From top to bottom, the state of Florida is filled with distinctly ‘Floridian’ features, yet in one corner of Orlando it’s possible to experience the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of London. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has been one of Universal Orlando’s calling cards ever since it opened in 2010 with the help of PR pro, Alyson Lundell.
Lundell is Fluent in Floridian. As the Director of Public Relations at Universal Orlando, Alyson has a hand in one our state’s biggest economic drivers in the theme park industry. With over 120 million tourists projected to take trips to Florida, there needs to be something for everyone. Guests at Universal can expect for their vacation to be an immersive experience – right down to the Butterbeer taste tested by J.K. Rowling herself.
Listen as Alyson sits down with SMPR president Heidi Otway to discuss her last decade working with Universal Orlando, the way the PR landscape has shifted since the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and her best advice for young professionals in PR.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders, talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m Chris Cate and in this episode created by SalterMitchell PR, Heidi Otway, the President of SalterMitchell PR talks to Alyson Lundell, the Senior Director of Public Relations for Universal Orlando. In their conversation, they talk about Alyson’s passion for theme parks and the path that led her to Universal. They also discuss tips for visiting Universal, the marketing campaign for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and how Universal tries to keep visitors coming back again and again. And you can hear it all right now.
Heidi Otway: So Alyson, thanks for being on our podcast today. For someone who’s worked at Universal, you must love being around theme parks. Is that a love you’ve had since you were a child growing up in Florida?
Alyson Lundell: Oh my gosh, I am so excited to be with you guys, and yes, I’m a Florida native, one of the rare ones, and I grew up going to theme parks and attractions with my parents, so going into this career and being a part of the other side of it now is just a dream come true for me.
Heidi Otway: So when you were growing up, was there a ride or a particular park that was more memorable than others for you?
Alyson Lundell: It’s funny ’cause I’m from Winter Haven, Florida where Cypress Gardens originated, and so I spent a lot of time going to Cypress Gardens as a kid, which was technically Florida’s very first theme park is what they used to call themselves. But I will say that Circus World, which was in Davenport, Florida, not far from I-4 and some of the other Central Florida attractions that are bigger today, was where I first really got my love for rides and just major attractions. And I remember going on a wooden coaster that they had with my Dad and absolutely loving it. So that was kinda my gateway into the theme park world.
Heidi Otway: I remember Circus World and definitely Cypress Gardens because I grew up in Florida as well. So let’s talk about how you got into your career at Universal Studios. So at what point did you ever think that you’d be working for a theme park? Was it something that you considered in college?
Alyson Lundell: You know it’s funny, when I was in college, and I went to Florida State University, I did a lot of different internships as all college students do, and I ended up working for one summer a very small Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in my hometown. So we talked about and promoted Cypress Gardens and some of the other things that you could come and do and see in Polk County. So, it was very small, but I loved it, and I loved being able to talk about where I was from and the unique things that you could do in our area, and I realized this might be a thing for me. So when I went through my college career and graduated in PR, that CVB actually offered me a job. So I went into it there and started to meet a lot of other people in the industry in tourism in Florida. I eventually ended up, and this was after a few different jumps, but I ended up at the Visit Orlando Convention and Visitor’s Bureau here in Orlando. And absolutely loved my time there. I was there for almost four years and that’s how I really met the Universal Orlando folks, and they gave me a shot when they came looking for a rep in 2008, and it has been the best decision I could have ever made for my career.
Heidi Otway: Wow, that just sounds so exciting. And for young people that may be listening to this podcast, I’m sure you guys have thousands and thousands of people that want to work for Universal. How should they position themselves if they wanted to come and work in such a dynamic location?
Alyson Lundell: I think one thing, ’cause we have an internship program here, and we love seeing students come through our doors and learning with us, and we love to keep really good interns too. And we’ve hired a few of ours over the years, but I think one thing that people, especially college students, don’t really think about is you can go and call someone and ask them to shadow you for a day or for a week. I’ve had that happen a couple of times, but few and far between and I love when people will come and do that because that really gives you a look inside what an organization is like. Universal is a major theme park, but we’re also a corporation at the same time, so it’s very different behind the scenes. And when you get to see that and see the energy that’s there, I think that’s when I starts to click for people. So I would recommend that even if you can’t get an internship at a place like Universal Orlando, that you absolutely can pick up the phone and call somebody and introduce yourself, and just try to shadow. And I think that’s another good way to get some visibility.
Heidi Otway: Well, that’s great and telling great input for some of our young people that are listening. So you’ve been working at Universal Orlando for over 10 years now, and a lot has occurred in the theme park industry. How has theme parks changed in that time and what’s surprised you the most?
Alyson Lundell: It’s been a wild ride I will say. Because when I came on board, we were right at the beginning of our buzz campaign for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade, which opened in 2010. So that was kind of the stage where we were about to really grow up as a company and as a theme park destination. We had not made huge investments into the park in years prior. There were rides here and there but nothing substantial. And when we opened Hogsmeade, it was like wildfire just caught because obviously the power of that brand is immense. Even more immense than we could have imagined. And it really started … First of all, it really reintroduced people to us. Because they would come and they would experience it and then they’d go and get themselves into the Marvel Superhero Island and really start to experience the rides about Spiderman and the Hulk and the different types of attractions that we had across our entire destination.
So people left us going, “Wow, I hadn’t been there in years and I didn’t realize you had all of this.” So it really was kind of our rebirth. We were very fortunate right on the heels of Hogsmeade opening that Comcast fully acquired NBC Universal and really saw the value in what the theme parks were bringing to the business. And since their acquisition of us, we have had more new content and more new product brought into our parks and our hotels, and even our City Walk dining offerings that we have here in our City Walk dining and shopping district, than we’ve ever had. It’s crazy when I say that since 2010, so only about eight or nine years now, we’ve introduced more than 50 new things across our destination. So that growth is immense and it’s really not stopping, which is what we’re really excited about at this point.
Heidi Otway: Wow, that’s amazing to hear. I want to talk a little bit more about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and it has really become, it’s a global phenomenon. Everyone is just, everywhere you go, you see it in Target stores now, it just really hasn’t gone away, and for Universal, it actually helped you all shatter resort attendance records like never before. So I’m wondering what was your role in all of that? I had the opportunity to hear you talk about your role in the launch of this amazing attraction. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what you did to help bring Harry Potter to life at Universal Orlando?
Alyson Lundell: Yeah, it was probably the highlight of my career when we started working on that because I was a fan myself. And I think that’s what’s really special about this particular brand is that a lot of us who work here grew up reading the books and seeing the films ourselves, and what’s really even greater than that is that now this multi-generational switch has happened and people like myself are reading Harry Potter to our kids, and we’re watching the films with our kids. So it really has this wonderful cyclical effect that’s happening. And the fan base just continues to grow. So watching us take that passion and enthusiasm for Harry Potter and turn it into a public relations plan, which is what I worked with on our team, was really a lot of fun to quite frankly, be geeks a little bit and have fun with just the things that we know and love about the stories, and how can we leverage what will be within Hogsmeade, for example, that we can bring to life. Because never before had a theme park created an entire experience from start to finish like this to this level.
And that included everything from the moment you walked through the arch into Hogsmeade, you immediately felt like you were there, and still do today of course. Because there are shops and the train billowing smoke, everything is alive. And you can actually go and touch and feel these things and these environments. You can go on attractions that put you next to your favorite characters from the films. But then you can also taste it, and that’s what was so different for us is that we really haven’t put you next to your favorite characters from the films. But then you can also taste it, and that’s what was so different for us is that we really hadn’t put an experience together that involved your taste. We know how to leverage your other senses of smell and touch, but when we introduced Butterbeer, who knew the craze that would come from just a beverage. And it just was one of the most sought after things that people wanted to specifically come to the Wizarding World and taste that. It was almost like a pilgrimage for people just for that reason. And then as they got to experience everything else and have a wand choose them in Ollivander’s, they saw how enriching this experience was and that they really did feel like they were one of the kids getting ready to go to Hogwarts.
Getting to identify [inaudible 00:11:04] that really helped build that fan experience. Frankly, the media that we work with are fans themselves so that was an easy pitch too, to call and say, “Hey, we’re creating Butterbeer.” And people would lose their minds because they wanted to know that. How are you doing that? And is J.K. Rowling on board with it? And she tasted it and she was, so we leveraged those stories that we could tell about that to bring authenticity to our message. And the other big thing that we did along the way was, as we talked about building this land and this environment, we really wanted people to under-[inaudible 00:11:40] taking it and we were working with the art directors from the films to make sure every little detail in the lands were just perfect, down to a little dot of mold you might see growing on a side of a wall somewhere. It had to look perfect. We would put those artisans and those art directors in front of media talking about what they were doing so that the fans understood we’re taking this just as serious as you want us to, and you’re gonna want to come and experience this.
Heidi Otway: So how did that change the way attractions are built in the theme park industry?
Alyson Lundell: Well, honestly we really broke the record and set this new standard because the experience had to be all-inclusive, and we watched our friends down the street actually start to follow suit. When certain attractions that they’ve recently launched came online, you see them taking a page out of our book, which we love. We love being the ground breakers in this immersive environment experience that we’ve started creating. But it really changed the way we tell stories within our attractions and at our theme parks, but it also really changed the face of how we do public relations at Universal.
Instead of just, “Here let’s put out a press release about this.” We really wanted to find ways to continue telling authentic stories and showcasing the authenticity of what we bring to life and who we collaborate with. Those were things we really weren’t leveraging in the past. And we always work very closely with the film studios that either produce a film that we’re bringing to life or the television writers and directors who work on things like The Simpsons to create these environments that are truly authentic. So it really made us change the way we think and not just, “Let’s find a cool ride and put it in the park.” Let’s really take our guests somewhere different that they can’t go anywhere else. And that’s really been the philosophy every since. And you can see it woven through everything we’ve opened since then from Race through New York starring Jimmy Fallon to our incredible new water theme park Volcano Bay, which really makes you feel like you’re in this beautiful Polynesian island oasis. So those are very important elements that our creative team learned from Harry Potter and have applied since.
Heidi Otway: And I think it’s helpful for the listener to know that Universal is part of a studio that makes movies. So it seems like a natural fit for you all to create this new experiential approach to a theme park experience. Would you say that’s pretty accurate?
Alyson Lundell: That’s 100% accurate, and you know the way that theme parks started, it was kind of erect a roller coaster, or erect this ride and put a name on it, and that’s just it, that’s cool. But then over time the way we all consume entertainment has evolved so much. The way we watch movies in a movie theater has even evolved. You can recline in your seat and have your meal delivered to you in some theaters. So the way we want to interact with entertainment is very very different. And we’re all in such a digitally driven environment these days, our patience isn’t even as vast as it used to be. It’s really limited and so you want to adjust our storytelling within our attractions accordingly. Jimmy Fallon and the Race Through New York starring Jimmy Fallon is a great example of how we tried to take that knowledge and apply it to an attraction. That ride doesn’t have a queue line where you stand in line and wait to get on a ride vehicle. It has an experience from the moment you walk through the door until the moment you sit down in the ride vehicle itself. You are being entertained throughout the journey and you’re not standing in a single file line. So you go through the downstairs area of that building where you can see different displays for all of the past Tonight Show hosts. And there’s storytelling happening there. You can hear the hosts doing their shows, and doing certain bits within those shows, and see those on screens in front of you with memorabilia around these displays.
And then when you have arrived, you receive very cleverly, one of the NBC peacock feather colors, and when your color comes up, you know that it’s time for you to move upstairs. So again, you’re able to freely explore the space and then you just have to follow a simple color direction. You go upstairs and now you’re in a completely different environment where you can interact with Hashtag the Panda or the Ragtime Gals, who perform barbershop quartet-style on the show. So there’s all these entertaining moments that are happening for you while you’re waiting. And then when your color comes up again, now you go get on the ride. That kind of immersive storytelling has to start from the moment you walk in a building, and we can’t … Gone are the days of standing in a single file line just shuffling through, which honestly is great to watch how that evolution is taking place and really forcing us to be better storytellers.
Heidi Otway: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought up the line thing ’cause as you were talking about just the explosiveness of the Wizarding World and how it’s shattering resort records, I immediately started thinking of so are people still having to stand in long lines to get into the parks and into the rides. And I’m so glad you brought that up. So what are some of the other trends that are happening in the theme park industry that our listeners would be interested in hearing as they’re planning their next big vacation?
Alyson Lundell: It’s funny because we look at very simple things that we can apply, technologies that exist that we should maybe look at and apply to an attraction, things that you might not normally think of that help us tell a story. But as far as trends, everything is what I was just describing about this immersive storytelling. That’s the current buzz. How do we make you feel like you have been transported somewhere else and you don’t even realize you’re waiting for something to happen to you? And also, I can’t say enough about the trend of being together as a family in travel and not feeling like you’re grudgingly going through your vacation. It is all about how do we take you out of your daily life and put you into an environment with your family where everyone can disconnect from those social platforms and the things that keep us glued to our phones, and really bring us together as a family. So you’re not just riding an attraction with your child because your child wants to do it. You’re doing it as a family because you all want to do it. And that’s a little bit different than rides from the past that were much more skewed towards the child.
I think that is something big about how do we make sure that once you’re on vacation you stay in your vacation together and nobody’s stressed about what are we gonna do next? The trends in travel planning alone are pretty incredible that we’re going through right now where everything is so mobile and digital that we have an app where you can pretty much as you’re going through your day, add things, plan things. You don’t have to do it all in advance like some of our competitors do. You can make it up as you go so that it fits what you’re doing in that moment, which I think people really enjoy that flexibility rather than feeling like oh my gosh, I’ve got a year to plan this trip of a lifetime. We’re gonna help you make decisions along the way, but you can show up and still choose to go on certain rides and have a great time and a great experience without that stress of oh my gosh, I didn’t get that in advance. Now I can’t do that with my family. I think travel planning in general is evolving quite a bit in how it’s much more mobile focused is a big trend that we’re seeing right now.
Heidi Otway: Wow, that’s really good. I was gonna ask you a follow-up question and I think you just answered it. What is it that the general public probably doesn’t know or would expect from Universal? Anything more?
Alyson Lundell: Hmm, that’s a great question. There’s a lot actually because we have six on-site hotels that fit every range. Any possible range you could be in, whether you want to stay in the lap of luxury at our Portofino Hotel or if you want something a little bit more kid and family friendly, it’s a little retro at our Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which has kinda got this cool 1950’s theme. But the price points are different. There’s something here at our on-site hotels that really fits any budget and any desire that the family might have. But what’s cool about staying in our hotels on-site is that if you stay there, you get into the theme parks an hour before anyone else. So you can really maximize your time and get a head start in your day and not stand in any kind of line for anything that you might really want to see. The other thing is that at certain hotels, at our premium hotels, our premier hotels, you actually with your room key, get front of the line access, which we call it our Express Pass to all of the participating attractions. So if you’re staying at the Portofino Hotel, you can take your room key to the front of attraction and you’ll skip the line and you’ll go straight to the front. That’s a huge benefit ’cause we sell those in the park. Yeah, yeah. So we sell those in the park and then if you’re staying at one of our hotels, you don’t have to pay that fee. It’s free. It’s complimentary included with your stay. So those are really big benefits. I think the other thing people are really surprised about when they come here is just the proximity of our hotels to the theme parks because you’re either a water taxi ride from your hotel away or a very short walk because our campus is very condensed and tight so that we do have that more cozy feel, where it’s easy to get around. You can literally park your car and never see it again for a week if you want because you don’t need it. And I think that’s something that people are really surprised about how convenient that is.
Heidi Otway: Wow, well that’s really good information to share. So switching gears a little bit. You are in Universal Orlando. So when you get a quiet moment or you have a little bit of free time, where do you go in the park? Where’s your favorite place to go?
Alyson Lundell: Oh gosh, that’s a great question. So I really am partial to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley, which is in Universal Studios. And it was the second land that opened in 2014. And I love that area for a few reasons. It’s a little bit more, how do I say this? It feels much more, again to use the word cozy, in that area because the buildings are very tall in there and they kind of feel like they’re pitching towards each other as you walk down the street. So it feels very enclosed and it’s very unique. You cannot see outside of the walls. You wouldn’t know there’s anything else around you except Diagon Alley. And when you walk in, it’s very immersive. You hear the sounds of a typical village environment, but there’s this enormous dragon in front of you on top of the Gringotts Bank that blows fire. And it’s just awesome.
Heidi Otway: I’ve seen it.
Alyson Lundell: Yeah. It’s just awesome to stand there and watch. If I get a quiet moment and want to just people watch, honestly, and watch our guests having a great time, I will go there. I’ll grab a Butterbeer and I’ll stand there and watch the dragon and the kids’ faces and people screaming and laughing and clapping when that moment happens. ‘Cause it is really cool. And it’s not something you see every day in a theme park environment. That’s kinda my special spot. I loved the opening of that particular land. And so I like going back there and reminiscing about that.
Heidi Otway: So what do you all do right now? It’s been a couple of years since Wizarding World has been opened. What do you all do to keep the buzz going when it comes to your role as a marketer and public relations practitioner? What are some of the things that, and I don’t know, maybe people just now already, but what do you all do to keep the buzz going and keep people coming into the park?
Alyson Lundell: And that’s not an easy job because if we don’t have ongoing news that specifically pertains to Harry Potter, that can become a challenge working with the media because they’ll say, “Well you don’t have really anything new going on so we’ve talked about this already.” But what’s actually been, that’s really not been a challenge that we’ve had to face yet because we do have so much new that’s coming to the park, especially outside of Potter 2. But we just launched a new projection mapping technology that each night on Hogwarts Castle, there is a very cool immersive show that happens. And we started that last year in the springtime, I’m sorry, earlier this year. I’ve already moved to 2019, it’s terrible. So we started it in the spring and it was a show just dedicated to the different houses that are within Hogwarts School. So it’s a very cool show that would happen on the castle, but right now because we’re in the holidays, we have a beautiful holidays display that also projection maps onto the castle and tells a beautiful Christmas-related story.
Those types of new smaller parts of content that we get to add into the park over time are really great stories that we can tell and ways that we can get the media to remind people that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is here and that we have new things coming all the time. We will add in, from time to time, new food and beverage, which is a really great opportunity for us to tell stories. When we introduced warm Butterbeer, that was just a phenomenon for awhile and that was about two years ago we did that. So those little things that just help us remind people are really important to our storytelling along the way. But next year, we have a completely new attraction that’s coming into Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. It’s a brand new family roller coaster. So we are gonna start revealing a lot more details after the first of the year, but we’re really excited about that experience ’cause it’s gonna be pretty spectacular.
Heidi Otway: Yeah, and I think that’s just part of the theme park industry. You have to keep introducing something new and that lets people know, “Hey, the next time I go, I’ll have a new experience when I get there.”
Alyson Lundell: That’s exactly right. We know from our research that the reason people come back time and time again is ’cause they want to see what’s new and they know that the theme parks are constantly adding new stuff. So we have to stay on our game and make sure that we’re giving our guests really powerful reasons to keep coming back, and that we’re not just getting stagnant and just living on the attractions and experiences that we have. That we’re constantly reimagining and that’s something that our creative team is really world class at.
Heidi Otway: Well Alyson, thank you so much. You shared some really great insight about one of our biggest drivers in the State of Florida, our economic driver and that’s our theme park industry. And Universal Orlando’s role in it. And your role as well. And I wanted to wrap up our interview with four questions that we ask of every guest on our show. So here it goes. Okay.
Alyson Lundell: Okay.
Heidi Otway: So the first question is who is a Florida leader that you admire most?
Alyson Lundell: Wow.
Heidi Otway: It can be someone from history or someone who’s still active in their work.
Alyson Lundell: Yeah, I will actually tell you, it’s a throwback, but Dick Pope, who was the founder and operator of Cypress Gardens in the day. He was also known as the Grandfather of Public Relations for us in the State of Florida.
Heidi Otway: That’s right.
Alyson Lundell: He is really the person that I grew up hearing a lot about. My Dad is a huge fan of his and a historian in his own right, and a PR practitioner, and he really introduced who Dick Pope was to me, and Cypress Gardens of course. So watching how he was kind of an entrepreneur in tourism and travel was very inspiring, but then also watching how he produced public relations initiatives and what he would do to get the world to pay attention to Cypress Gardens and he really put Cypress Gardens on the map, were things that I loved watching as I progressed into my college career and then beyond that.
Heidi Otway: Yeah, totally agree with that. So what Florida person, place, or thing deserves more attention?
Alyson Lundell: That’s a really great question. I would say, you’re gonna laugh. The person that I think in Florida needs more attention is Harry Potter. I know that sounds crazy, but-
Heidi Otway: I love it.
Alyson Lundell: It’s funny to think that a lot of people might not still realize that you can come to Universal and you can follow in Harry’s footsteps or you can have these experiences like Harry did. So that’s something that we’re constantly trying to work on and make sure that we’re continuing to tell that story, especially as new fans come into the franchise and start consuming the books or watching the films. Yeah, I am gonna say Harry Potter needs way more exposure out around Florida so that people know that he’s here.
Heidi Otway: Well would you say that because of his virtual presence there in Orlando that he is a Floridian?
Alyson Lundell: He is an honorary Floridian in my mind.
Heidi Otway: He’s an honorary Floridian, I love it.
Alyson Lundell: Yes, I will adopt him personally so that he can be a part of my family.
Heidi Otway: And you’ve actually had the real Harry Potter, the actor, come to Universal a couple of times, right?
Alyson Lundell: We did. And he came for the grand opening of Hogsmeade in 2010, and I have to tell you, we are very fortunate that we have a lot of celebrities come through the parks just as visitors themselves, but when Daniel Radcliffe was here, he could not have been more lovely. He was so excited and so gracious and just genuinely a good fun person. And we really enjoyed getting to work with him and watching him be excited about what he saw. Because I will tell you as the film cast came, it was awesome to watch them. They would knock on the walls to see that they weren’t just made of plywood with some plaster put on top of them. They were amazed that we had ceilings because on a movie set there is no ceiling, it’s lights. To see it all in a finished complete environment that’s not just gonna be torn down after a film is shot, was really fun to watch them grapple with the fact that this was a real place.
Heidi Otway: Wow, wow. So besides the theme parks, what is your favorite Florida location to visit? It could be a city, a restaurant, whatever you like.
Alyson Lundell: Yeah, there’s a really special place in my family’s hearts that we’ve been going to for decades. It’s a small island on the west coast called Boca Grande. It is just a beautiful stretch of beach and a really quaint fun little downtown area with shops and restaurants. It’s just been a place that since I was a kid, my parents took my brother and I there for our family vacations and then now that my brother and I have families, we all go together once a year for a week, and we go and spend time there together as a family. And it’s just gorgeous. So that’s the special place in Florida that holds a very good place in my heart.
Heidi Otway: Yeah, it sounds lovely. And finally, do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
Alyson Lundell: Oh well by far it’s the Florida State Seminoles-
Heidi Otway: I knew you were gonna say that.
Alyson Lundell: Because of my roots there, but no, I am a college football fan through and through. Even though we’ve had a pretty rough season, there is no one that I would rather cheer for in the State of Florida than my Seminoles.
Heidi Otway: Okay, well Alyson, thank you so much for being a guest on the Fluent in Floridian podcast.
Alyson Lundell: You’re so welcome. This has been so much fun. Thank you for having me.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. This show is Executive Produced by April Salter with additional support provided by Heidi Otway and the team at SalterMitchell PR. If you need help telling your Florida story, Salter Mitchell PR has you covered by offering issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. You can learn more about SalterMitchell PR at saltermitchellpr.com. You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian podcast and listen to every episode of the show at fluentinfloridian.com or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.