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Prepare to watch theme park industry in Southern California magically transform April 7 reports Robert Niles from the OCRegister.
That’s the date Universal Studios Hollywood will open its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Based upon what this new land has done at Universal’s other theme parks around the world, expect a lot of Disneyland fans to start making the drive to Hollywood in 2016.
When the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010 at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Fla., attendance jumped more than 30 percent over the previous year, according to the TEA/AECOM industry attendance report. Meanwhile, at neighboring Walt Disney World, attendance fell at three of the resort’s four theme parks that year.
SeaWorld Orlando suffered even more, with its attendance dropping 12 percent that year from its 2009 attendance peak of 5.8 million. SeaWorld’s attendance still hasn’t recovered, even after it offered free beer. After a flat year in 2011, Walt Disney World’s theme parks have rallied, posting an overall attendance increase of nearly 9 percent since then.
But Universal is closing the gap in Orlando, as its parks have seen a nearly 20 percent increase in annual attendance since 2011, fueled in part by the opening of a second Wizarding World – themed to Diagon Alley – at Universal Studios Florida last year.
To be fair, Universal Orlando’s theme parks saw their attendance tank in the years leading up to the opening of Harry Potter, so Disney started this battle with a commanding lead. But that hasn’t been the case here in Southern California.
Universal Studios Hollywood’s attendance has soared in recent years, even with construction clogging much of the park. Attendance was up 11 percent last year, and 4 percent the year before that. Universal Studios Hollywood’s situation might be more comparable to Universal Studios Japan, where attendance surged nearly 17 percent after last year’s opening of its Wizarding World, following several years of strong increases there.
Clearly, theme park fans love Harry Potter.
But can Potter turn fans away from Disney? If any year could be the year Universal can swipe visitors from the Disneyland Resort, 2016 would seem to be the year.
Disneyland will close much of the northwest corner of its flagship park in January, as the Rivers of America attractions, Fantasmic! and the Disneyland Railroad close the remainder of the year to accommodate the construction of Star Wars Land. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Disneyland annual pass holders will be facing big price increases to renew as they come due each month, following last month’s announcement of those increases.
Anecdotally, we’ve heard from many Disneyland fans who say they’ve been visiting the park more often than usual since that announcement, as they’re trying to get in as many visits as they can before letting their passes expire. Whether fans go through with it – and actually not renew – remains to be seen, but crowds have been packing Disneyland over the past weeks.
At the same time, Universal Studios Hollywood is preparing for an influx of new visitors, even beyond the increases it has enjoyed over the past couple of years. The park will soon open a massive new parking garage and is putting the finishing touches on a new shopping and dining complex just inside the park’s entrance. (That complex is replacing the old “House of Horrors” walk-through attraction.)
Along with the recent additions of a Springfield land (based on “The Simpsons”) and a Minion-filled Super Silly Fun Land, Universal is hoping to create an environment that is more, well, Disney-like; one filled with well-decorated spaces and plenty of themed food to enjoy while hanging out with family and friends.
Thanks to the opening of the Wizarding World, Universal’s theme park revenue has soared, allowing it to buy out long-time partner Blackstone Group and obtain full ownership of the Universal Orlando Resort. Universal also announced a bid to obtain a controlling stake in the holding company that owns Universal Studios Japan.
Inside the parks, Universal has gone on a building spree since opening its first Harry Potter land.
Here in Southern California, Universal also is spending more than a billion dollars on an “evolution” plan that has been transforming the Universal Studios Hollywood property with new rides, shows, and eventually, hotels.
It’s almost certain that Harry Potter will bring record attendance to Universal Studios Hollywood next year. But will Disneyland’s attendance drop for the first time in years, too? Will the Wizarding World set Universal Studios Hollywood onto a new path of long-term growth, as it appears to have done in Orlando? And will Disneyland respond with something else to battle Potter with over the next few years, as Disney works on Star Wars Land?
That battle begins April 7.