Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood: A look inside the park
Nearly two decades after J.K. Rowling birthed the world’s most famous boy wizard, Harry Potter remains a viral newsmaker of astonishing public interest (thanks in no small part to Rowling’s unrelenting updates to the canon through her Twitter feed…did you know Harry’s grandfather was named Fleamont?).
This seems to be the year that Harry has his next significant pop culture growth spurt: In February, Rowling unveiled the whopping 42-person cast for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the sequel stage play hitting London (and bookstores) this summer, and in March she authored a series of essays for Pottermore shedding light on the magical history of the United States, setting the scene for this November’s franchise-kindling Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film trilogy.
Yet April holds the most immediate game-changer for Potterheads: The opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios Hollywood, almost six years after the inaugural launch in Orlando skyrocketed attendance and revenue. Film cast members Tom Felton, Evanna Lynch, James and Oliver Phelps, Warwick Davis, and composer John Williams will anoint the park’s grand opening on April 5, two days before it opens to the public.
“It’s as close as you ever could be to a film in a theme park,” says supervising art director Alan Gilmore, who, like production designer Stuart Craig, also worked on the Potter movies. “Turning film sets into real buildings is really quite an amazing journey. A film set is one-sided, and you can hide everything behind a screen, but these are real buildings that actually have to function yet look like a movie set or like what people read in the books. The challenge here is to hide all the modern details and make you feel like you’ve gone back in time in that J.K. Rowling time period.”
During a walk through the park, Gilmore points out dozens of details that parkgoers may not notice individually — melting snow, fading patinas — as well as big-ticket draws like the authentic film props that appear throughout the land (like Hagrid’s motorbike or the Yule Ball dresses). “It’s absolutely identical to the film sets,” says Gilmore. “It’s the most authentic rendition that could be done.”
It may seem counterintuitive to say that the Boy Who Lived — and made $2.39 billion at the domestic box office — is a new face in Hollywood, but his much-ballyhooed arrival on the California theme park circuit is the latest big bicoastal bid by Universal to nip at Disney’s share of family-friendly vacationers (especially following recent introductions of Minions– and The Simpsons-themed areas). “We saw in 2010 how it impacted our Orlando park [and now] we have a new center of gravity,” says Universal Studios Hollywood president Larry Kurzweil, who is helping guide a $1.6 billion deal for a walloping 25-year expansion plan starting in 2013. “We’ve actually spent a good portion of that money,” Kurzweil notes. “We’ve reimagined 75 percent of this entire movie studio property, and Harry Potter is the epicenter of that.”
The Hollywood incarnation of Hogwarts is no half-blood rehash of Florida’s Wizarding World, though it does boast much of the same appeal. The ride de resistance is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a suspended ride through Hogwarts (converted into 3-D for the Hollywood version); its expansive queue line takes riders through a dynamic recreation of Hogwarts and features cameos from stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, filmed during the final Deathly Hallows movie. Another ride, Flight of the Hippogriff, looms over Hogsmeade Village as the park’s first outdoor roller coaster.
Between the rides lie the park’s enduring draw: Retail opportunities offering fans everything from Sneakoscopes and Chocolate Frogs to robes, wands, and broomsticks (all at prices that can empty a Gringotts vault) as well as a lofty assortment of English fare at the Three Broomsticks restaurant. Plus, lots and lots of butterbeer. “Our team tagged virtually every page of every book that had anything to do with something edible or drinkable,” says Mark Woodbury, who oversees the crews at Universal Creative (think the equivalent of Disney’s Imagineering) and calls the Potter park a “game-changer” of technology and merchandising. “The beauty of what Jo Rowling created was that the kids actually went shopping, to get their school supplies and things like that. The fiction was ripe with opportunity to expore that, and our merchandise folks developed over a thousand SKUs of products that the fans are just crazy about.”
Every real-world realization of Rowling’s 4,000-plus pages bears the author’s (or her team’s) approval. “I think in her mind, she’s thinking, ‘How are they going to pull this off?’” says Woodbury, who recalls Rowling’s enthusiasm during her first sip of the park’s butterbeer. “Any time you’re bringing your interpretation of somebody else’s creation back to them and seeing if you got it right, there’s a lot of excitement with that. But when you actually let them taste the butterbeer that they’ve never actually tasted, you’re getting to actually give them a chance to taste their own creation, if you will.”
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The same logic has come to define Universal Studios Hollywood’s next phase of attraction development: Partnerships with big-name artistic visionaries who work with the park’s creative to bring high-recognition IP to life. Consider 2015’s big debut of an expansive park area dedicated to The Simpsons, with the same world-immersion feeling of Matt Groening’s Springfield that Wizarding World affords Potterheads, or 2014’s Super Silly Fun Land, a Minions metropolis developed by the little guys’ creator Chris Meledandri. “We’re working with what we think are the greatest minds in the entertainment business, from Spielberg to Bay to Meledandri and Rowling, Brooks, Groening, Jackson,” says Woodbury. “Having their participation is critical to bringing the authenticity and detail.”
Kurzweil likens the new reliance on cross-generational properties to a new era of the 50-year-old Universal Studios Hollywood park: “The first generation of our history, we were a famous backlot studio tour. The second phase was a transition into a theme park and studio tour with a whole generation of famous movie and TV properties, starting with the launch of Jurassic Park in 1996, going into Transformers, working with Matt Groening and The Simpsons, working with the storytellers of Shrek… Here we are, 52 years later, and it’s like a rebirthing. With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the middle of all this storytelling, I consider this the third and biggest generation of all that we’ve done.”
In many ways, the Potter park is magical — even just in logistics. “[This] place would never have existed back in the 1990s,” says Kurzweil. “I think the breakthroughs of technology and the incredible attention to detail get you connected back to this story. I just think it has no rival in the history of theme parks.”
But speaking of rivals, Universal’s competitors are also getting wise to harnessing fan-favorite properties: Disney, never an exception to the “Popular film? Let’s make a ride” mentality, is constructing Avatar and Star Wars lands that will surely rock both coasts; meanwhile, motiongate Dubai (opening in October) just announced a slew of rides based on DreamWorks, Sony, and Lionsgate films, including The Hunger Games, How To Train Your Dragon, Smurfs, and Ghostbusters.
Even Universal itself will build on its own Potter momentum with another new attraction opening this summer based on — wait for it — The Walking Dead. Because if anything is going to thin the crowds at the Wizarding World, it may as well be a zombie.