The world’s most popular wizard will soon be appearing at the world’s most technologically-sophisticated entertainment complex as Universal unveils its very own ‘magic kingdom,’ reports Dan McEwen

In 1990, while riding a train from London to Manchester, an unemployed teacher and clinically-depressed, single, welfare mom was suddenly and utterly possessed by an idea for a children’s novel. Although a small publishing house reluctantly agreed to print the book, the Publisher suggested to its fledgling author that she get a day job because she had “little chance of making money in children’s books.” In 2007, with over 400 million copies sold, this author was hailed by Forbes magazine as the first woman ever to become a billionaire by writing books.

She is of course J. K. Rowling and her books are the beloved Harry Potter epics. Not only are they ripping good yarns of skulduggery in the dark arts, the imaginary world of supernatural architecture, mystical beasts and black magic lore Rowling created as the setting for her tales has captivated the imagination of millions. Still, it was the movies based on her books that truly made the apprentice sorcerer’s fanciful, paranormal world seem as real and as normal as our own. Legions of awed Potter fans rewarded this feat of cinematic prestidigitation by making those films the highest-grossing franchise in movie history. And there are still two more to come!

Now, Universal Studios, in collaboration with Warner Bros., producers of the films, is about to extend the lucrative Potter brand even further. After five years of intense planning, designing and building, they’re ready to install the bespectacled young mage as the wizard-in-residence at their Islands of Adventure resort in Orlando, Florida. If all goes according to plan, sometime this spring Potter and pals will be ensconced alongside the likes of Spiderman and The Hulk in their own, private, 20-acre realm known as The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter [TWWOHP].

Keenly aware that Potter fans, like Trekkies, are sticklers for detail, Universal has invested heavily in the talent and technology needed to achieve the authenticity of the films.

“Our primary design goal,” says Paul Daurio, the producer of TWWOHP, “is totally immersing the guest in the world of Harry Potter.”

Achieving that goal meant enlisting Stuart Craig, the production designer for the films, Alan Gilmore, their supervising art director, and the entire team of artists at Leavesden Film Studios just outside London, England, where the Potter series was designed and filmed. Their involvement helped earn Rowling’s blessing for the project.

“She is delighted that Stuart….and Alan….have been collaborating with Universal’s creative team,” reports Daurio.

Equally delighted by the prospect of finally having their own magic kingdom, Universal’s executives Muggles are talking in superlatives. Mark Woodbury, President of Universal Creative, has promised “an exceptionally immersive experience that will touch the lives of our guests.” Tom Williams, chairman and CEO, Universal Parks and Resorts, went one further and predicted that TWWOHP will be “unlike any other experience on earth.”

“Our single biggest challenge was to reinvent the way we use technology to bring all of the action and adventures of Harry Potter’s world to life,” confides Paul Daurio. “Basically, it’s meant re-inventing the theme park experience.”

With that kind of advance publicity, expectations are, not surprisingly, running high.
“"Harry Potter continues to spark the imaginations of fans of all ages and we have seen the anticipation continue to build,” observes Brad Globe, president, Warner Bros. Consumer Products.

Although Daurio and his colleagues have been tight-lipped about specifics, the sneak previews on Universal’s website offer plenty of tantalising hints  about what Potter fans can look forward to.

The centrepiece and Entry Street for TWWOHP will be a faithful re-creation of Hogsmeade, the fictional village known in Harry Potter mythos as the only settlement in Great Britain inhabited solely by magical beings. And so it will seem. Arriving guests will be greeted by the vintage steam engine that shuttles students to and from Hogwarts. A gleaming, red, brass and iron monster, it billows steam as if impatient to begin its next run.Universal’s design team have artfully outfitted the assortment of shops and eateries along Hogsmeade’s main street as identical twins of actual locations made famous in the books. This includes The Three Broomsticks and adjacent Hog’s Head pub where guests can get their first taste of butterbeer; Dervish and Banges, the magical instruments and equipment shop featuring Quidditch equipment; and, of course, the wondrous Ollivander’s wand shop. Conveniently transplanted from Diagon Alley, Ollivander’s will be an interactive experience based on the books’ premise that "the wand chooses the wizard."

Still, Hogwarts, the second major structure in TWWOHP, will be the true litmus test of the zone’s authenticity. The films made the cathedralesque School of Witchcraft and Wizardry the central icon of the series so the design team has got to get the look and feel just right. Daurio is confident they have.

“This will be the only place in the world where the wonder, excitement and adventure
of the Harry Potter books and films comes to life. Guests will be amazed by the way we have layered every aspect of the environment with sensory elements from the books and films to create an unexpected sensation. Every detail has been carefully planned and painstakingly realized to evoke an unconscious sensory response.”

Fittingly, Hogwarts will be home to TWWOHP’s marquee attraction, Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey a custom-built ride experience incorporating a fusion of robotic
technology and filmed scenes that Thierry Coup, Creative Director for TWWOHP is touting as “a revolutionary, 360-degree experience and firstever combination of live-action, advanced robotic technology and innovative filmmaking….”

With seven patents pending for new technologies developed specifically for The Forbidden Journey, Universal says it will enable guests to “meet” Harry, Ron and Hermione, soar over Hogwarts castle with the super-star sorcerer himself, get swept into a Quidditch match and feel the chilling effect of a Dementor. “We have created an entirely new way to place our guests into the heart of one of the most compelling stories of our time,” trumpets Universal’s Woodbury. “What we have done will forever
change the theme park attraction experience.”

On the “grounds” surrounding Hogwarts, guests will be invited to participate in The Dragon Challenge inspired by the Triwizard Tournament depicted in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Essentially a re-theming of the popular Dueling Dragons coaster attraction, the two tracks of the coaster will be renamed as Hungarian Horntail and Chinese Fireball. A second ride attraction, The Flight of the Hippogriff will be a re-theming of another existing ride, The Flying Unicorn. Hagrid’s Hut, a walk-through re-creation of the home of the unkempt, half-giant Keeper of Keys and Grounds is
located nearby.

The fact that the seventh and final instalment of Rowling’s Harry Potter series will be published this summer doesn’t mean Universal’s timing is off. Just the opposite. Theme parks have long been Halls of Fame for fictional heroes. Islands of Adventure is about to become the keeper of the Potter flame. As Diane Nelson, President of
DC Entertainment puts it: “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is yet another way that fans will be able to experience and enjoy Harry Potter for many years to come.”