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Big day is here: Universal hopes Harry Potter's magic will last

17 June 2010 by By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel

After three years of anticipation and hype, Universal Orlando is to formally throw open the doors this morning to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, its $200 million-plus addition to Islands of Adventure based on the beloved series of Potter books.

The meticulously themed collection of rides, shops and eateries is expected to lure millions of new visitors to Universal in coming months as the resort becomes, in the words of a prominent British politician, "the official place of pilgrimage for every Harry Potter fan on Earth."

Perhaps the biggest question now facing Universal — along with Warner Bros. Entertainment and author J.K. Rowling, each of whom stands to earn millions of dollars a year in royalty payments from the project — is this: How long will it last?

"That's always been the question: When the books are done and when the movies are done, how sustainable is this?" said Ray Braun, a senior vice president with AECOM, a Los Angeles-based market-research company that has clients in the amusement industry.

Since the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, the franchise has exploded into one of the most commercially successful entertainment properties of all time, with more than 400 million copies in print and more than $5.4 billion in global box-office receipts. But the series is also nearing completion.

The seventh and final volume in the book series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published three years ago, and Rowling has said she does not plan to write more Potter books, aside from a possible encyclopedia about Potter's magical universe. Meanwhile, the eighth and final film — Warner Bros. opted to split Deathly Hallows into two parts, a move the studio said was to more faithfully capture the book rather than to maximize profits — is to be released next year.

The risk for Universal is that interest in Potter could begin to fade without new novels or films to keep consumers' attention. The resort needs Wizarding World to continue drawing visitors for years to come to justify its investment, its biggest since the opening of Islands of Adventure itself in 1999.

Executives say they are confident the franchise will endure.

"We think the Harry Potter books will be timeless," said Alice Norsworthy, Universal Orlando's executive vice president for marketing and sales.

Added Warner Bros. spokesman Barry Ziehl: "Harry Potter has become an eternal classic."

Some brand experts agree. They note that there are multiple examples of entertainment franchises that have remained popular for decades without new material to goose interest. Many of the best-known can be found just down Interstate 4 from Universal, at Walt Disney World, home to characters such as Mickey Mouse and Snow White.

Though there are some important distinctions — animated characters and films tend to age better than live-action properties — the Harry Potter books have become a similar touchstone for an entire generation, said Rick Boyko, director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter in Richmond, Va.

"It is going to be self-sustaining. … Each generation is going to find it because the generation before it is going to say, 'You should read that,' " Boyko said. "It's a potent brand."

The stewards of Potter's brand can take steps to keep fanning the flames. Borrowing a page from Disney, Warner Bros. could, for instance, periodically rerelease the films. Publishers could produce anniversary editions or other special collections of the books.

Boosters are also banking on Wizarding World itself, which is brimming with fanciful elements from the books and films, to feed the cycle by making visitors who might not be Potter fans when they arrive at the park more curious about the series.

"It'll intrigue people, and they'll want to understand the details," Norsworthy said.

In the short term, there is little doubt about Potter's glow. And Universal is poised to bask in it.

The resort was planning to open its parking garage at 5:30 this morning — 90 minutes earlier than normal — to handle the first of what are expected to become daily crushes of visitors to Wizarding World this summer. It has erected a large screen near the entrance of Islands of Adventure to let as many guests as possible watch a grand-opening spectacle scheduled for 9 a.m. today in Wizarding World.

Universal officials have been tight-lipped about what's in store and who will attend the event, which will be streamed live online. But many of the biggest stars in the Potter universe, including Rowling and actor Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the boy wizard in the movies, have been making the rounds at the resort this week.

"The adventures of Harry Potter are among the most powerful stories of our time," Universal Parks & Resorts Chairman Tom Williams told attendees at a gala inside Wizarding World on Wednesday evening. "For generations to come, our guests will be swept up in this magnificent world. They will live the adventure of Harry Potter in a very special and a very personal way."


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