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Harry Potter's world coming to Universal Studios Japan

Universal Studios Japan plans to build the first international version of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Osaka. The attraction is to open in late 2014.

May 10, 2012|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Harry Potter fans can look forward to a theme park that's all about the boy wizard at Universal Studios Japan in the not-too-distant future. The park will be the first international version of the blockbuster attraction in Orlando, Fla.
Harry Potter fans can look forward to a theme park that's all about… (Phelan M. Ebenhack, Bloomberg )

Having cast a spell in Orlando and planted his flag in Los Angeles, Harry Potter is now taking his theme park magic across the Pacific.

Universal Studios Japan on Thursday will unveil plans to build the first international version of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the blockbuster attraction that has drawn millions of fans to Universal's Orlando resort and is expected to do the same at a planned Hollywood location.

The Osaka destination, which will begin construction in the next few weeks with a planned opening in late 2014, is the latest in a series of expansions underway at major parks around the world that has followed an uptick in attendance, particularly in Asia. Costing $500 million, the new park brings Hogwarts Castle and rides including Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey to the boy wizard's biggest market outside of the United States.

The eight Potter movies grossed nearly $900 million in Japan, more than in his home country of Great Britain. Products including magic wand chopsticks have made the Harry Potter brand Japan's most successful movie-based consumer products line of the last decade.

But the book and film series are both complete, and fans who have grown into their 20s and 30s are buying fewer toys. The boy wizard is in need of a business transformation. The answer from Warner Bros., which owns the licensing rights to author J.K. Rowling's books, is theme parks. Potter has driven a stunning 68% increase in attendance at Universal Orlando in early 2011 compared to the same period a year ago and spurred fans to spend millions on butterbeer during their visits and paraphernalia on their way out.

"This type of immersion is what the fans crave more than buying traditional merchandise," said Brad Globe, Warner Bros. consumer products president. "Our strategy is focused on theme parks because it's a different experience. They've read the books and seen the movies, but now they can enter the world."

Universal Studios Japan is just the latest park planning a costly upgrade. Cashing in on growing attendance despite the sluggish world economy, market leader Walt Disney Co. is spending $4.5 billion to build a new park in Shanghai, $1 billion to upgrade Anaheim's California Adventure, and $500 million on a new Orlando attraction based on James Cameron's "Avatar."

Universal, meanwhile, plans a major expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, in addition to the version in Los Angeles. And new Universal-branded parks are in the works in South Korea, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Russia.

"Across the board, theme park developers are doubling down on renovations and expansions," said Nima Samidi, an industry analyst at IBISWorld. "There's particularly a lot of activity in Asia because it's a fast-growing market that has a fascination with Western culture."

Revenue at Disney's theme park unit grew 10% in the company's last fiscal year to $11.8 billion, and Universal's was up 24% to $2 billion.

At Universal Studios Japan, which is owned by private investors including investment bank Goldman Sachs but licenses its name from the Comcast-owned American entertainment giant, executives used extensive research to gauge public interest in a Harry Potter attraction.

In a country of 127 million, they said, more than 80 million tickets to Potter films have been bought and about 24 million books have been sold, giving the story of the orphan turned hero magician four spots among Japan's top 10 all-time bestsellers.

"Magical coming-of-age stories play very well in Japan, particularly when they're about the balance between ordinary life and something fantastical," said Glenn Gumpel, president of Universal Studios Japan.

Similarly themed works such as the animated movie "Spirited Away" from director Hayao Miyazaki and Nintendo's video game series "The Legend of Zelda" are among the nation's most popular works of pop culture.

Slated to be open in less than three years, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Japan may start selling tickets before the Los Angeles park opens in 2016. That's because at Universal Studios Hollywood, there's no room for expansion. Existing attractions must be demolished or renovated to make room for magic.

In Osaka, meanwhile, the Wizarding World will be built alongside existing rides based on Spider-Man, "Jurassic Park" and "Jaws."

"We're already growing and expect we'll get millions more people once we launch Harry Potter," said Gumpel, whose park drew more than 9 million people last year.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a cash cow for Warner Bros., which gets a substantial upfront free for each Universal attraction and a share of admissions and merchandise sales. In addition, Warner conducts tours of the soundstage in Leavesden, Britain, where the "Potter" films were shot.

And though there are few rival parks, besides the ones owned by rival Disney, that would be natural homes for Potter rides, the studio already has its eye on eventually launching more Wizarding Worlds.

"A lot of work goes into building these parks, so we're probably at the limit of what we could manage at the moment," Globe said. "But if some other great opportunity for Harry Potter presents itself, we would certainly take a look at it."

In a statement, Rowling gave her stamp of approval to the newest addition to her Harry Potter empire.

"I was delighted to experience and enjoy the attention to detail, creativity and superb craft that went into the first Wizarding World in Orlando," she said. "I am equally delighted that the same level of expertise and enjoyment will translate to the new park in Japan."

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