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Harry Potter park chips away at Disney's dominance

by Mitch Stacy
| December 12, 2010 8:00 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. - Craig Taylor wasn't much interested in vacationing in Orlando with his parents this month - until he and his girlfriend plugged into the hype swirling around the new Harry Potter attraction.

So Taylor, 23, a police dispatcher who lives near Manchester, England, and girlfriend Katherine Lucarz, 22, both fans of the wildly popular books and movies about the boy wizard, decided they had to tag along to experience The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. That's where they were on a sunny, cool weekday afternoon in early December, taking a break among the other Muggles in the shadow of the towering Hogwarts castle.

"It's brilliant," says Lucarz, adding that the steep, snow-covered rooftops, crooked chimneys and shops of Hogsmeade village are even more like the movies than she imagined. Other visitors queued up just to get in the door at Ollivander's Wand Shop, and waited an hour for the centerpiece ride, a fantastic state-of-the-art flight simulator/robocoaster called "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey."

That sort of devotion to all things Potter is precisely what Universal hoped to tap into when it debuted the $250 million attraction in June in a corner of its Islands of Adventure park.

Harry has conjured all the magic Universal expected, and then some. In the quarter after the attraction opened, crowds at Universal parks swelled by 36 percent over the same stretch last year, while attendance at Disney's Orlando parks stayed roughly the same.

But the big question is, can Universal keep the edge and take a bigger bite out of the Mouse's historical dominance as more families shake off the recession and come back to the parks?

That's hard to tell, industry analysts and tourism officials say, but everyone agrees that the eye-popping success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has been a shot in the arm for all the Orlando-area attractions.

Thanks to the new attraction and an improving economy, hotel occupancy rates in Orange County shot up nearly 21 percent in July over the same month last year, and through September were running nearly 7 percent ahead of 2009 totals.

"Harry Potter certainly has been a very powerful motivator," says Gary Sain, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "I believe that it has helped to drive additional visitation to Orlando. And then no one just comes for one attraction, they come to visit several attractions."

But Disney, historically good at keeping extended-stay visitors on its properties, is losing more park days to Universal now because of the Harry Potter attraction, says Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., an independent industry consultant. He believes the Potter attraction has also taken a considerable bite out of attendance at SeaWorld Orlando, whose image - and attendance - is still recovering from the violent death of a whale trainer in February.

"(Harry Potter) has had an enormous impact, and we believe it has legs," Speigel says. "I don't think you're going to see a 36-percent increase at any theme park for a while. But we believe that Harry Potter has enough story line to carry forward for the next 15 years, if it is properly executed in the parks."

Moody's Investors Service said last month that Universal's boost from the attraction should last several years.

Steve Baker of Baker Leisure Group, a theme-park industry consultant, predicts a two-year benefit for Universal, but Disney's dominance and skill at keeping visitors on its properties is too hard to crack for Universal to gain any permanent and significant ground on the mighty Mouse.

"I think what's happened so far is that (Harry Potter) hasn't brought new business to the market yet, it's just enjoyed a bigger market share of what exists," Baker says. "And I think until Disney comes out with something new, that's probably going to be the case. Harry Potter will be a big influence on the attendance at all the parks for quite a few months. I know Universal is hoping it's everlasting, but nothing is everlasting."

For now, though, there's no mistaking what's bringing people to the park.

On a late morning in early December, typically a slow period for all the Orlando parks, the wand shop at the Wizarding World wasn't the only one with a crowd. Wannabe witches and wizards also stood in line to get into the gift shops, belly up for a butter beer and eat at the Three Broomsticks Inn. The hubbub at the Wizarding World didn't spill over into the other areas of Universal's two parks, where crowds were sparse and wait times for rides were no more than five or 10 minutes.

Universal spokesman Tom Schroder says the new attraction has "been great for everything we are."

"The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has helped us reach a new audience, and we've used that opportunity very strategically to help people understand everything they can experience when they come here," Schroder says.

Overall, though, 2011 is expected to be another soft year for the theme park industry with only modest growth, analysts say, with much higher hopes for 2012.

"We're not a recession-proof industry, but we're a recession-resilient industry," Speigel says. "We bounce back faster than a lot of industries. People want to escape, they want to get out, they want to have fun. In 2010 we saw a lot of pent-up demand that had carried over from '08 and '09."