On the one hand, designing The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley was a straightforward proposition for Universal Creative: take all the descriptions of the downtown London wizarding location from the novels and all the imagery from the films and use them to assemble a pitch-perfect recreation of a key part of the Harry Potter mythos.
On the other hand, however, there were several challenges that popped up during the process, starting with the fact that what was previously established in author J.K. Rowling’s world wasn’t enough to completely fill the several acres of the new theme-park land. New locations (such as Carkitt Market) and hitherto-unseen forms of entertainment (such as Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees) needed to be spun from scratch and carefully inserted into the pre-existing material to make the Wizarding World more of a real world for guests to explore and otherwise inhabit.
It turns out, though, that one particular hurdle combined both realities into one especially potent design task.
During the Legends Panel at last week’s International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) Expo, Thierry Coup, a senior vice president at Universal Creative, discussed how he and his team initially handled – and dropped the ball on – Diagon Alley’s flagship ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and how the resolution to the problem involved serving both of their masters: fidelity to the source material but the need to provide new content, as well.
The story goes a little something like this. Universal was committed to two fundamental goals while designing the new Wizarding World: staying as faithful as possible to the source material (the books first and foremost, and the movies second, interestingly enough) and ensuring that everything within the development pipeline was completed on schedule, which would allow it to be submitted to license-holder Warner Bros. for approval with enough time. As such, the original version of Escape from Gringotts evidently had very little of Harry Potter in it, and it certainly didn’t feature the epic, 360-degree confrontation between the Boy Wizard and Lord Voldemort at the ride’s climax, where Harry and company help you hapless muggles escape Gringotts’s vaults (and shoo Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange away in the process).
This original iteration went a long way down the development path, including being approved by Rowling herself, before the designers started to realize that it didn’t feature a satisfactory narrative experience from a purely themed-attraction perspective. “We kind of lost track of what made an attraction really great,” Coup said at the panel. “We ended up with an attraction that didn’t deliver on the essence of Harry Potter.” (Please note that the Universal vice president’s words have been edited for clarity.)
Thierry Coup then went on:
There could not be a conflict between Harry Potter and Voldemort in Gringotts Bank – it just wasn’t in the books. So we had to really look at this seriously and say, “Well, we have to create this. We have to go back to the author and tell her that maybe there were a couple of pages that fell out of the book.” We’re in the same place, we’re in the same time, but we’re seeing it from a different camera angle – we’re seeing something that wasn’t described in the books. It expands the story and makes it richer, deeper, and it’s going to make the ride that much greater. We need to have the conflict – we need to have the resolution.
The story was, as such, revised, the script was rewritten, and all pre-vis materials (such as animatics, which give a crude-but-accurate representation of what the finished ride will entail) were re-rendered and resubmitted for a brand-new green light. There was a decided fear among the Universal Creative personnel that Jo Rowling wouldn’t approve of the last-minute changes, given her (seemingly) intractable mandate to have everything stay completely consistent with her novels, but once Coup and the others finally sat down in a meeting with her, she understood the situation and immediately agreed. “It was a road bump,” Coup concluded, “but it turned out to be great in the end.”
It’s interesting to think of Escape from Gringotts with Harry relegated to only a quick background appearance, with the suddenly-leading-man Bill Weasley left to be the intrepid wizard who saves the day for all the visiting muggles; although the ride mechanics or track layout don’t necessarily have to be changed, it does, indeed, have a very different narrative topography, one that couldn’t help but feel more distanced from Harry Potter – which is ironic, given that the entire premise of the attraction is lifted directly from the page (and screen).
What makes this more than just an idle thought experiment or an interesting anecdote is the imminent arrival of yet another new Wizarding World ride, this one replacing the late Dragon Challenge. The same demands that faced Universal Creative in regards to Gringotts will also be at play with the new roller coaster – how does the company tell a Potter story with little (or no) Potter? How can a payoff be realized and a sense of connection and accomplishment for riders be achieved? (We have some of our own thoughts on the matter, sketching out three possibilities for both Universal and Warners.)
Whatever form that new attraction ultimately takes, and whatever challenges or missteps there may be along the way, we’re confident that this new coaster will turn out just as well as Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts did – and we can’t wait to experience it for ourselves.
Learn everything there is to know about Diagon Alley in our complete guide.