At the beginning of 2010, just a few months before the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, attendance at Universal Orlando suddenly slumped.
The number of visitors to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure sank 10 percent in the first quarter when compared with same period a year earlier. The sharp drop reversed a trend in 2009 in which Universal had been reporting progressively narrower year-over-year declines.
The most likely reason, experts agreed at the time, was that consumers were opting to hold off visiting Universal until the $265 million Wizarding World, in development for three years, finally opened to guests.
Universal may soon face the same problem again.
Construction is now well underway in Universal Studios on what industry followers widely believe will be the next phase of Wizarding World -- a second Potter land, likely themed to London, rising on the former site of the Jaws ride and its Amity Island-themed setting. Universal, for its part, has not confirmed that the work is Potter-related, though it has said Wizarding World will be "significantly expanded" in Orlando.
Although no opening date has been set, most expect the second phase of Potter will debut sometime in 2014 or 2015. The closer that moment gets, the greater the threat that travelers will once again opt to defer their visits to the resort.
Universal already appears to be taking steps to ensure travelers don't wait. Just two months after finally confirming last December that it would expand Wizarding World, the Orlando resort unveiled a laundry list of additions for 2012. They included a new character parade and nightly lagoon show, to go along with the new Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem ride, a renovated Amazing Adventures of Spider-Manride, and a revamped Blue Man Group show.
Universal has also taken steps to infuse a sense of urgency into its advertising, branding 2012 as "The Year to Be Here."
"We have created more new entertainment experiences across our entire destination in 2012 than during any other year in our history, and our guests tell us they love all of it," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said. "Beyond that, we continue to be excited by the number of people who specifically choose Universal Orlando for their family vacation. We will continue to do what we have always done, which is to create great guest experiences for our guests."
In addition to the work at the former Jaws site, crews recently demolished a long-vacant sound stage in the middle of Universal Studios. A large construction crane now looms over the site, fueling rumors that Universal is building a copy of Transformers: The Ride 3D, which opened this spring in Universal Studios Hollywood and powered that park to its best Memorial Day weekend yet.
Universal declined to discuss its plans for the sound-stage site. But experts say that, whatever it is, it will likely serve to plug the gap between now and Potter's second act.
"They'll probably push Transformers through the pipeline and drive the resort's 'wow' factor by beefing up their entertainment festivals like Mardi Gras and Macy's with an enhanced lineup of musical acts and other entertainment," said Vicki Johnson, a tourism-marketing expert in Orlando.
Universal should also get a hand from its competitors. Walt Disney World, for instance, will be spending heavily in 2013 and 2014 to market its $425 million Fantasyland expansion in the Magic Kingdom theme park. And SeaWorld Orlando will be promoting the attraction Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, which the marine park has billed as the largest addition in its history. It is scheduled to open next year.
Experts say the original Wizarding World, which has lifted Universal Orlando to unprecedented gains in attendance and guest spending, is so compelling with consumers that Universal is likely to benefit from a halo effect the next couple of years as travelers drawn by Disney and SeaWorld make time for Harry Potter, too.
Another factor in Universal's favor: Alice Norsworthy, the resort's widely respected executive vice president of marketing and sales. Johnson said Norsworthy, who worked at Disney World and for Royal Caribbean International before joining Universal in 2008, "is steeped in the nuances of bridging the gaps between major projects."
"The one factor beyond their immediate control is how aggressive the Harry Potter franchise will be in sustaining its Beatlemania-like appeal," Johnson said. "The Harry Potter collection of films will be released on DVD in September, but it won't be long until this next generation of muggles will be relied upon to sustain the wave."
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