Orlando's theme parks endured a grim 2009, but there's hope a new hero will rescue them in 2010: Harry Potter.
Nearly three years after announcing the project, Universal Orlando is finally poised to open The Wizarding World of Harry Potter this spring. The collection of rides, shops and eateries being built in Universal's Islands of Adventure is the most hotly anticipated addition to Orlando's theme parks since Disney's Animal Kingdom opened at Walt Disney World in 1998.
Orlando tourism promoters are banking on the boy wizard to help reverse last year's travel declines, brought on by the global recession. They expect Potter, whose books and movies are set in England, to prove a particularly big draw from the United Kingdom, which was supplanted last year by Canada as Orlando's top foreign feeder market.
Analysts expect big gains at Universal, where attendance shrank about 14 percent last year. Standard & Poor's predicts "a meaningful boost in revenues" at Orlando's No. 2 theme-park resort once Wizarding World opens.
"There is huge excitement for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said.
A broader question is whether Potter's magic will extend to the rest of the local tourism industry, particularly rivals Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando.
Local theme-park executives typically say that a big addition at one park boosts business for them all by luring people to Orlando who might not otherwise have come at all. After all, the travelers who visit Universal to see Harry Potter might also choose to spend a day or two meeting Mickey Mouse and Shamu.
SeaWorld, in particular, could benefit, as the resort has some joint marketing agreements with Universal. And the ties between the two resorts could very well deepen in the future, too, now that SeaWorld is owned by the Blackstone Group, which holds a 50 percent stake in Universal.
"I hope our friends down the street do well with Harry Potter," Jim Atchison, president of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, formerly known as Busch Entertainment Corp., said in a recent interview.
"I think that product is going to line up really nicely with the U.K. market," Atchison added. "And we have a collaborative marketing alliance that has its biggest tentacles into the U.K."
When it comes to new additions, Universal has 2010 largely to itself.
Neither SeaWorld, which last year opened Manta, the most expensive attraction in the resort's history, nor Disney World, which added the American Idol Experience to Disney's Hollywood Studios, have any major ride openings planned this year, though SeaWorld's sibling water park, Aquatica, will add a new waterslide dubbed "Omaka Rocka" in March.
Disney World is expected to break ground early this year on an expansion of the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland section, adding a new Little Mermaid-themed ride, interactive meet-and-greets with Disney princesses, and other elements. But construction will take awhile; the overhauled Fantasyland is expected to open in phases in 2012 and 2013.
Disney's other announced addition, an improved Star Tours in Disney's Hollywood Studios, won't open until sometime in 2011.
Park within a park
The $200 million-plus Wizarding World is by itself much bigger than a typical new theme-park attraction.
The centerpiece of the project will be a "dark" ride, thought to feature a first-of-its-kind system using robotic arms that swivel guests in various directions as they advance along a track. The ride, which will carry guests through scenes from the Harry Potter movies, is housed inside a 150-foot-tall Hogwarts castle.
In addition, Universal is re-theming its Dueling Dragons roller coaster (to be renamed "Dragon Challenge") and Flying Unicorn children's coaster (to become "Flight of the Hippogriff") with Potter overlays. And it is building a half-dozen shops and eateries from Potter's universe, including a sweetshop selling chocolate frogs and a magical-wand shop where wands chose their wizards.
"Our community as a whole benefits when tourist attractions give guests new reasons to visit Central Florida," Disney spokesman Bryan Malenius said.
With Potter's arrival, drawing bigger crowds may well be the easy part for Orlando's parks. Making more money off of them will be the challenge.
Disney World, for instance, continues to use discounts to lure travelers. Many 2010 guests are still traveling on seven-nights-for-the-price-of-four hotel packages, and Disney recently introduced a new Florida-resident promotion offering four days of park admission for $99.
Such promotions were a big reason Disney World and Disneyland were able to avoid significant drops in attendance in 2009. But they also were a big reason operating profit at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts tumbled 25 percent for the year.
This year's challenge will be paring back the discounts to improve profit margins — without simultaneously sacrificing attendance — in what is still an uncertain economic environment.
Some fallout is likely. UBS Investment Research recently predicted that attendance at Disney's U.S. resorts will slide 3 percent this year as Disney scales back promotional pricing.
"I imagine … we will be able to continue to dial that back over the latter part of 2010," Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger said in December. "But we're not making any commitments yet until we see marketplace conditions."
Jason Garcia can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5414.Copyright © 2015, CT Now