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Theme parks develop ‘blockbuster worlds’ based on movie franchises

My, how the worlds have changed.

Worlds. Plural. As in “blockbuster worlds.” As in immersive theme park experiences that plop you into a snowy, shivery kingdom (“Frozen”), a mysterious alien planet (“Avatar”) or a futuristic flight of fantasy (“Star Wars”).

Used to be that theme park goers would find themselves in the Wild West or Bavaria. But now the goal is to create walk-through versions of the universes fans see in popular franchise movies, TV shows and video games.

For this we can thank the Boy Wizard, whose Wizarding World of Harry Potter changed the theme park landscape when it opened at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Florida in 2010.

As theme park goers look to the future, that may be the model they experience.

Skeptics scoffed when Universal announced plans for the Wizarding World. No longer.

The Potter series wasn’t an endless chain of sequels, prequels or reboots but rather a cohesive world built around a long-form story beloved by fans.

“The [Potter] films and books were such an incredibly rich world it would have been impossible to encompass in a single attraction,” Dave Cobb, vice president of creative development at Thinkwell, a Los Angeles-based theme park design firm, said in an email.

In the post-Potter world it is no longer enough to build a ride based on a movie like “Transformers,” “Iron Man” or “Finding Nemo.” You have to be able to walk into the world and inhabit it.

Yesterday’s Star Tours motion-simulator rides will soon be superseded by tomorrow’s Star Wars Lands at Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida that will let visitors step into remote spaceports at the edge of the galaxy.

In recent years, Cars Land raced into Disney’s California Adventure in 2012, the Potter-themed Diagon Alley materialized at Universal Studios Florida in 2014 and Treasure Cove (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) showed up this summer at Shanghai Disneyland in China.

Other parks have followed the trend: Toy Story Land at Walt Disney Studios Park in France, “Shrek” and “Madagascar” lands at Universal Studios Singapore and an entire theme park dedicated to Ferrari sports cars in Abu Dhabi.

Up next: Arendelle (“Frozen”) at Tokyo DisneySea and Pandora (“Avatar”) at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2017, Star Wars Land at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2018 (or later) and a Nintendo land at Universal Studios Japan in 2020.

Universal is borrowing from Islands of Adventure’s single-franchise approach for its new park in Beijing, which will have Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, Madagascar and Shrek lands when it opens in 2019 or 2020.

The trend could define the Disney-Universal rivalry for the foreseeable future and trigger a land rush for the remaining intellectual properties powerful enough to attract a sizable audience.

Comcast’s recent acquisition of DreamWorks Animation puts the “Kung Fu Panda” and “Ice Age” franchises in the Universal column. Other properties have struck deals with smaller theme parks: “Hunger Games” (at the new Motiongate Dubai), “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (Minnesota’s Nickelodeon Universe), “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible” (London Paramount park opening in 2021) and “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” (Spain’s the Shire opening in 2018).

The list of unclaimed but enduring franchises is short: James Bond, “Game of Thrones,” “Twilight,” “Chronicles of Narnia,” “Planet of the Apes,” “The Matrix” and “Doctor Who.”

There are still plenty of major franchises controlled by Disney and Universal that could be turned into theme park lands.

“We’re hoping an ‘Incredibles’ blockbuster world is on the drawing boards,” Brent Young, president and creative director of Super 78, a Los Angeles-based theme park design firm, said in an email.

Other possibilities for Disney include lands based on “Monsters Inc.,” “Finding Nemo” and “Ratatouille.” A Marvel-themed land has long been the subject of speculation at Disney’s California Adventure.

Universal could develop themed lands based on “Shrek,” “Jurassic Park,” “Fast & Furious,” “Despicable Me,” “Terminator,” “The Mummy” and “Men in Black.” Even Six Flags could get in on the trend with individual “Batman,” “Superman,” “Justice League” and “Suicide Squad” lands based on the DC Comics super heroes and villains.

“Imagine if Disney created a sci-fi kingdom where Avatar, Star Wars and Marvel lived together,” Young said. “This park would organize itself around these mega-franchises in a logical way. This might feel more organic than adding blockbuster worlds to parks with an existing or even conflicting concepts.”

Thinkwell based the design of the 100-acre Monkey Kingdom theme park in Beijing on the Chinese stories of the Monkey King in the 16th century book “Journey to the West,” Cobb said.

“In essence, it's actually a single-franchise park, but we found that the Chinese audience gravitated towards different parts of the 100-odd chapters of the original novel for different reasons,” Cobb said. “So, we divided the park into complementary lands that highlight the stories in tonally, experientially different ways.”

Super 78 is developing a novel that could become the basis for a new blockbuster world proposed for prehistoric-themed Dinosaurland in Changzhou, China, Young said.

“It’s different, yet it’s a smart move,” Young said. “With a novel, all the questions are answered, just like Harry Potter.”

Not every franchise lends itself to a brand land, Thinkwell’s Cobb said. The “Transformers” franchise works well at Universal parks as a high-octane thrill ride, but Cobb would not want to visit Cybertron, the fictional planet where the heroic Autobots battle the evil Decepticons in an epic war.

“Could a Transformers Land sustain multiple attractions without those experiences feeling repetitive?” Cobb asked. “My instinct says no. And that one attraction, plus clever walk-around character appearances, is a far better use of the brand.”

Both Disney and Universal have single-franchise lands that remain cautionary tales in the theme park industry. A Bug’s Land, based on the 1998 “A Bug’s Life,” was conceived as a quick fix to the shortage of kids’ rides at Disney California Adventure but only reinforced the notion that the themed land at the universally panned park was built on the cheap.

In 2011, Universal Studios Japan scrapped the munchkin buildings and yellow brick road in the short-lived Land of Oz after only a few seasons.

So what’s next? Could Universal or Disney build an entire park based on a single movie franchise? Could Disney create a Marvel Park with lands for Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, the X-Men and the Avengers? Would Universal ever create a Horror Nights Park with lands haunted by the monsters from “The Walking Dead,” “Friday the 13th,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Halloween,” “Scream,” “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity”?

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