New park in Hollywood official; Orlando gets expansion

Harry Potter has even more heavy lifting to do for Universal.

Universal Parks and Resorts on Tuesday revealed plans to “greatly expand” its existing Wizarding World of Harry Potter park in Orlando, Fla., and “build upon the fantastic experience that already exists” there, according to parks chairman-CEO Tom Williams, while replicating the massive attraction in Hollywood.

Initial project, which cost around $265 million to build, features Hogwarts Castle, Hogsmeade village and various shops from J.K. Rowling’s books and WB’s movies while offering rides like Forbidden Journey and Flight of the Hippogriff. Restaurants like the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head sell frothy butterbeer, while Ollivanders and Zonko’s Joke Shop sell wands and themed candy.

No further specifics were disclosed, including when the expansions would be ready – or in the Florida park’s case, just what new attractions would be built.

Studio toppers at both U and Warner Bros., which manages the licensing rights to “Harry Potter” with Rowling, initially announced the first park’s plans in 2007 before it opened in June 2010. A similar timeframe is expected for the new projects.

The announcement was celebrated with much fanfare Tuesday, as Universal and Warner Bros.’ studio chiefs raised mugs of butterbeer with California Gov. Jerry Brown and L.A. County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to toast plans to build a new Wizarding World park at Universal Studios Hollywood, with a marquee “Hogwarts is coming to Hollywood” on the Globe Theater behind them.

After operating in the shadows of the Mouse House’s Walt Disney World resort for years, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter gave Universal the boost it had long been looking for.

Even though it opened in the middle of the year, attendance rose 20% for Universal in Orlando last year and a whopping 52% during the first half of 2011.

“Normally, you put a new attraction out and you’re delighted if you get a 5% bump in attendance,” NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke told analysts this fall. “Harry Potter came out and we were seeing 40% and 50% bumps, just a gigantic sea change in the profitability.”

When Comcast bought NBC-Universal for $13.5 billion, theme parks were “the last thing on our list,” Burke has said. But thanks to Harry Potter, the parks now rank as the second-most profitable division at the conglom, behind pay TV channels. Revenue was up 33% during the first nine months of the year to $1.49 billion, which was one reason NBCUniversal paid the Blackstone Group $1.03 billion in June for the 50% of its Orlando parks that it didn’t own.

At this week’s UBS Global Media and Communications conference in New York City, Comcast chief financial officer Michael Angelakis said the addition of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure “has really been a reset mechanism for that park.”

As a result, the expansion of Wizarding World was inevitable. It’s no surprise U is eager to make room for the Potter park; the Orlando version has consistently broken attendance and sales records since opening. Additional versions are being considered for U’s overseas parks.

With Disney readying “Cars Land” to open at California Adventure in Anaheim next summer, Universal has been looking for ways to lure tourists to Hollywood. U is building a 3D ride based on Paramount’s “Transformers” franchise that opens in the spring.

Upgrades are part of NBCUniversal’s 20-year Evolution plan that will refresh its studio facilities, as well as entertainment centers like the theme park and CityWalk with new attractions, hotels and eateries.

The plan also includes an option to replace its current Gibson-branded amphitheater with a smaller venue, used for concerts, film premieres and award shows. Given that “Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time” is showing its age after opening in 1999, the attraction and the nearby amphitheater could serve as the new home for Hollywood’s Wizarding World, which will take up around 20 acres.

That spot would enable Hogwarts Castle to tower above the park and be seen for miles, especially when driving on the busy 101 and 134 freeways.

U also wants to find a replacement for its “Waterworld” show.

With the overhaul, however, Universal has been working closely with the city and area neighborhoods to appease fears of traffic congestion.

The new addition is expected to cost “several hundred million dollars,” in line with the first park’s cost, and generate more than 1,000 jobs, said Universal Studios prexy-chief operating officer Ron Meyer.

Meyer maintained that the Potter park “has set a new standard in themed entertainment and will change the face of tourism in Southern California.”

Universal Studios Hollywood already generates $4.4 billion for the Los Angeles economy each year, said Yaroslavsky at the event. “As leaders in local government, we should be protective of the movie industry,” he added, “and double down on L.A.’s future of cultural tourism.”

Brown praised the plans, saying, “It’s a great day when we see investment in California amid all the naysayers. California is a mythic place. Its very name has an aura that draws people here. The movie industry keeps hope alive and us thinking about the unexpected. We’re truly a state of imagination, and this Harry Potter park pushes us down the road.”

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who spoke during a pre-recorded segment while promoting tourism to L.A. in Beijing, also lauded the plans. “No doubt that Los Angeles and Gryffindor are one in the same,” he said.

Also in a taped segment, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer enthused of the park’s expansion plans there, saying, “We’ve already seen the power of this brand.”

Naturally, WB also benefits – in addition to licensing dollars for the theme park rights, it collects a portion of the merchandise sales made at the park.

With the expansion, Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Barry Meyer said, “The future of Harry Potter is looking brighter today than ever,” and added that the franchise is “entering the next phase of what Harry Potter means to its loyal audience.”

In Florida, Universal already has announced it is shutting down its “Jaws” ride in January and will replace its surrounding Amity town area and hanging great white with a new attraction at Universal Studios Orlando, which could be used for the new Potter expansion, enabling Islands of Adventure to help spread the wealth. Expansion of Wizarding World also comes as Disney is building a similar themed park based on “Avatar” at its Animal Kingdom resort.

The Florida attraction does not include Diagon Alley, the Leaky Cauldron restaurant, the Forbidden Forest, a working train to Hogwarts or Gringotts Wizarding Bank, for example.

Rowling wasn’t present at Tuesday’s event, but in a statement said, “I am sure that the teams at Universal and Warner Bros. will bring their expertise and attention to detail to Hollywood to make this new experience equally as exciting.”

Also on hand at the event were WB’s Jeff Robinov, Diane Nelson, Kevin Tsujihara and Brad Globe. The only “Harry Potter” cast members present were James Phelps and Oliver Phelps, who portrayed Fred and George Weasley.

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