The Hogwarts Express Goes to Orlando

February 9, 2010
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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.


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9 Responses to “ The Hogwarts Express Goes to Orlando ”

  1. Sarah Jedd on February 9, 2010 at 8:08 PM

    I want to go to there.

    I like your 3 options very much and think #2 is a really excellent point. I mean, think about Sesame Place– it appeals to generation after generation of fans, and it seems like the HP park will, too. As a HP fan, I am excited about sharing the books with my own kids (one of whom is named Harry, for goodness sake) and about taking them to the park. A rite of passage for geeks and their little geek offspring.

  2. Tim Anderson on February 10, 2010 at 7:29 AM

    Here’s a practical question that I have no answer to but I have to ask: as important as this particular iteration of paratext is, how much of its fate depends on macroeconomic issues. I know that my family is in no position to make a trip to Orlando and I know many others who cannot do it as well. We are opting for local fare (anything within a 3 hour drive) when we go out as a family. It seems to me that this kind of destination creation is coming at a very precarious moment in economic history and if it fails it may not be because it does not connect with fans.

    • Kyra Glass on February 10, 2010 at 10:14 AM

      Opening an attraction amidst a recession is certainly potentially a risky proposition. However,anecdotely, I was in Disney World just last spring (when the recession was deeper) and it was still pretty crowded. Because this Wizarding World of Harry Potter is part of the larger Universal Studios group of parks if anything I think the new addition would add interest in a slow time for the park. While the economic pitfalls are certainly present, if anything it seems like a smart strategy in more difficult economic times- to create something new and something with a huge built in fan base.

    • Jonathan Gray on February 10, 2010 at 11:57 AM

      the (profit-related) beauty of something like this, though, is that it can be repurposed with ease. Castles aren’t likely to go out of fashion anytime soon (20 centuries and going strong!), nor is magic, so the whole thing could probably be made into a different castle and ride in the future if it fails. The Simpsons Ride was the Back to the Future Ride, and that’s a harder stretch. But it’s a massive payoff to having a franchise based on a deeply derivative product

      • Tim Anderson on February 10, 2010 at 1:13 PM

        Right, it can be erased or its meaning evacuated ala the Cinderella castle at Disneyland. For many it’s simply a castle. However, this is a massive capital investment that needs to show some direct ROI for the licensing. The castle can remain a castle, but whether or not it remains Hogwarts is dependent on justifying the purchase of licensing.

        • Kyra Glass on February 10, 2010 at 11:29 PM

          The nature of it being a sub-park makes it a little more complicated then that. The castle leads into a ride and both would need to be logically repurposed. The entire village of Hogsmeade with restaurants and shops would have to be re-purposed, as would the two independent rides. Either the entire park would need to be re-purposed for another text that made logical sense with its infrastructure or each section would have to be broken into a different theme which would undermine the integrity of the park. This makes the licensing, and the life of the franchise, more crucial.

  3. Erin Copple Smith on February 10, 2010 at 11:13 AM

    In that grand academic tradition of “This isn’t really what you’re talking about, but your discussion makes me think of something in my own research area”…

    …I’ve been captivated by NBC’s cross-promotion of the attraction’s opening. There were several plugs on the Today Show, including an airing of the long-form promotion. Awkwardly, they first showed a long-form promotion for the Olympics, and then moved right into the Wizarding World promo, which made it seem like spectators would see Harry, Ron & Hermione swishing down the slopes in Vancouver. The whole thing just reeked of “We are NBC and we are trying to eke out every last little bit of promotional opportunity we can from these two cash cows that are currently part of our conglomerate arsenal.” Personally, I’m still waiting to see the Biggest Loser contestants go on a fitness speed-walk around the Wizarding World in a future episode (they were at the Olympic training facility in last night’s ep).

  4. Mike Kendall on May 2, 2010 at 1:20 PM

    Great post Kyra,

    Even with the Harry potter saga coming to an end, I suspect this attraction will remain popular for years to come. Just look at the haunted mansion attraction…also based on a movie.

  5. vikki on July 25, 2010 at 11:07 AM

    The harry potter franchise will be huge for a good number of years to come, my husband and I plan to go visit orlando in the very near future for this.