Indeed, blockbuster entertainment franchises are getting integrated into the parks with increasing frequency. Universal Studios Hollywood unveiled Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem in April, expanded with Super Silly Fun Land, the seaside carnival featured in the film. Up next: Universal is teaming with Warner Bros. to open Diagon Alley, a faithful re-creation of the London location from the "Harry Potter" films, on June 20. As part of the massive expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Florida built a Hogwarts Express train that travels to neighboring Islands of Adventure -- a shrewd way to encourage guests to purchase a $136 park-hopper pass. Universal and WB will open another Wizarding World in Osaka, Japan, in June, and they are building a third park in Hollywood that will open in 2016.
Walt Disney World also recently completed a major expansion of Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom, which includes its newest ride, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Themed lands also are being developed by Disney around the megahits "Avatar" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."
(Disney's plans for Pirates of the Caribbean: Treasure Cove)
But Disney and Comcast aren't the only media conglomerates in the theme park business: An existing park in Malaysia will be turned into 20th Century Fox World, with attractions tied to "Titanic," "Ice Age," "Rio," "Alien vs. Predator," "Night at the Museum" and "24."
"There's a symbiotic relationship between the parks and the pictures that feed off each other," says Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative for Universal Parks and Resorts, which develops the company's attractions. "We like the idea that there is some blockbuster history behind these adventures."
In each case, the investment is huge: a single ride can easily cost $100 million-$200 million -- a themed land close to $500 million. But the results can make the expense seem miniscule: A successful film franchise can impact a park's bottom line for years to come.
Of the $6.1 billion in profits Disney generated in 2013, theme parks accounted for $2.2 billion, with revenue up 9% to $14.1 billion, thanks to record attendance at Walt Disney World and the Disneyland resort. Higher ticket prices haven't hurt. For Comcast, revenue from Universal's theme parks increased 7.2% to $2.2 billion, while profits have risen from $400 million in 2009 to $1 billion in 2013.
How Hollywood thinks about the theme park business changed in 2010, when the Wizarding World first thrust Universal's Orlando resorts out from under the looming shadow long cast by nearby Walt Disney World. Ticket sales took off immediately when Wizarding World opened, with attendance at Universal's Islands of Adventure surging 30% in 2010, and another 29% in 2011, according to the Themed Entertainment Assn., which tracks the amusement biz.
"It keeps (the Potter franchise) out there in a very relevant three-dimensional experiential way," says Brad Globe, president of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, which manages the Potter and theme parks business for the company. "I don't think you could do anything more than that to keep the brand alive" in between movies.
That's particularly useful for a franchise reboot, which Warners and J.K. Rowling will attempt in late 2016, when "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," the first film of a planned "Potter" prequel trilogy, hits theaters five years after 2011's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2."
That kind of branding in perpetuity is why Comcast agreed to pay private equity firm Blackstone Group $1 billion in 2011 for the 50% stake in Universal's two Florida parks NBCU didn't already own. Blackstone, which recently bought Las Vegas' Cosmopolitan hotel and casino, had paid around $275 million for its stake in the parks in 2000.
Other theme parks took notice of the success of Wizarding World. The openings of "Cars Land" at Disney's California Adventure, and Universal's new attractions based on "King Kong," "Transformers" and "Despicable Me," as well as the construction of Springfield around "The Simpsons" ride, have followed.
(Disney's plans for the forthcoming Avatar ride)
"Theme park rides must have a long shelf life, so it helps to have a proven popular IP when making a major investment," says Mark Dvorchak, a managing partner at theme-park ride-designer Pro Forma Advisors.