Disney Had Harry Potter and Let It Walk Out the Door to Universal

Disney lost Harry Potter to Universal
Credit: Disney/Universal

In fairness to Disney, nearly everyone passed on Harry Potter in the 1990s. Dozens of publishers passed on the books. As the story goes, controversial writer J.K. Rowling had to use her initials rather than her full name so that no publishers would know she was a woman and someone would buy the books.

Disney lost Harry Potter to Universal

Credit: Universal

But after the release of the seven Harry Potter books, passing up the opportunity to create a Wizarding World within Disney World is inexcusable. Disney had two options to buy the Harry Potter franchise and missed out both times. The Walt Disney Company could have had the rights to nearly every franchise from your childhood: Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Disney Princesses. But instead, Disney lost out on the publication rights to the books and, years later, lost out on the chance to build their own Wizarding World. Instead, Universal bought the rights to Harry Potter and is overtaking Walt Disney World as America’s most popular Park.

As the story goes, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as it was known in the UK. When it came to America, the title would be changed to Sorcerer’s Stone)landed on the desk of Lisa Holton, head of Disney’s children’s publishing division, in 1997. She passed on the book, saying she didn’t think it was suitable for Disney publishing.

Disney lost Harry Potter to Universal

Credit: Universal

There are two schools of thought on Holton’s decision. The first is that several American publishers passed on the  Harry Potter books. But, the books had already been published in the U.K. and were a big success.

Harry Potter ended up at Scholastic Publishing and sold millions of copies. Disney even tried to buy Scholastic but failed in that pursuit as well.

The Walt Disney Company had a chance to rectify this situation a few years later. Disney was in negotiations with Rowling to create a Harry Potter-themed area in the Magic Kingdom. The idea seems small compared to what Universal has been able to develop using the franchise.

Disney’s plan was not to create an immersive land, but two Harry Potter rides within Fantasy Land, probably in place of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Rowling walked away from the deal because she believed the project was too small and Disney would not give her enough creative control.

Rowling took her franchise to Universal Studios, and look what it’s become. Disney would not have been able to create the movie franchise the way Warner Brothers did. Disney would have likely tamed the movies to make them more Disney+ friendly. And Disney would have long ago turned the Harry Potter saga into a series to capitalize on its intellectual property.

The movie worked out wonderfully for Universal Studios. Building the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has allowed Universal to constantly best Disney as America’s Best Theme Park.

Disney lost Harry Potter to Universal

Credit: Disney

The creation of Harry Potter Land would later inspire Disney to create Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which immerses Guests in the experience. But how great would it have been to see Hogwarts Castle next to Star Wars and Toy Story Land in Hollywood Studios?

Sadly, Disney did not have the vision to buy Harry Potter when they had the chance and missed out on one of the great franchises in cinema/books/Theme Park history.


About Rick

Rick is an avid Disney fan. He first went to Disney World in 1986 with his parents and has been hooked ever since. Rick is married to another Disney fan and is in the process of turning his two children into fans as well. When he is not creating new Disney adventures, he loves to watch the New York Yankees and hang out with his dog, Buster. In the fall, you will catch him cheering for his beloved NY Giants.

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