Theme parks have changed radically in the last 10 years due in large part to a boy wizard.
In 2010, Universal opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Almost overnight, it transformed a second-tier theme park into a serious competitor for Walt Disney World. It cost an estimated $265 million to put visitors inside Hogwarts Castle and slurp mugs of Butterbeer in the town of Hogsmeade. The payoff was double-digit attendance and revenue increases.
As a result, parent company Comcast promised to open a new attraction every year. It’s the kind of investment that the rest of the industry noted and followed. SeaWorld and Busch Gardens also vowed to open a new attraction every year as part of a company turnaround plan.
A whole land, rather than a single good ride, is the new trend. In the new model, once you’ve exited the ride through the gift shop, you’ll also find a restaurant that’s on theme with specialty drinks and lots and lots of merchandise.
With an increasingly expensive arms race among the theme parks, visitors have been rewarded with richer experiences. But admission is also richer, finally crossing the $100 threshold in 2015.
We can now walk down Sesame Street at SeaWorld and shop in Mr. Hooper’s store, or explore the Avatar-themed land of Pandora at Animal Kingdom. And Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the dazzling new land at Hollywood Studios, puts all the workers in costume and in character in a setting that looks like a George Lucas film.
Super Nintendo World is set to open at Universal Studios Japan in the spring, and it is expected to show up in Orlando in the near future, giving fans the opportunity to play in video games come to life, like Super Mario Kart.
Disney spent an estimated $425 million expanding the Fantasyland section of Magic Kingdom in 2012, complete with a castle replicated from Beauty and the Beast that, for the first time in the park’s history, served beer and wine. Universal countered with the $400 million Diagon Alley, a second Harry Potter land that opened in 2014 and connected both its theme parks with a Hogwarts Express train. Now, guests needed two park tickets to see everything Potter.
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In 2017, Disney upped the ante with Pandora: The World of Avatar, with rides, restaurants and shops inspired by James Cameron’s 2009 film at an estimated cost of $500 million. This year, SeaWorld re-created Sesame Street and Legoland opened a Lego Movie-themed land. And this year, Disney opened nearly identical Star Wars lands in Florida and California, at a cost of $1 billion each.
Some theme park fans worry that the chase for intellectual property is ruining the charm of theme parks. It’s a Small World wasn’t based on a movie; it was just a creative idea from Disney’s Imagineers that is now a classic. But for a park investing millions in an attraction, it’s appealing to have a built-in audience.
“The topic-based lands of yore — Adventureland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland — are no longer in vogue with theme park designers,” said Todd Martens, a critic at the Los Angeles Times who covers interactive entertainment and video games. “The increased cinematic influence is also gradually tweaking the very mission statements of the parks.”