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Theme park wars: Disney strikes back at Harry Potter with Star Wars expansion

"Never tell me the odds," says Star Wars character Han Solo in one of his more memorable movie lines.

We're going to tell you anyway.

There are two key reasons behind Walt Disney Co.'s announcement Saturday that it plans to build Star Wars-themed lands at both its Disney Hollywood Studios in Orlando and its original Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Calif., in one of the largest expansions in the company's history.

First, of course, is now that Disney owns the Star Wars franchise, it's about to unleash a series of new Star Wars movies starting this holiday season. Combining a new era of themed movies and parks expansions is a business no-brainer for Disney.

The second reason, however, is theme park giant Disney is starting to look over its shoulder in Orlando at Universal Studios and the stunning attendance trends at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction.

On the strength of Potter, Universal Orlando grew visitor attendance a remarkable 17 percent in 2014 from 2013. That pace puts Universal Orlando, now ranked seventh in attendance in this country and fifth among Orlando theme parks, within striking distance of overtaking nearby Disney-owned Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, which both grew at just 2 percent.

After Universal Orlando's 17 percent gain, the next-largest attendance growth last year was by No. 1 Disney's Magic Kingdom, up 4 percent. The bulk of the remaining Orlando area parks reported low single-digit growth in 2014, except for SeaWorld's sharp 8 percent decline. Another SeaWorld park in San Diego dropped even more, down 12 percent, because of the ongoing public relations heat from the Blackfish film, which is critical of keeping orcas in captivity and using them as entertainment at the theme parks.

Tampa's Busch Gardens, part of the same theme park company that owns SeaWorld, saw attendance rise just 1 percent last year to 4.1 million, ranking the theme park No. 11 in the country by number of visitors. (The other Busch Gardens park in Williamsburg, Va., saw attendance drop 1 percent last year.)

Nationwide, the top 20 U.S. theme parks grew an average of 2.2 percent in 2014 over the previous year, attracting 138.1 million visitors, according to Aecom.

The beauty of Orlando's sheer density of theme parks — seven of the country's top 10 are based there — is that a rising tide lifts all parks. The wildly successful Harry Potter arrival at Universal has certainly helped most nearby parks add to their visitors, no doubt including Tampa's Busch Gardens.

And now it may be Disney's turn. Its planned 14-acre Star Wars lands, Disney CEO Bob Iger said Saturday, will include a replica of the famous cantina patronized by outer-space creatures in the 1977 Star Wars film, and a ride based on the fictional spacecraft Millennium Falcon. Iger spoke at Disney's D23 Expo fan convention in Anaheim.

"We are creating a jaw-dropping new world that represents our largest single themed land expansion ever," he said.

Disney's also set to deliver Avatar Land — which was inspired by the 2009 film of the same name — to its Animal Kingdom park in 2017.

Is it coincidence that the Star Wars and Avatar attractions are going into Disney Orlando parks (Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom) closest in attendance to Universal with its Potter success?

With all that new park firepower, the odds of a boom in visitors may be shifting to Disney. But do not assume Comcast, which already has poured over $1 billion into its Universal Potter creations, will remain idle for long.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

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