Countdown to Diagon Alley: How Harry Potter is defining the next-generation theme park experience
On Thursday, January 23, Universal is going to finally blow open its most-anticipated attraction yet, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, in a webcast announcement. To mark the occasion, we here at Orlando Informer are throwing a countdown to the two-years-in-the-making event with this new blog post series, exploring – and celebrating – all things Wizarding World.
In the old days
This is the way that theme park lands used to be constructed: a central, loose theme is chosen – Adventureland, say, or World Expo – and a number of properties, whether original (a rare occurrence) or licensed (all too common), are slotted to fill in the area. The rides themselves are almost always presented as a “greatest hits” of their source material, whether they be arranged as a loose retelling, as in Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, or mashed together with some original elements to try and present a half-new/half-familiar experience, such as E.T. Adventure. All those items that don’t fall into the neat category of an attraction, from gift shops to restaurants to, even, restrooms, are left to be the pesky nuisances – or money-making grabs – that they were originally seen as being.
This approach worked perfectly well for five decades – until something better came along and, just as with color TV or broadband internet, showed us just how underwhelming an experience this really was.
Harry Potter and the game-changer
Universal, perhaps because of its (mandated) close consultation with author J.K. Rowling, opted to eschew the tried-and-true approach for something fundamentally different when designing its first Wizarding World. Rather than doing just a hodgepodge of different elements from across the spectrum of the Harry Potter mythos – say, one ride taking place at Hogwarts Castle right next to a street in London across from an attraction at the Weasleys’ Burrow – Universal Creative opted to recreate one specific geographic location: Hogsmeade Village.
All the rides, stores, and possible eateries in Hogsmeade Village would have to fit its environment, and not the other way around.
Even more, every last possible spot in the land would be just as meticulously themed as any traditional attraction, even if that were the dreadful external reality of a bathroom (hello, Moaning Myrtle) or ATM (hello, Gringotts Bank) poking in. It’s a simple inclusion, but it makes an entire world of difference: it’s the closest to total immersion that any guest has ever gotten in the nearly 60-year history of theme parks.
Now, obviously, Hogsmeade isn’t an exact replica of its fictitious counterpart, as navigating a full village would be more tedious than fun, and there are still incongruous elements thrown into the mix – most conspicuously Ollivander’s Wand Shop, which is located in London’s Diagon Alley in the source material – for no other reason than Universal’s designers wanted to hit some of the, well, “greatest hits” of Harry Potter-dom (at least they conjured up an “in-world” explanation: dear old Ollivander finally decided to open a branch location).
Still, the decision to be as “geographically” faithful as Hogsmeade proved to be was revolutionary, and it also resulted in the happiest of accidents: the possibility of a real, true expansion for the very first time in history.
Night & day: Hogsmeade & Diagon Alley
“Expansions,” of course, have been a standard feature of theme parks since 1966’s opening of New Orleans Square at Disneyland, but they’ve never been actual storytelling continuations of previous areas (sorry, New Fantasyland). The debut of Diagon Alley this summer is a further game-changer, offering an entirely different land at an entirely different park that expounds upon – instead of replacing or overshadowing or just tacking on – the in-world experience, particularly in the form of connecting the two together via the already-much-ballyhooed Hogwarts Express.
Yes, this new Wizarding World of Harry Potter will build upon its predecessor in all the expected ways, from making all of its still-intimate stores multi-storied to adding interactive props or characters (hello, the Knight Bus’s Shrunken Heads). But what’s most striking about the new land is just how different an approach to the source material it allows Universal Creative to actually take: the single main drag of Hogsmeade’s quiet, rustic village will be replaced by several alleyways – including, most promising of all, Knockturn Alley! – that thrum with the hustle-bustle of city life. The quaint, short structures available at Hogsmeade will be dwarfed by the four- or five-story buildings of Diagon Alley. The in-queue elements of woods and huts and far-away places are replaced with train-station platforms and subterranean bank vaults.
It turns out that Universal couldn’t have done a better job in picking out two completely different environments to build theme park representations out of.
Why only Harry can do it
It also turns out that, in reality, Harry Potter is only one of a very few properties that allow for such diverse experiences.
Most films or books or television shows offer, by the very nature of their productions or narratives, extremely limited locales or similar story beats (think Two Broke Girls or, even, Boardwalk Empire as a current for-instance). It’s typically only in the realm of fantasy or science-fiction that a varying degree of backdrops, characters, and plot points is abundantly available, thanks to the characters’ abilities to magically zip around the landscape or transport to entirely different planets – although, even here, the ability to construct varying experiences is not as feasible as one might think. And without the promise of something different, the long-term success of any add-on would be extremely undoubtful, no matter the property.
Some of the magical (no pun intended) few that get the delicate balance right? Star Wars and Game of Thrones, sagas which have as one of their key draws the promise of seeing yet another, excitingly exotic location spread out before you, replete with different color palettes and religions and physical elements and languages – and experiences, to boot. Entire theme parks are possible with such rich material, let alone one or two lands. Hell, designers kill to work with such vibrant licenses.
Even with the possibility of the on-again, off-again Star Wars Land looming on the horizon, however, it’s very much an open question if Disney will be able to stick the landing as Universal seems to have done with its twin Wizarding Worlds; the company is currently in the midst of designing Star Wars’s presence at Disneyland as the standard random assortment of odds and ends (it is replacing Tomorrowland, after all).
And, yet, there’s still hope.
Imagineering 2.0 – and beyond
In 2012, Cars Land opened at California Adventure, placing all of its various – and fully-themed! – stores, rides, and restaurants within the town of Radiator Springs. Last year, Tangled-themed bathrooms were unveiled at Magic Kingdom, not only taking Universal up on its Moaning Myrtle-haunted toilets, but, incredibly, expanding the concept by including phone chargers and, even, a mini-scavenger hunt in the area around the restrooms. And in 2017, the opening section of Avatar Land will debut at Animal Kingdom, welcoming visitors to a recreation of the human base on Pandora. The twin gods of location and immersion seem to be well-worshipped at Disney’s new altar.
The true test of past lessons learned and future envelope-pushing, however, will be in what both Disney and Universal have in store after their current slate of in-design attractions has been emptied. If Universal gets around to building its rumored new water park either around or on top of Wet ‘n Wild, will it maintain the same fidelity to its source material, whatever that may be, as either Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley? Should Star Wars Land still replace a large swath of Hollywood Studios, will it feature Mos Eisley-themed bathrooms as well as restaurants?
Now that the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter have officially ushered in Imagineering 2.0, let’s see just how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Countdown to Diagon Alley
Can you believe we have less than two days before Universal will officially spill all the beans on the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Stay tuned for our next Countdown to Diagon Alley article on Thursday, in which we will take everything we’ve speculated and compare it to all that we learn during Universal’s special webcast. In the meantime, you can check out our other installments in the series:
And, of course, to start back at the very beginning and review everything we know about the Harry Potter expansion at Universal Orlando, visit the Diagon Alley page in the OI Universal Center.
Friendly reminders: Universal wants you to sign up in advance to see Thursday’s 10:30am EST webcast. And, if you’re attending this weekend’s ‘A Celebration of Harry Potter’ event, you can view complete details and the daily schedule by clicking here.
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