Theme parks cast a spell
Harry Potter boards the money merry-go-round in Hollywood
Fifteen years after Harry Potter’s first big-screen adventure, Universal is enchanting a new generation of Muggles with its most spectacular conjuring trick yet – a theme park in the heart of Hollywood.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter follows similar money-spinning ventures in Florida and Japan, but is set to be the most technologically advanced so far, incorporating state-of-the-art 3D effects with the traditional fun of the fair.
Opening last week at Universal Studios beneath the Hollywood hills, it is the latest attraction in a burgeoning film-industry sideline that has become so lucrative executives are beginning to design sets with the idea of turning them into theme parks.
“When you think about the property of Harry Potter – all seven books and eight movies – there’s no better place than the filmmaking capital of the world to have this ultimate experience,” says Thierry Coup, senior vice-president of Universal Creative, the studio’s research and development division.
The last Harry Potter film was released five years ago but the character’s appeal remains as strong as ever, with fans eagerly awaiting stage show “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, which opens in London this year.
Meanwhile a spin-off movie trilogy is due to hit the big screen later in the year, starting with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”.
Together with the recently introduced Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, the award-winning Simpsons park area and Transformers: The Ride – 3D, the Harry Potter attraction sees Universal partnering with Hollywood for a merchandising merry-go-round to rival Disney’s.
Next up for Universal a park based on “The Walking Dead”. It will be a permanent attraction harnessing the phenomenal success of the AMC TV zombie drama.
Disney, meanwhile, has been picking up the pace since its 2014 Magic Kingdom expansion in Florida. Before 2020, Disney has plans for attractions based on “Avatar” and “Star Wars” as “Toy Story” and “Frozen”.
Motiongate Dubai, set to open in October, has announced a starting slate of 27 attractions inspired by films from DreamWorks, Sony and Lionsgate, including “The Hunger Games”, “How to Train Your Dragon” and “The Smurfs”.
The Harry Potter attraction marks Universal’s fourth foray into the boy-wizard’s universe, with two launches in Orlando, Florida, and an opening in Osaka, Japan, seeing the company increase visitors by up to 30 per cent.
“There’s a huge effort to really address every facet of the creative process,” supervising art director Alan Gilmore says at Wizarding World. “The film is only one part of that, but you want to try and create a film that can be translated into all of this.”
Harry Potter’s enduring appeal was evidenced by Universal’s announcement that last Thursday’s opening had sold out days ahead, marking the first time that the park has had to halt online ticketing transactions.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the growth of Universal Studios – three quarters of the park has been transformed over the last five years – would create new jobs, stimulate hospitality revenues and strengthen the economy. “In Los Angeles, tourism is surging. We’ve set records each of the last five years and we’re just getting started.”
The attraction, which boasts the forbidding Hogwarts castle as its iconic focal point, transports visitors into the visual landscape of JK Rowling’s books and the Warner Bros films that followed.
The attention to detail is impressive, from the fading patinas on the slate-grey stone blocks that make up the aged rustic Hog’s Head tavern to the painstakingly worn edges of the stained furniture and the grimy floors.
The quaint fictional village of Hogsmeade bustles with the chatter of merchants on the cobblestone streets and a pub packed with thirsty patrons under a snow-capped roof.
If all that sounds like the run-of-the-mill theme park, the signature “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” ride combining state-of-the-art 360-degree 3D special effects, live-action thrills and groundbreaking robotics, is anything but.
Gilmore, an architect by trade, says Wizarding World boasts many original props from the films, including the luggage racks from the Hogwarts Express, Hagrid’s motorbike and a costume from the Yule ball.
“Here, we don’t have actors, we have real people. So it was very important that we at least realised the set design perfectly so that when you step into this world you feel you’re in the film,” Gilmore says.
Among a pack of reporters and photographers seeking their inner wizard at a preview were several stars from the films, including Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy, and Warwick Davis – Professor Flitwick to Hogwarts pupils.
“Even though I’ve experienced much like this, having worked on the films, for me coming to Wizarding World is a more magical experience,” says Davis, the dwarf actor from “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi”, “Labyrinth”, “Willow” and the TV series “Life’s Too Short”.
“These environments are more immersive because you can walk into somewhere like the Three Broomsticks from Hogsmeade and it exists in reality, whereas when you make the movies these locations and sets are quite separate.”