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Harry Potter could make Universal Studios a real rival to Disneyland

Six decades ago, Walt Disney opened what would become the nation's prototypical theme park, a fantasy land built around Sleeping Beauty Castle, a 77-foot-tall marvel inspired by the classic fairy tale and Disney's soon-to-be animated film.

On Thursday, Universal Studios Hollywood, long considered second tier compared with its more popular rival, threw open the gates to its own fantasy fortress: a 200-foot-tall Hogwarts castle, inspired by the modern international literary sensation Harry Potter.

In the hyper-competitive world of Southern California theme parks, it's game on.

Universal Studios Hollywood's new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, part of a $1.6-billion upgrade, presents the first serious challenge to the preeminence of Disneyland, which is undergoing about $1 billion in upgrades of its own — a 14-acre expansion based on the “Star Wars” franchise.

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“The product offerings at Universal are such a high quality that they are at the same level as Disney in many aspects,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati.

As Thursday dawned, fog machines pumped out a gray swirl around the archway entrance to what is predicted to be Universal Studios Hollywood's most popular attraction ever. Haunting music from the Potter film franchise wafted over a crowd of more than 250 devotees who had been in line since before 2 a.m.

Many others followed during the day. The shops were jammed and hours-long lines formed for the Three Broomsticks restaurant and the two rides.

Some visitors reported opening-day glitches, which park officials had hoped to avoid by conducting weeks of technical rehearsals with random groups of customers.

The complex 3-D-HD dark ride, called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, broke down for a few minutes when Sarah Mahony was riding.

The projection in front of her froze and then went black, but the seat kept moving as a recorded voice repeated: “Please stay in your seats, everything is all right.” Mahony, 20, said she was nervous, but the ride quickly started working again. She chalked it up to the attraction's “first-day jitters.”

Inside the six-acre interpretation of Hogsmeade village from J.K. Rowling's seven “Harry Potter” books and the eight Warner Bros. films that followed, the varied architecture suggests a place that grew over time, complete with rust and other signs of faux age. Props from the films are sprinkled throughout. Moaning Myrtle can be heard in the bathrooms.

This kind of immersive storytelling and attention to detail not only brings the park into Disney's league, experts said, but the estimated $500-million attraction also could become such a tour de force that it cuts into Disneyland's business this summer. The stakes are high as the two parks tussle for lucrative entertainment spending by tourists and locals.

Andrew Dinh, who was roaming the Potter land with his 5-year-old-daughter, Taytum, had already spent about $500 on items including robes, wands, shirts and temporary tattoos.

“It's both for her and me,” admitted Dinh, 36, a Riverside County sheriff's deputy.

When a similar Harry Potter world opened in 2010 at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Fla., attendance jumped 30% at that park that year while visitation numbers at Disney's Magic Kingdom nearby dropped 1.5%.

“Disney might take a small dip this year because local people will decide to go to see Harry Potter,” said Gary Goddard, a theme park designer who has worked for both NBCUniversal and Walt Disney Co.

But Disneyland is not sitting idly on the sidelines. The park has started construction on the a 14-acre expansion based on the blockbuster “Star Wars” films. A completion date has yet to be announced.

“For 60 years Disney has led the industry in creating immersive theme park experiences, and we continue to raise the bar during one of the largest expansions in Disney Parks history with Star Wars-themed lands at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World,” Disneyland spokeswoman Suzi Brown said.

Strictly by the numbers, Disneyland is packed with more attractions and draws more than twice as many visitors as Universal Studios Hollywood.

But Universal Studios Hollywood's attendance has been growing faster than Disneyland's, and the L.A. park has been adding new attractions at a greater pace.

Theme parks refuse to divulge numbers, but an annual report by Los Angeles engineering firm Aecom and the Themed Entertainment Assn. trade group estimated that Disneyland hosted 16.8 million visitors in 2014, a 3.5% increase over the previous year. Universal Studios Hollywood welcomed 6.8 million visitors, an 11% increase over the previous year, the study said.

From 2010 through 2014, Universal Studios Hollywood saw annual attendance rise by 1.8 million visitors, or 36%. During the same period, Disneyland's annual attendance increased by about 800,000 visitors, or 5%.

The rapid attendance growth comes courtesy of several big-ticket attractions that Universal Studios Hollywood has added in the last four years.

In 2012, Universal Studios Hollywood opened Transformers: the Ride 3D, followed in 2014 by the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride and Super Silly Fun Land. The park launched Fast and Furious: Supercharged last year as well as Springfield, a city block of eateries inspired by the fictional town in the TV show “The Simpsons.”

Just in time to draw vacationers this summer, Universal Studios Hollywood plans to open a permanent haunted maze based on the AMC series “The Walking Dead.” The park has tapped the show's executive producer and frequent director, Gregory Nicotero, to oversee the creation of the animatronic zombies.

Although several attractions and parades have been overhauled in the last few years, Disneyland hasn't built a major ride from scratch since it added the interactive Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters in 2005.

In fact, Disneyland has closed 10 attractions and eateries — some temporarily and some permanently — to make way for the “Star Wars” expansion project near Big Thunder Mountain.

Disneyland has retooled several attractions to appeal to fans of “Star Wars,” acquired by Disney along with Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012. An underused area in the Innovations building of Tomorrowland has been converted into Star Wars Launch Bay, a hall where parkgoers can play “Star Wars” video games, buy merchandise and meet costumed characters from the films.

Universal Studios Hollywood started more than 50 years ago as a side attraction to Universal's television and movie studios.

The theme park's centerpiece has been a tram ride that lets visitors glimpse the movie-making process. Stunt shows and exhibits on makeup and special effects were added in the early years.

The park began to aim for Disney-quality attractions in 1996 with the launch of the Jurassic Park ride, based on the blockbuster directed by Steven Spielberg and featuring life-size animatronic dinosaurs.

The park added several other big-ticket attractions in the following years, including a 3-D King Kong to replace an aging automaton ape on the tram ride that burned in a 2008 fire.

The pace of new attractions accelerated soon after the park's parent company, Comcast Corp., in 2013 announced a $1.6-billion, 25-year makeover of the park and the adjacent studio facilities. In addition to new attractions, the park has built two more parking structures and a pedestrian bridge and widened two streets.

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With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Hollywood can now crow about a feature that rivals the technology and sophistication of Disneyland, said Dave Koenig, a theme park expert and author of several books on Disney.

“Universal is back in the game,” he said. “Before, one was playing checkers and one was playing chess. Now both are playing chess.”

Ana Tovar, an oil company technician from Long Beach and longtime annual pass holder at Disneyland, agrees.

“Now that they have Harry Potter, they are going to take some of Disney's customers,” she said.

Tovar was so impressed when she attended a preview of the Harry Potter attraction that she bought a Universal Studios Hollywood annual pass. Instead of buying her usual premium Disneyland pass with no blackout dates, she downgraded to a cheaper pass with more restrictions.

Does she ever plan on buying Disneyland's premium annual pass again?

“Maybe,” she said, “once they open Star Wars land.”

Twitter: @hugomartin

Times staff writer Shan Li contributed to this report.

 

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on April 08, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Harry vs. Mickey - Universal Studios Hollywood is challenging Disneyland in battle of Southland theme parks" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe

UPDATE

6:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additiona information.

This article was first published at 3 a.m.

EDITION: California | U.S. & World
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