Updated March 10, 2023.
“The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.” — Albus Dumbledore
Disney and Universal. Universal and Disney. Back and forth since the early days of film and animation, these two media giants continue to push each other in an effort to be the best in entertainment. While many consumers enjoy offerings from both, there is definitely a deeper breed of “Disney” people and “other” people.
I am a Disney fan through and through, to the bottom of my heart, but several years ago, I caught up with the rest of the world when I introduced myself to J.K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter. I’ve read the books, seen the films, and visited the theme parks, and I’ve concluded my truth. It’s something I never wanted to admit, but I just can’t deny it. Disney has, without a doubt, the deepest vault of meaningful stories, but the Harry Potter series just may be my single favorite literary or film story of all time.
As a massive Disney fan, this is a big deal for me to admit, but I can’t help how I feel. The brilliantly meaningful world that J.K. Rowling wove is second to none. So you know what? Why choose between Disney and Potter? Let’s celebrate both! Join me here in looking at some of the connections shared between the worlds of Harry Potter and Disney.
The Creation of a Fantasy Legend
J.K. Rowling released her first Harry Potter book – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – in 1997. In doing so, she immediately set the literary world ablaze, creating a global phenomenon of magical people, creatures, and objects that quickly led to demand for more books, then films, and eventually entire theme park realms.
After the smashing success of Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling had to double down in order to keep up her production of a story so craved by fantasy-seekers worldwide. She completed the last book in her Harry Potter series – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – in 2007. By then, five of Rowling’s seven books had already been converted to films by Warner Bros., with film adaptations of her final two books on the way, pending her completion of the books. That’s a lot of pressure for one creative genius! Rowling managed to stay ahead of the demand, keeping the books rolling out every year or two on average. The films kept a similar release pace, with the last of the series – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – hitting theaters in November 2011. The story was told, on paper and on film. The world swooned, then wanted more.
The Theme Park Wars
Two of the world’s largest media giants – Disney and Universal – who also happen to be the two largest theme park giants, were both battling for the rights to bring Rowling’s magical world to their park. In 2004 – smack in the middle of the Harry Potter decade – Rowling signed a letter of intent with the Walt Disney Company to explore options for a theme park partnership. Disney put some of their best creative thought into the Harry Potter franchise, and came up with…very little.
The Little World that Couldn’t
According to Disney historian Jim Hill, Disney’s master plan for Rowling’s world included two relatively minor attractions – a shooting ride using wands (think Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin) and a magical creatures petting zoo – along with a minimally-themed restaurant and a gift shop, all shoved into a small mini-land offset from Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland. That’s it.
With Disney’s ideas being creatively underwhelming, and Disney refusing to offer Rowling and film partner Warner Bros. strict creative control over the development of the land, the deal fell through. In 2007, Universal swept in, gave Rowling the creative control she sought, and by 2010 opened Harry Potter – Hogsmeade in Orlando. The immersion created by Universal and Rowling was richer and deeper than anything seen before in a theme park. Universal Orlando followed the success of Hogsmeade by adding Diagon Alley (and the Hogwarts Express) in 2014. Universal Studios Hollywood opened their own Hogsmeade land in 2016.
Park Hopping Meets Train Hopping
Always pushing the pioneering spirit, Walt Disney World introduced the Park Hopping system in 2005, which allowed guests to pay a little extra for their park ticket for the privilege of being able to visit multiple parks during the same day. Universal Studios has historically been the copy cat in theme park innovations, but in 2014, Universal turned the park hopping option on its head when it offered guests the ability to ride the Hogwarts Express between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.
The iconic train ride seamlessly connects both magical portions of the Wizarding World, but the ability to ride the train is only possible if you have a multi-park ticket (which, of course, costs guests a few more dollars). I must admit, I’ve never been big on park hopping, as I feel it takes too much time out of an already busy day. But this offering from Universal turned park hopping into an experience not to be missed.
The smashing success of the Wizarding World, as these areas are now collectively known, swung the theme park pendulum towards Universal in a magnitude none could imagine. As a result, Disney was forced to step up their own immersion game, leading to the development of Cars Land, Pandora, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and Toy Story Land. In the end, we consumers are the big winners of this clash of the theme park titans.
While the Wizarding World may have slipped away from Disney, there are still many fun film connections shared between the two. Let’s explore them here.
Harry Potter and Ron Weasley
For all the connections that the cast of the Harry Potter films share with the Disney universe, two of the story’s three largest roles – Harry Potter and Ron Weasley – have no direct Disney connections.
Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the titular role of Harry, had been rumored to be considered for a role in an upcoming Marvel project based on the comic Moon Night, but Radcliffe himself debunked those rumors. Rupert Grint, who amuses audiences as Harry’s best friend Ron, has no direct connection to Disney.
Emma Watson, on the other hand, made the leap from Hogwarts to Fantasyland, playing the role of Belle in the 2017 live action remake of Beauty and the Beast. It was a perfectly suited role, with Belle and Hermione both being such strong, well educated characters.
Watson had previously been offered the role of Cinderella in the 2015 live action remake, but she turned it down, noting a lack of connection with the character. I think she made the perfect choice, since she’s the perfect Belle, but can you imagine if she played two Disney princesses?
Emma Watson may have said ‘no’ to Cinderella, but Helena Bonham Carter – who brilliantly plays the maniacal evil wizard Bellatrix LeStrange – said ‘yes’. She wasn’t the title character, but instead took a turn at playing the Fairy Godmother, a role very much outside the sphere of characters for which she is best known.
But Fairy Godmother wasn’t Bonham Carter’s only Disney role. She also played the queen of Hearts in both of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland remakes, as well as Red Harrington in The Lone Ranger.
Since we’re in a roll with Cinderella, let’s recognize Kenneth Brannagh – who played the fraudulent Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – for directing Disney’s live action blockbuster. Brannagh took a turn in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when he directed Thor, and he also directed Artemis Fowl.
Brannagh – an accomplished Shakespearean actor – parodied this classic style to perfection in his role as Professor Lockhart.
By far the most tortured soul in the wizarding world, Severus Snape is the one everyone hated – until they loved him. He was played in haunting fashion by Alan Rickman, who’s single most memorable movie moment might be falling from the 30th floor of Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard.
But Rickman did have a couple dips in the Disney pool, playing the blue caterpillar Absolem in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland remakes, and voicing Marvin the Paranoid Android in Touchstone’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Speaking of Marvin the Paranoid Android – he may have been voiced by Alan Rickman, but he was played by actor Warwick Davis, who was known throughout Hogwarts as Professor Filius Flitwick.
Davis is best known to Star Wars fans for his role as the Ewok Wicket W. Warrick in Return of the Jedi. Davis also played minor roles in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Star Wars Rebels, and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.
Maggie Smith’s Professor Minerva McGonagall was tough to take in Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, but she grew to be loved as the strict professor with a tough exterior and a heart of gold.
Smith also prayed to the beat with Whoopi Goldberg in Disney’s Sister Act.
When I think of Emma Thompson, I tend to think of charming, dignified, classically stylish characters. Professor Trelawney is more a comic book character than anything I would have expected from Emma Thompson, but Thompson plays the quirky, nervous divination professor with unexpected humor and grace.
Thompson has been busy over the years in the Disney Studios, playing Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, and voicing several animated characters, including Mrs. Potts in the 2017 Beauty and the Beast remake, Queen Elinor in Pixar’s Brave, and Captain Amelia in Treasure Planet. Thompson is also be seen in Cruella – a 2021 prequel to the Disney classic 101 Dalmatians.
Do you know who else was in Pixar’s Brave? Robbie Coltrane, who plays the hot-tempered Lord Dingwall. Coltrane is immortalized in the wizarding world as the gentle half-giant Hagrid.
Coltrane also played the Duke in The Adventures of Huck Finn.
The patriarch of the Weasley family is endlessly curious about what we Muggles would consider “mundane” items. His fascination led him to found the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office – a division within the Ministry of Magic.
But Arthur Weasley actor Mark Williams displayed a much different interest in a Disney film – for a certain type of spotted puppy. Williams played the part of Cruella DeVil’s henchman Horace in the 1996 live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians.
Ron Weasley comes from quite a large family of red headed wizards. His oldest sibling is his brother Bill, who is long known to have been training dragons in Romania. Bill finally makes his franchise appearance in the two-part Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and is played by Domhnall Gleason. His role in both of these films is relatively small, but he plays a larger role in Wizarding World attraction Escape from Gringotts at Universal Studios Orlando’s Diagon Alley.
Gleason plays a despicable role in the Star Wars universe as General Hux in the sequel trilogy (and in the associated Star Tours clips at several Disney parks). Outside Star Wars, Gleason played writer A.A. Milne in Fox Searchlight’s Goodbye Christopher Robin.
The Dursley family is comically hateable. The most apparent Harry hater is Mr. Vernon Dursley, but the most tragic sentiments come from his Aunt Petunia – the only blood relative Harry has in the world.
Aunt Petunia is played by actor Fiona Shaw, who was recently spotted housing a sympathizer to the Rebellion in the 2022 Star Wars television series Andor. In the series, Shaw plays Maarva – Andor’s adoptive mother-of-sorts.
The Wizarding World’s favorite ghostly bathroom dweller, Myrtle Warren (belovedly known as Moaning Myrtle) loves to cry and scream her sob story. As she would tell it, she died suddenly to a pair of yellow eyes while hiding out in the girls bathroom (she was in there crying after Olive Hornby made fun of her glasses). Ever since, she’s made a point of spreading her (somehow whimsical) sadness throughout the Hogwarts bathrooms. Guests visiting Hogsmeade Village in either of Universal Studios’ Wizarding World lands will hear Myrtle moaning in the restrooms right by the castle.
Myrtle was played by actor Shirley Henderson, who also provided the voice of one of the more popular characters in the Star Wars sequel trilogy – Babu Frick. The Anzellan droidsmith was introduced to fans in 2019’s Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, as he was tasked with bypassing C-3PO’s programming restrictions in order to gain critical information on the location of the Emperor’s First Order fleet. Henderson reprised her Star Wars role in season 3 of The Mandalorian – this time providing the voices for several Anzellans in a truly comical moment with Mando and Grogu.
The shabby-looking wizard with a heart of gold and an unfortunate moonlight condition became one of the most beloved over the course of the Harry Potter franchise. In the end, he gave his life fighting for Harry (and against he-who-shall-not-be-named).
Lupin was played by actor David Thewlis, who had a brush with Disney in 1996’s James and the Giant Peach, as the voice of Mr. Earthworm.
Harry’s godfather – once an inmate at the frightening Azkaban Prison, is played by Gary Oldman.
Oldman had three voice roles in Disney’s 2009 remake of A Christmas Carol. He voiced Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, and Tiny Tim.
File under: separated at birth.
I’ll just leave this one right here…
Stories With Heart
Growing up a life-long Disney fan, one of the things I value most about a good Disney film is the storytelling, and the heart at the center of it. The heart and soul present in Disney films are so often absent in similar genre films from competing studios. To appreciate this statement, let’s look at a few comparable franchises where Disney excels over the competition, and then circle back to see how Harry Potter compares to Disney in the art of storytelling.
Toy Story and Minions
Minions is, without a doubt, a marketing and entertainment juggernaut. The films are witty, funny, snappy, and laugh-out-loud entertaining. If you want jokes and gags, as Walt Disney did in the earliest days of animation, then Dreamworks is your place.
Toy Story, on the other hand, is more sweet, reminiscent, and heart-felt. Characters and their relationships deepen over the course of the franchise, to the point where audience members develop a significant relationship with the characters and their stories. Have you ever been inclined to shed a tear while watching Despicable Me? Most folks would probably say no. But I dare you to stay dry at the end of Toy Story 3.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and DC Comics
Beginning in 2008, Disney took several of the slightly less popular comic heroes of our time – Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America – and built around them a brilliantly woven, connected universe chronicling the timeless battle of good vs. evil. Each character in the ever-expanding MCU has their own story, their own cause. But larger circumstances brought them together, ultimately facing a common enemy in a fight for humanity on a galactic scale.
DC Comics (and their film production partners) have taken the most popular comic heroes – Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, among others – and consistently retooled and rebooted them. They have reinvented the characters and stories over and over again, resulting in a disconnected, incoherent universe of independent and conflicting stories. Recent attempts to group these heroes together in films have been underwhelming. The common drawback to most of these films is the lack of consistent, well-thought-out storytelling.
Dr. Seuss and Recent Disney/Pixar Films
The whimsical world of Dr. Seuss is rich with imagination, interesting characters, and striking visual sights. Universal Studios in Orlando does a good job of capturing the spirit of Dr. Seuss, but the recent slew of Seuss-based films have definitely missed the mark. The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who, The Grinch – they are all nice films, humorous, fun in spots. But for me, none of them really hit home. They fall just a little flat.
Recent Disney and Pixar films and franchises rival the whimsy that Theodore Geisel – Dr. Seuss himself – wrote in his day. Zootopia presents a multi-faceted society of animals facing real world society issues. Wreck-It-Ralph brings a unique vision to the mysterious world of electronic gaming and communication. Choose any Pixar film and you’ll find a story chock full of heart and character value (sometimes almost to a fault for films aimed at younger audiences). Along with imagination, Disney brings heart and soul to these recent tales.
In creating and writing Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling didn’t simply write a fantasy series starring wizards, dragons, and magic. She created a world full of wonder, but more importantly, a world full of heart. We as readers, moviegoers, or theme park visitors can identify with the characters, who face real (yet still magical) issues, much like we do in our lives.
In the recent history of cinema, Rowling’s Harry Potter series feels unique to me in the way it actually rivals Disney in the storytelling department. Rowling created an amazing, magical world when she first wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and she continued to deepen that world with each following installment in the series. New characters were introduced over time, and they were woven seamlessly into the story. Some departed, some remained, but all served a meaningful purpose in the greater good of the tale being told.
Most of all, Rowling infused the world of wizards with a measure of love that will forever stand up to some of the greatest literary and film works of all time. The love three young friends share for each other as they make their journey through school. The love a school headmaster displays for all students and faculty in the castle they consider home. The ultimate sacrifice a mother makes to protect her infant son. And perhaps most amazingly, the enduring love of a misunderstood outsider for the love of his life, and the burdensome, thankless task he carries in her honor, for the remainder of his life. These feelings and emotions are incredibly powerful, and are prevalent throughout the entire Harry Potter book and film franchise.
The love, the loyalty, the courage, and the strength put forth in the Harry Potter universe rivals anything and everything Disney has created. As a lifelong Disney fan, I do not say that lightly, or with any disrespect toward Disney’s amazing collection of stories. I say it as an acknowledgement of the talent of J.K. Rowling, and the filmmakers who took her magical world of wizards and served it to us in a feast worthy of Hogwarts.
I hope you enjoyed your trip through the story of Harry Potter and Disney. How about you? Do you prefer the Wizarding World, or Fantasyland? Or perhaps a tasty helping of both?
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