Sometimes theme park legends can take on a life of their own. Today’s example: Does J.K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter book series) personally have a tight control over every aspect of Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Recently we got the following email from TPU reader Eric:
I was recently at the WWoHP at Universal Orlando and asked for a double helping of foam on top of my butterbeer. The request was quickly shot down by the cast member – even when I offered to pay full price for a whole cup of it! A few days later I decided to ask a different cast member to put the foam on the bottom instead of the top (surely since I wasn’t asking for anything ‘extra’ it would be ok). Nope! “Will the Ministry of Magic come after you if you do?”, I asked. “Even worse”, the cast member responded, “I’ll get fired! It’s J.K. Rowling’s rule.”
Is this really the case? It seems Warner Bros., Universal, and Rowling are all leaving money on the table! Is this the kind of control that kept Disney uninterested in working with her?
Eric, this may be my favorite question I’ve received since starting Theme Park University. First, I’ll answer your Disney question. No, the reason Disney couldn’t make a deal with J.K. Rowling didn’t have a lot to do with her control. Rather (and this is a much longer story), Disney didn’t really see the full potential in the Harry Potter series at the time of negotiation.
Universal was willing to throw much more money, land and resources at the project than Disney was willing to during negotiations. Another thing to keep in mind? At the time, Universal was notorious for getting the licenses to other popular franchises in order to beef up the offerings in their parks. We covered it in depth several years ago in this article. While Disney does do license deals every once in a while, it’s not their norm. When they do? They want a larger percentage of profit than anyone else in the theme park business.
It’s important to remember the bigger picture when it comes to control over the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Parks. Yes, J.K. Rowling wrote the books. However, she sold the movie rights to Warner Brothers. The vast majority of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a representation of the films Warner Brothers created with a few nods to the book series (things that didn’t make it into the films) sprinkled in.
Warner Brothers has a group known as Global Themed Entertainment who oversees how WB films, cartoons and shows are integrated into attractions. Their job is to work with companies like Universal to ensure product integrity. Warner Brothers mostly licenses their intellectual property to outside companies for attractions. This means the GTE team makes sure that Hagrid is accurate to the HP films and Bugs Bunny looks like Bugs at Six Flags.
Thus, when making decisions about how the Wizarding World looks, sounds and even tastes, Warner Brothers actually has more control over the land than J.K. Rowling does. So to recap: Rowling wrote the books, Warner Brothers made movies based on those books, Universal made a land based primarily on those movies. This is why Hagrid (for example) is made to look like Robbie Coltraine’s portrayal of him instead of a totally different guy or one Universal Parks decided to make up.
Another way to look at it is through the lens of Alice in Wonderland. Most people think of the Disney versions (either animated or the Tim Burton live action) when Alice comes to mind. However, the Lewis Carol books are in the public domain sine the book was published before 1928. Meaning anyone can use Alice In Wonderland as a theme to open a theme park land, an escape room or a bar (and many have). The difference is, you can’t use Disney’s copyrighted version of Alice and company or else you’ll likely find yourself in court.
Many attractions have created their own Alice in Wonderland rides, shows and restaurants over the years that don’t step on Disney copyright infringements. Universal decided not to come up with their own version of Harry Potter characters and buildings. If they did, in theory, J.K. Rowling would have more control over the Wizarding World of Harry Potter than she currently does.
This is not to say she has zero control. Now let’s add in another layer of complexity. Most likely you’ve never heard of The Blair Partnership. TBP represents J.K. Rowling and a list of other authors. Their job is to work with authors to keep the integrity of their books as they get licensed into merchandise, television specials and even theme park attractions.
Thus, The Blair Partnership goes to bat for J.K. anytime someone wants to pitch an idea about the Harry Potter series and license it for any reason. As an agent, they negotiate the deal, they approve the design and the final product and more times than not, Rowling isn’t even involved. Think of it this way, does J.K. Rowling need to be involved in the making of every Harry Potter keychain sold in the world? That’s a waste of time and resources, but ultimately that is what The Blair Partnership is for.
This is the point where I expect Universal Team Members who work in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to chime in. “Theme Park University doesn’t know what they are talking about. We take a class in all things Harry Potter. In that class, we learn that J.K. Rowling had say over everything in the land. Thus, if you give out extra foam on a Butterbeer, she’s going to find out and get really mad. Possibly shut us down!”
Sometimes, if you take a kernel of truth and you slowly embellish it over time, it seems to become “fact”. After all, Rowling herself doesn’t show up to these classes to say “Better not give out extra foam on that Butterbeer or I’m shutting this place down!” Rather, what the class curriculum does say is that J.K. was involved in every aspect of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter during its conception and opening.
This does not mean that she was at tons of meetings saying things like “I like one pump of foam on the top of the Butterbeer, no more, no less.” It would be like she’d have to approve every sign, every font and every piece of merchandise. That’s time-consuming, overwhelming and frankly not her forte.
Also, if J.K. Rowling cared so much about what happens at the Wizarding World at Universal Parks, wouldn’t she show up more often to check on it? Even when Hagrid’s Magical Motorbike Adventure opened, she didn’t even bother to show up. To date, I can’t find record of her being in the park since the attraction opened. Maybe she showed up in the middle of the night?Where was she at the opening of Diagon Alley? I’m not saying she had no input (she did), but to say she’s got this mega control over a product she doesn’t even bother to come out and see… don’t you think there is a bit of a disconnect there?
If she really was that controlling over the Wizarding World at Universal Parks, wouldn’t she be involved in the interview process of each new hire? After all, they are the stewards of the Harry Potter books and films within Universal Parks. What they say and do can make or break someone’s vacation and how they perceive what she’s worked so hard to build.
Rather, The Blair Group, Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling trust Universal Parks (within the terms of their agreement) to hire and train the appropriate people to work within the Wizarding World. This is actually the simplest way to understand the relationship between all these entities.
Finally, Eric, let’s answer your question: why wouldn’t they just give you some extra foam for that Butterbeer? After all, you’re willing to pay. Does Universal, Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling not like money? This would make sense because they all benefit from that purchase.
This actually has more to do with product integrity. At the end of the day, I can’t think of a single more Instragrammable food in Universal Parks than Butterbeer. The look of a Butterbeer is extremely important to the integrity of the product. So is the taste. If you add extra form (or take it away entirely) it is no longer a Butterbeer. It’s a different drink.
Unlike a Starbucks that can customize drinks for you, they aren’t modeled after a very particular drink characterized in books and movies. If Ron Weezley asked for a Butterbeer with two shots of foam in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, maybe that would be an option for you to purchase in the parks.
Hopefully that answers your question Eric. If you’d like Theme Park University to tackle a theme park topic you’ve always wondered about, shoot us an email!
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