Theme Parks

Wizarding World of Harry Potter to open today – first pics

In a few hours time, Virgin Holidays customers will be the first people into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventures in Orlando – the rest of the not-so-wizarding world gets in from June 18.
Lookswise, the new park is pretty spectacular – see some of the pics below – but sizewise, it could see some people queueing for a quite a while to get into star attractions like Olivander’s Wand Shop where, through some cute acting and clever animatronics, your wand may choose you (before you then pay $25 for it).
Some people are bound to be disappointed by the signature ride Harry Potter & The Forbidden Journey, not only will some larger people be unable to ride it, there is a form of ritual humiliation for them outside. They have to sit in a tester ride seat in full public view: get a green light and you are good to go, get a red one and you’re off…
The snow-capped houses and shops of Hogsmeade village
Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts Express
Hogwarts Castle home of the signature ride - unlucky if you're overweight
Souvenir wand, it picks you for $25

Exclusive: first pic of cast members at Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Robbie Coltrane, Matthew Lewis, Emma Watson, and Oliver and James Phelps

This morning, Harry Potter film stars Robbie Coltrane, Matthew Lewis, Emma Watson, and Oliver and James Phelps began their sneak peek tour of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter by entering Hogsmeade. The group was invited to Universal Orlando Resort for a first-look at the immersive environment, and will spend the day visiting many of the iconic locations made famous in the popular Harry Potter series. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort grand opens on June 18.

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.

Getting the pin trading point at Walt Disney World

I wasn’t going to post anything more on my Disney travels of last week, but then changed my mind at some point early this morning when I found myself on ebay bidding for a couple of pins to complete a Disney set.

James looks for the illusive Figment pin

If you have no idea what I’m talking it about, it’s Disney Pin Trading – one of the more obscure, to us Brits at least, things that happen at the Disney Parks.

The enamel pins – there are more than 60,000 different designs featuring Disney characters, icons, attractions and themeparks – can be bought from outlets in the parks and are worn, by most people, on a lanyard around their necks. While in the parks, people either buy more from the outlets or trade with other willing pin holders.

There’s a whole etiquette to trading to the point where you can get a pamphlet to tell you how it’s done. Key points include:

  • Refrain from touching another person’s pins or lanyard, ask to see the pin so they can bring the pin into closer view
  • Other guests do not have to trade with you, but cast members (or staff as we call them) do… unless they are wearing a blue lanyard, in which case they will only trade with visitors less than ten years old
  • Guests must trade with Cast Members, one pin at a time
  • Guests can make up to 2 pin trades per cast member per day
  • The pin that is traded to the cast member cannot be a duplicate of any pin they already have on their lanyard
  • Pins with a Hidden Mickey (a small Mickey symbol in one corner) are more limited edition and deemed more desireable
  • No money can change hands on Disney property in exchange for a pin (unless at one of the outlets of course).

Some people have become pin addicts… collecting thousands of them over the years, jealously guarding their sets at home and only taking their ‘swaps’ into the park.

At the start of our trip, we were given a dozen pins and a lanyard by Julie Young, who has the excellent job of being in charge of pin development – she was met with muted thanks and sceptical looks by myself and fellow journalists at the time.

Fast forward 24 hours and with pins around neck to humour our hosts, we entered our first Disney park. Within a few minutes, I saw someone who had a pin from one of my sets and made my first trade and by the end of the day, all 12 of us were collecting different sets.

By day two, we were pin hunting in packs: ‘If you look out for my cut out princesses, I’ll get your pirate Mickeys’ and by the end of the week, we were stopping any cast member with a lanyard and asking them to have a look at their pins.

But on our last night, we came across a proper pin queen – think an East End pearly but covered in small shiny metal Disney characters instead of buttons. She had two books of ‘swaps’ in front of her on a small table and was furtively looking around for people to trade with.

Personally, I’d been looking for a set of pins featuring a character called Figment. He’s a purple dragon, not from any of the Disney films but the official mascot of Epcot. Each pin in the set depicts an emotion: angry, happy, confused… but Figment’s expression is the same on all of them.

... you will be

Betsy, the trader woman, had one of the ones I was missing and I nervously approached her for a trade. ‘Can I have your Figment Surprised?’ I asked her nervously as she cast a cursory glance up and down my lanyard.

‘Sorry you’ve nothing I want,’ she replied coldly before turning to someone else to do another trade and me to travel home with an incomplete set. A fact that left me scouting ebay at 7am this morning – Julie will be proud of the monster she created.

Blasting off with one of the Jonas brothers

James and the Big CheeseSo I finally got to meet the Big Cheese yesterday when we had a character breakfast in our hotel, the Contemporary Resort and Mickey finally turned up. We’d seen most of the other major Disney characters over the week but had failed to spot Mickey… I was beginning to think he must have been in Paris or Anaheim for the week.

Our morning session, saw us head to we Walt Disney World’s Wilderness Lodge and the associated Fort Wilderness campground resort to try some horse trail riding.

Not many people know that much of the Disney property in Orlando is built on what was once swampland. Dirt from the excavations that created the lakes was used to landfill other areas for the parks and resorts to be built. And as a result, most of the other land here is preserved so, contrary to what you might think, it’s all quite green.

The Wilderness Lodge and campground are probably the resorts that are closest to nature… aside from the hotel itself, there are log cabins in the surrounding woods and miles of nature trails to explore.

I’ve done quite a bit of trail riding on my travels and it all seems to follow a template. The experience is aimed at the lowest common denominator, it’s pretty sedate and the horses are so well trained, you don’t even have to pull on the reins to direct them, they just follow the leader.

The experience here failed to break the template and, while I appreciate the need to appeal to all ages and abilities, even I, with my limited horse riding ability, found it a little too tame. That Orlando is in the middle of a very unseasonal cold snap didn’t help.

Things warmed up in the afternoon with a visit to the futuristically styled Epcot (the park gets its name from Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, if you were wondering).

Despite being a bit of a Walt Disney World veteran and Epcot being the biggest park, I’ve only been in it once and never done any of the major rides there, so it was something I’d been looking forward to, especially as I’d had the Mission: SPACE ride recommended to me.

The ride is a G-force simulator that gives the illusion of a rocket lifting off and flying to Mars. Four of you get into the same capsule and each has a mission ‘role’ that is supposed aid in getting the ship to its destination (it’s not complicated, you just have the odd button to press).

The ride’s actually a large centrifuge that spins at high speed and is used in real astronaut training to simulate the G forces that come into play on a real rocket launch. When the spinning begins and by keeping your eye on the screen ahead, you get the impression of blast-off acceleration, even feeling your face go all wobbly with the G forces.

Without giving too much away about the rest of the story, it’s a truly awesome ride that had me weaving out on slightly wobbly legs, although the sick bags that are in the capsule were, thankfully, not needed.

Soarin’ at Epcot is another great ride. Riders in cabs are hoisted into the middle of an iMax style screen and a film full of flight scenes is shown. The cab sways either way to give the illusion of flying… You can see a little of it here.

The night ended with a party for a campaign Disney is doing here in the US but not elsewhere. People who volunteer for a day somewhere get a free park ticket and an associated charity single, Make a Wave, has also been launched that features Camp Rock Stars Joe Jonas and Demi Lovato.

The teen heartthrobs that are allegedly dating if you believe the tabs here turned up to perform the song in front of a host of kids already on the program. You can see a clip of them singing below just before Epcot’s quite brilliant closing IllumiNations fireworks display (also below) started.

Two of the best rides and what's new at Disney World

Yesterday we got the chance to try out a couple of the non-theme park activities here at Walt Disney World and so we had a morning of massages at the Grand Floridian Resort’s spa followed by a very competitive game of mini golf at Fantasia Gardens before heading for Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the afternoon.

Studios has to be my favourite of all the Disney parks here in Orlando. Not only is much of the content a little more adult but it’s also home to two of the best rides, Tower of Terror and the Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster.

If you don’t know much about either, Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster is an Aerosmith themed coaster that kicks off with a straight where you go from 0 to 60 mph in around two seconds before hitting a couple of loop the loops while tunes like Dude Looks Like a Lady blare out.

Tower of Terror is based on an old episode of the Twilight Zone and features an elevator ride that freefalls 13 stories in one go… this video is from our ride. It’s a little dark but the screams will probably tell you how good it is.

In the evening we attended a press conference about what’s new for Disney for 2010, 11 and 12… while there’s no new big ride on the agenda like Universal’s Harry Potter which is set to launch this year, there’s still quite a bit happening.

Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland is undergoing a three-year expansion project that will begin this year. The expansion will see the addition of a new Fantasyland Forest where all the Disney Princesses (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid) will all have their own sections. The classic Dumbo’s Flying Circus will also be getting a makeover.

On the seas the big news is there will be more cruises from Europe, with Disney Magic taking on a five-month itinerary that includes sailings from Dover and the company’s first North European Cruises.

We also got to see a video of Aquaduct, the water slide that will be on Disney’s new ship Disney Dream when it launches early next year. The slide is stupendous, heading out off the ship and having riders sliding along in a glass tube over the sea below. It looks awesome.

Finally, Disney’s is re-branding the ESPN World of Sports Complex… now we don’t get to hear much about this in the UK, as apparently, not that many people book it. In fact, I’ve been to Disney World Orlando half a dozen times and never really heard of it.

It’s a massive sports complex with tonnes of playing fields – apparently one American Football team comes here for warm weather training – and there are all kinds of events and tournaments going on.

One of the coolest things to happen in the re-launch is if you play in a kids tournament by day, highlights of the matches will be edited into sports news broadcasts that are played on screens around the complex later that day… if I was still harbouring my schoolboy England dreams (it’s not too late for that call Mr Capello), I would have loved it.