Harry Potter. Everything from fan-fiction, to recipes, to Wizard Rock available on iTunes from bands like The Remus Lupins have been created by loyal fans. Even the unopened theme-park already has a fan site! Yet the studio’s occasionally draconian measures regarding copyright might hinder the saturation of fan creations. 3) Finally this may portend the possibility of more licensed ancillary materials after the final film comes out. The Star Wars franchise was not kept alive by fan creations alone, but also licensed novels, role-playing games and video games. Will Harry Potter comics, novels about other Hogwarts students, an MMORPG and an animated series be soon to follow? Although it would be consistent with how other franchises, Spiderman, Batman, Star Trek, etc. are handled, the unique magic of the books make this much more difficult. How the future of the franchise will play out remains a mystery for now, but what is certain is that soon there will be many a glass of Butter Beer toasted, by both kids and Universal Studio shareholders, in celebration when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens its gates in Orlando.