After years of waiting and several months of construction behind temporary walls, it’s finally time. Fans across Los Angeles are getting their letters to Hogwarts and assembling at Universal Studios Hollywood to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. An all-new land with two rides, a signature drink and one of the best restaurants the park has to offer, Wizarding World is the largest land expansion the theme park has seen since the lower lot opened in 1991. With an official opening date of April 7, soft openings have been inviting guests into the Wizarding World since early February while employees are trained and the kinks are worked out in the operations of ride, retail and restaurant.
For those unaware or who may not have heard of Harry Potter, the character is based on a series of seven books by author JK Rowling and a subsequent series of eight films by Warner Bros. Harry Potter was a normal boy who received a magical letter and was whisked off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (which is apparently in Scotland, I learned). There he fought all manner of monster and dark wizard and sentient trees leading up to a massive climactic battle with the dark Lord Voldemort. The books were immensely popular, as were the films, and they have spawned more tie-in books and movies as well as a newly opened stage show in London and two theme park lands at Universal Studios Orlando – Wizarding World and Diagon Alley, and now Wizarding World in Hollywood.
The land is set up with three different areas – Hogsmeade, Hogwarts and Hippogriff. Hogwarts is the magical school and houses the E-ticket attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Flight of the Hippogriff is the other ride in the land, a family-friendly coaster that circles and dives around Hagrid’s hut. And Hogsmeade is the quaint little village where the Hogwarts students go in their leisure time. Hogsmeade houses several different shopping opportunities including Ollivander’s Wands and Honeyduke’s Sweets Shop, as well as dining opportunities at The Three Broomsticks Tavern and the Butterbeer cart.
CV Weekly was invited to the park for a special private tour with art director Alan Gilmore, who has worked on the Harry Potter films as well as Wizarding World in Florida and California. Creating an antiquated Scottish village and a gigantic magical school just off the 101 Freeway in L.A. is no small task. And also, being that the new land is in the center of the theme park on the site of the former Gibson theater, it had to play within the boundaries of Springfield, the Universal Tram Tour and Waterworld.
“There’s a real collaboration between the filmmaking team and Universal Studios to bring this world to life,” Gilmore said. “At Universal Studios, they’re absolute experts at making amazing theme parks, and we brought our British and European influences into it, so the scale of the buildings is very much our scale. We wanted to keep it all very intimate and quite small, a very human scale which is very important.”
The buildings are both small and large, which is a very interesting feeling. Everything is very compact and fits together like puzzle pieces, but at the same time are very tall and tell of the history of more than 1,000 years. Every detail in the construction of these buildings is considered, from the weathered stone at the base to the fresh fallen snow on the roofs and even the added support beams for when the building started to lean a few hundred years ago. This is shown off particularly well with the pointed rooftops and crooked chimneys of the town’s local tavern, The Three Broomsticks.
“In the story of Hogsmeade,” Gilmore said, “The Three Broomsticks is up to 1,000 years old, the same age as Hogwarts. It has been here a long, long time; it’s medieval. And the design reflects that. It’s all leaning, you’ll see everything is twisting and leaning because old, old European buildings do that – they twist and lean. Over time they settle. [Across the courtyard where] you’ll see the Owlery, the columns are set against the ground, the walls are settling in, so it’s very interesting architectural language where you feel the age of the buildings.”
The attention to detail is staggering. In The Three Broomsticks, guests will notice that the massive exterior of the building matches the massive interior of the building, not only in the size of the seating floor but also in the height of the room. Several levels of the dining area show walkways and staircases leading to rooms for wizards stopping in Hogsmeade in their travels from one place to another, leaving their brooms outside of occupied rooms. Shadows of cleaning supplies moving on their own and house elves doing work upstairs can be seen from time to time.
At the Owlery across the way, owls have perched in the rafters as they await the next shipment of mail to go out.
There are spots all along the floor marking their droppings – details are details, after all. The level of craftsmanship and the immersive feel of the land is something that you won’t find at a land anywhere else in the park. It really is a step away from the norm for Universal, which delves deep into their set pieces for rides and queue lines but generally takes a minimalistic approach to land theming.
For example, Transformers the Ride in the lower lot has an incredibly detailed queue and an impeccable ride but it doesn’t go beyond the front door. Developing these rides and shopping/dining experiences all at once gave them an opportunity to really theme it out all the way. Working with Gilmore and other designers from the film team also provided the opportunity to create a genuine feel. Gilmore said that many of the props and set pieces in the land were created from the same mold and with the same intentions as were the props and sets in the film. Some of the pieces throughout the land have even been taken directly from the film sets, like pieces of the Hogwarts Express photo opportunity at the entrance to the land. This gives guests a really immersive feel that allows them to forget about the rest of the park, the rest of L.A., the rest of the “Muggle” world.
“Another thing about the Wizarding World is that there are machines, but there are no modern machines,” Gilmore said. “It’s set at a moment in time when anything mechanical is like a clock mechanism – it’s analog. There’s no electricity, it’s oil and gas lighting, coal and wood fires and, if something is moving, it’s probably enchanted. Anything that you see moving is some kind of magic.”
Next week, we will delve a little more into the land to look at the attractions and restaurant in closer detail. Check CVWeekly.com for more photos.