A first look at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

You can't come in. Okay, well some of you can

I’m currently over in Orlando for Virgin Holidays 25th birthday celebrations and managed, along with a couple of other journalists, to get a sneak preview of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The ‘theme park within a theme park’ at Universal’s Islands of Adventure opens next week to special Virgin Holidays preview customers with a grand opening on June 18.

On the tour, I got to see Hogmeade village which comes complete with a host of shops from the JK Rowling books and the films such as Gladrags Wizard’s Wear, Dervish & Banges and Olivander’s wand shop, where with some cute acting from the shopkeeper and some special effects, your wand chooses you. Of course, you then have to shell out $24.99 to take one home.

We also got to go into The Three Broomsticks inn where we tried Butterbeer, non alcoholic and like a frothy caramely ice-cream float, pumkin juice and Hog’s Head Brew – an ale brewed in Scotland.

There are three rides in the park, two rollercoasters (Flight of the Hipogriff and Duelling Dragons) and Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey which is set in a scale replica of Hogwarts school. The first two are open and we got to ride them, the latter is in the final stages of testing.

The park’s attention to detail is amazing and fans of the series will be magic-ed straight into sets that could be in the film.

While there, I got to talk to the park’s supervising art director Alan Gilmore, who was seconded from the films to help create the park.

All aboard the Hogwarts Express

For my full review of Wizarding World of Harry Potter, see Saturday’s Daily Express travel section, but Alan’s thoughts on the park are below…

On JK Rowling’s thoughts on the park:

Everything you see has passed through JK Rowling, luckily because I work with the film team in London, we already had a large degree of acceptance with her. I’ve been working in the UK industry for 15 years and I’ve worked with Stuart Craig who created the films. We’ve taken the films and brought them to life.

If we had to come up with a new storyline, she had to write that for us and approve it. We also had to check everything with her when it came to the placing of the buildings. The Three Broomsticks is in Hogsmeade but here we have Honeydukes next door and that is in Diagon Alley in London in the films. We had to bring the two together and she had to approve that.

On building the park:

I’ve worked on the films for 10 years but still watched them again and again and took notes. The team I worked with in London designed this three years ago. We built models after studying the site and worked with Universal to work out what stories they wanted to tell. We fleshed out all the spaces: they wanted a restaurant, they wanted a bar, they wanted a space for owls and a shop to sell Quidditch gear… whatever they asked for, we made it happen and made spaces for all the elements.
We already knew about Hogsmead, it’s a very strong part of the storyline so we made it a proper town with much more detail then ever before, even for the films. We obviously had to have Hogwarts too, so we had two main spaces, Hogsmead and Hogwarts. The big challenge was to bring them together. We used a lot of film techniques like forced perspective, special film colours and pulled it together.

It’s a strange composition. By the books, Hogsmead should be in the valleys of Scotland, Hogwarts should be several miles away but here they are very close.

 

Hogwarts Castle - made from concrete!

On the bit he’s most satisfied with

Hogwarts. It looks amazing, I love the Three Broomsticks too. Theme parks aren’t done this way. Theme parks aren’t grungey and dark and dingey, they are shiney and clean. This was a whole new departure to create something that looked so aged. We used concrete – everything is made of concrete. It’s sprayed on the walls by a technique called shotcrete and then we used trowels to shape it all. We had to train the guys out here in Orlando to do this. They had never done it before. We then had the special effects painters from the films come in and paint it all, water runs, soot… we had to think back to Victorian times and create something that looked similar.

On The Three Broomsticks:

The idea of the Three Broomsticks is that it is an inn where wizards come and stay, so we have fake walkways and bridges above us that lead to ‘bedrooms’ that obviously don’t exist. We also have special effects here that cast shadows on the walls, there are elves, owls, cups and brooms that appear randomly. It’s done so it looks like the sun is creating them. They appear everywhere in the Three Broomsticks and there are 25 different ones.

On the amount of detail in the park:

Everything you see around you is from the films. The pictures on the wall are from the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, we don’t have a Leaky Cauldron pub here but we do have the Hog’s Head pub. Unlike the films, where people only catch a glimpse of things, people are able to study everything here, which means it needs much more detail to make it all work. This has also been designed for however many million people are going to come through here in the next 15 or 20 years – it has to last.

Would he film here:

This is camera ready. I don’t think either myself or Stuart Craig would have any hesitation with filming a scene here. There are a few things I would change – the Exit signs would have to go. I tried to fight some of those things to try and keep it all as authentic as possible. The fire officers here in Orlando said we had to have a sprinkler system, so we’ve made it a feature, the pipes around the walls are like an old British hospital with the pipes on the outside. Electricity is another one… we have tried to hide it as much as possible by theming things so they look realistic… the lights for instance look like flickering candles.

On completing the park:

It took three years to complete but only 18 months to construct. Universal didn’t say ‘no’ to anything I asked for. They have agreed to do things that have never been done before. The level of finish is like nothing seen anywhere else in any other theme park, even the guys down the road [Disney] don’t go this far. Theme parks are normally about the rides, not about the architecture. They are normally about getting you in and out, this gives people more time in the park and on the rides.

I came here on my own, with my bags and said: ‘Let’s build a theme park.’ We’ve used people from far and wide, they’ve been trained with new skills and everyone is loving it. They’ve never aged things in America… everything is new here, it’s a new country.