×

Universal launches 'Harry Potter' theme park

Thousands of fans flocked to the grand opening of "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" on Thursday. Hundreds lined up for hours in the dark, many wearing Hogwarts robes and wielding wands.

The crowds, selling out Universal Studios Hollywood at more than $100 a ticket, speak not just to the ongoing demand for "Harry Potter" years after the films have left theaters, but to the massive demand for immersive theme park experiences. And the detail of the town of Hogsmeade unveiled in Hollywood speaks to the competition to lure visitors with far more than just roller coasters, but the feel of being inside a movie.

"Potter" world caps off a major park makeover at Universal Studios Hollywood, a renovation that's spanned four years, and remade 75 percent of the park's footprint. Despite Universal raising park ticket prices by about 20 percent last month, "The Wizarding World" is projected to help boost attendance by 20 percent this year. That's the rise that Universal Orlando in Florida saw from its "Potter" attraction when it launched in 2010.

Composer John Williams conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the debut of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, California.
Michael Newberg | CNBC
Composer John Williams conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the debut of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, California.

NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke has said the company underestimated the value of its theme park business. The investment in "Potter" attractions at both parks are an attempt to correct that, and the company is already seeing the results. The ongoing popularity of the two "Potter" areas at Universal Orlando helped drive a 27 percent increase in Universal's parks division last year.

Now "Wizarding World" will help Universal better compete with theme park juggernaut Disney. In 2014 Universal Studios Hollywood drew just 8 million guests, compared to Disneyland's 17 million and California Adventure's 9 million.

Universal is right on trend by going beyond roller coasters to build an immersive world: The fictional town of Hogsmead. In addition to the two rides — the wait for one was three hours immediately after the park opened—there's a magic wand show and a stage for costumed singers. And of course there's plenty of retail: Kiosks selling "Butterbeer" and shops selling the magic wands.

At $50 a pop these wands actually do something: Visitors can use them to "cast spells" on 11 storefront windows. (A park employee demonstrated to a kid how a certain flick of the wrist got an antique-looking chest to magically open up.)

Disney, which built the original theme parks decades ago, is also doubling down on immersive experiences. It has an "Avatar" land, called Pandora, set to launch next year. And two "Star Wars" lands, each 14 acres, are in the works for Disneyland in Anaheim, California, as well as Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

And theme parks around the world are investing in bringing movies to life. Just last month a Dubai park announced it's building 27 rides based on movies from three studios, DreamWorks Animation, Sony and Lionsgate. Straightforward roller coasters aren't enough to lure consumers to often spend more than $100 on a one-day ticket. In this era of Instagram and Snapchat, consumers want to share pictures of being transported into another world.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Studios and CNBC.