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 kicking off a countdown to the two-years-in-the-making event with this new blog post series, exploring – and celebrating – all things Wizarding World.
Diagon Alley is going to do nothing less than revolutionize the theme park industry. According to Dale Mason, the project’s executive art director, they’re “building it so much bigger than, I think, anybody can imagine.” The latest insider intel promises that it’s going to feature never-before-seen methods of crowd control and merchandising opportunities. Suits of armor are going to tumble apart and then rebuild themselves right in front of guests’ eyes, while the Hogwarts Express is going to connect with Hogsmeade over at Islands of Adventure – the first time in theme park history that multiple locations will be linked together in one seamless experience.
That’s quite a tall order to fill – perhaps a little too tall. The question, then, very quickly becomes: what if Diagon Ally doesn’t end up becoming the greatest and most immersive theme park land ever devised, as has been foretold over these past many months? What if it, well, sucks?
Okay – “sucks” is perhaps too strong of a word, particularly given the track record that Universal Creative has established for itself as of late, including the first wondrous Wizarding World. But it turns out that the new expansion doesn’t have to drop the ball more than just an inch in order to be branded a failure in the hearts and minds of theme enthusiasts the worldwide web over, let alone that sometimes-cantankerous lot known as journalists; with the sheer amount of hyperbole that has saturated every press release, every dedicated forum, and every churning of the rumor mill, it will be nearly impossible for Universal to deliver on the now-sky-high expectations.
And it’s not like our (pop) culture hasn’t led us astray before, exponentially increasing hopes and, even, demands of the fanbase until they’re well past the point of any sort of reason. The advent of the long-awaited Star Wars prequel trilogy is perhaps the best example of this, causing all sorts of fanboys to commit virtual seppuku for some misperceived slight or another, but the more recent release of the latest Song of Ice and Fire novel (you know, the book series that HBO’s Game of Thrones is based off of) also falls neatly into this category. And the most confounding instance of them all is the last installment of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which was branded disastrous all because a number of fans who knew nothing of the filmmaking process managed to spy videos of the on-location shooting and didn’t like what they saw. (The irony here is that, even though the finished film went on to rave reviews, it was a substandard product, especially when compared with its predecessor, The Dark Knight.)
Beyond the grandiose promises of Universal’s Creative execs and marketing team, the company is investing well over $400 million in Diagon Alley – nearly double what it spent on Hogsmeade. Cabana Bay Beach Resort, another multi-million dollar project, is being built entirely on the back of the expansion. And the company has already pledged some $500 million for next year and the year after, building new attractions and upgrading older ones, which has only been made possible due to the success of its Wizarding Worlds. To say that Universal has a lot riding on Diagon Alley is a profound understatement – so what happens if it does, indeed, face a backlash, deservedly or not?
The answer is, more than likely, a good one for Universal and for most fans.
What’s important to understand is that most of the park-going public cares very little for which rumor did or didn’t pan out, which ride was toned down from its earlier incarnations, or which ultra-diehard fan who has literally spent hours looking at just one set of construction photos – yes, they really are out there – doesn’t like the modeling of Diagon’s rooftops. After all, there was a consistent, if not overpowering, amount of blowback when Hogsmeade first opened its doors three-and-a-half years ago: the presence of two rethemed rides was detrimental to the land’s originality; there wasn’t enough street-level atmosphere; the lack of queuing (for Ollivander’s Wand Shop and, even, for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) showed just how far over its head Universal really was. And yet none of that made one dent in public demand for Harry Potter’s first theme park outing — as you can see in this video from the 2013 holiday season:
Perhaps an even more illustrative example is to look at Universal’s main competition down the street. Disney-philes have been complaining, sometimes strenuously so, about Walt Disney World for at least half of its existence, and yet they still flock to their favorite – and make no mistake: it is still their favorite – resort year after year, decade after decade. New hotels are descended upon en masse, new attractions (even if they’re simply character meet-and-greets or rethemed restrooms) are passionately followed every step of the way, and, of course, pins are greedily acquired and traded. If Universal is successful in replicating this type of dedicated fanbase at its own resort, which, by all accounts, it is clearly in the process of doing, then it has nothing to worry about, negative feedback or no.
But, still, it’s an interesting situation – and an indication of Universal having officially “made it” – that we can even contemplate arriving at this situation. Will Gringotts Bank be the best ride ever made in the history of man? Will Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes offer the most inventive array of merchandise? Will the RFID-equipped interactive wands ever arrive? Will Universal Studios Florida’s attendance rate beat that of Magic Kingdom’s this year? Will Diagon Alley suck?
The only worthwhile answer, as in any such case, is to pose another question: will an insane amount of magic be had in the experience, regardless of its exact details?
Stay tuned for our next Countdown to Diagon Alley article to be published soon! 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.
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