So when Universal invited us down to get a first look at the park, it was pretty much a dream come true. I’ve grown up with the “Harry Potter” series and while I wouldn’t consider myself a die-hard fan of the series, I hold the story pretty close to my heart.
Our tour started out with a chat with Mark Woodbury, President of Universal Orlando, in a room that featured a model of the park and conceptual drawings for the various “Harry Potter”-themed shops that Wizarding World would be featuring. And then they took us to see the park.
If you’re strolling around Islands of Adventure you can see Hogwarts castle and some of Hogsmeade from pretty much anywhere you are in the park, but it still doesn’t prepare you for seeing it all up close. Yes, there is still construction going on and yes, the area is going to look so much cooler when it’s all finished, but Honeydukes and The Three Broomsticks and Ollivander’s (which technically belongs in Diagon Alley) are all there, live and in living color.
Alan Gilmore, who worked on the art side of the films and has been partnered with Universal on building the park since it began, said that young kids who are just reading the books for the first time now have a real place where they can come and visit. The world of Harry Potter has become, to some extent (as much as Universal can feasibly do until someone invents magic), a reality.
Hogwarts was the big reveal for Universal during this trip, and it impressed. There was an entire storyline created for the ride housed in Hogwarts, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which explained that “today” (aka every day you choose to go on the ride) is the first day Hogwarts is open to Muggles, and that you have to walk through the castle to meet Dumbledore for a history lesson and tour. Et cetera, et cetera, we have already covered all that fun stuff.
It really was “Hogwarts.” From the exterior, the castle looks massive. It was as though it was taken right out of the films, which is especially impressive considering the castle seen in the movies was probably just a model not much larger than the one we saw earlier in the day. And then you walk into the castle, and you see every little thing you never expected the designers would think of, and a lot of the big items you hoped that they would.
The moving pictures and portraits were a big kicker for me. At the Museum of Science in Boston they had a special “Harry Potter” exhibit that had its own version of moving portraits, but they were the ugly cousin nine times removed from these beauties. Creative director Thierry Coup actually filmed all actors in Leavesden Studios in London where the “Harry Potter” movies are shot, which was neat. Then there was the decoration in each of the various rooms visited (a scale dragon skeleton in the Defense Against Dark Arts classroom earns big points in my book) that was just beyond impressive.
The big draw for Forbidden Journey will be the actual ride portion of the attraction, which is not ready to be previewed to the public yet and whose technology Universal is still trying to attribute as “magic” (which is their nice way of saying they’re definitely not spoiling the surprise just yet).
But on a purely visual level, from the perspective of a fan and even despite the three months of work yet to be done, Wizarding World is raising the bar for what theme parks can achieve. It is more comprehensive than anything I’ve seen. If it is successful — which looks incredibly likely — it could be a game-changer for the entire theme park industry.