Additional reporting by Caroline Reid
When NBCUniversal gave the green light to a third flagship ride based on the Harry Potter franchise at its theme park complex in Orlando it could have followed the proven format of the first two and based it on action scenes from the movies. Instead it created a new story set in the world of the boy wizard and it has had a magic touch.
Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure opened at Universal’s Islands of Adventure park in June to critical acclaim and 10-hour queues. The line weaves through an area that looks more like an archaeological dig site than the cute and colorful lands that theme parks are famous for. It took more than the wave of a wand to pull it off.
According to a report by CNBC, the roller coaster cost $300 million to build and after just a few minutes in the queue it’s easy to see why.
Unlike many theme park rides, this one doesn’t have a box-shaped building with a sign hanging above the front door. Instead, the entrance is hidden inside a huge crumbling church. The brickwork is weathered, cracked and covered in vines. Ornate stone statues stand in alcoves and the piles of rubble beside the pathways appear to be lined with moss. It looks so much like the real thing that the only way to tell it’s fake is to give it a quick rub.
Arched wooden doors at the front of the church take you deeper inside and soon give a taste of things to come. The line passes through a hall which has a vaulted stone ceiling with vines creeping through cracks in it. Sunlight streams in from stained glass windows and huge eggs sit on rickety wooden shelves propped up against the walls.
It leads to room which looks like a stable and seems to be lived in. There a wood fire crackling in the corner, complete with artificial smoke, and a dusty pile of logs its next to it. Splinters sticking out of them prove they are genuine and real creepy crawlies seem to be there too as the wood is covered in cobwebs.
The tension builds as the queue passes through a network of caves followed by a room filled with cages containing weird-looking creatures which soon seem to escape thanks to some high-tech wizardry. It comes at the finale of the journey through the ruins when the queue funnels into an indoor courtyard where sun seems to be shining through the rafters. Behind the wooden beams is a pin-sharp screen which spans the ceiling and shows shadows of the creatures from the cages which seem to be flying above.
It’s incredibly convincing and is the kind of effect which would usually be reserved for the big reveal in a ride. It sets the scene and is a marked departure from the build-up to the other flagship Potter rides at Universals parks.
One is a roving simulator buried deep inside a towering replica of Harry’s alma mater Hogwarts Castle whilst the other is an innovative roller coaster that turns to face soaring 3D screens showing a chase through the vaults of Gringotts bank. The queue for that one sees guests strolling through the enormous banking hall at Gringotts with its marble columns, crystal chandeliers and dark wooden desks staffed by pointy-eared goblins.
Earlier this year it came to light just how authentic it is when Warner Bros, which produced all eight Potter films, opened the doors to the Gringotts bank set at its studio tour in the United Kingdom as we reported. The set is a carbon copy of the queue for Universal’s ride whereas the ruins in the park’s latest addition are a completely new creation. It set a higher bar than recreating sets from the movies as it had to seamlessly fit into the wizarding world that British author J.K. Rowling has created.
“Warner had to sign off the attraction so we worked very closely with them in realizing these designs,” says Gary Blumenstein who led the ride developers at Universal Creative. “Our internal team worked with the UK film team including supervising art director Alan Gilmour and various concept artists such as Paul Catling. It was a very collaborative process.”
Blumenstein is a veteran of the theme park industry and is one of the most respected names in the design business. His career spans more than three decades and includes credits on the lands surrounding both of the other Potter attractions at Universal. He also worked on the development of Islands of Adventure itself and was involved with producing concepts, scripts and presentations for the park which opened in 1999.
As Universal’s Creative Director, Blumenstein says his role on Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure involved being “in charge of the overall vision and making sure that is adhered to throughout the whole design and construction process. So I worked very closely with our Universal Creative team, Warner Bros. and our UK film partners to make sure that our creative is in line with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.” He followed a magic formula to pull it off.
“We rely heavily on the books, especially when we have new stories to tell or new looks to create. We refer to the books as a great source of inspiration and then based on that we move forward and work very closely with the UK film team in creating these environments. That way it ensures that it is ‘in world’.”
The path to Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure begins in a recreation of Hogsmeade, the Dickensian village from the Potter movies. It lies in the shadow of Hogwarts and, according to the back-story created by Universal, the crumbling church is an abandoned annex of it. Jovial giant Hagrid is said to have moved his magical creatures in but by the time the queue ends it is clear they have escaped. It’s up to the guests to track them down and Hagrid himself gives a helping hand.
Like Universal’s other Potter attractions, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is as innovative as they come. The ride this time is a 1930s-era motorbike which Hagrid uses in the movies. No detail has been overlooked. The roller coaster trains are formed from a row of the bikes and each one has its own number plate, sculpted handlebars, complete with indicator switches, and a side-car. That addition is the star attraction of the ride as the experience differs greatly depending on whether guests sit on the bike or beside it.
The high sides and low seating position make the side-car suited to kids. However, the bike is the seat of choice for thrill-seekers. A brace clamps guests to the seat but because they are sitting higher up they feel the wind rushing through their hair as they would on an actual motorbike.
“Wherever they ride, whether it’s the side-car or the bike, they get a completely different experience,” says Blumenstein. “There’s six inches between them and it’s also how you’re restrained in the side-car. You’re a bit more exposed on the bike. You hold on to it and you bank into the turns.” It means you feel the G-Force more and there’s plenty of it.
The ride starts like a leisurely drive in the country as it slowly passes an eerily-realistic animated model of Hagrid and a giant scorpion which emits a fishy kind of smell. It is known as a Blast-Ended Skrewt and is one of the few classic characters from the Potter books which hasn’t made it into the films. Blumenstein says it was an honor “to bring to life a character that had only been envisioned by fans as they read the books.”
It is one of the magical creatures that the ride is named after and the others are scattered around an outdoor forest of 1,200 trees. They were planted especially for the ride and the roller coaster track snakes around them. In amongst the trees there’s a three-headed dog called Fluffy and a unicorn at the finale but it zips by so fast that it’s easy to miss them.
The ride hits 50 miles per hour so it’s nippy enough to get adults’ pulses racing but silky smooth so it’s still comfortable for kids. It uses every trick in Universal’s spell book to immerse guests in the world of the boy wizard.
Not only does the track weave through the forest, it skims over a lake and at one point even passes through a curtain of mist and up an almost vertical incline. It gives a few seconds of weightlessness which coincides with Hagrid telling guests over the on-board speakers that the bike’s engine has cut out.
The effects all help to tell the story and it isn’t over in the blink of an eye. At around three minutes, it’s longer than your average roller coaster. During that time it accelerates a record seven times to represent the bike changing gears. At one point it reverses into an indoor section themed to the foreboding Forbidden Forest before the entire track drops down suddenly. It’s your ticket to escape the tendrils of the evil Devil’s Snare vine and return to terra firma.
The new ride had a lot to live up to. As we revealed, attendance at Islands of Adventure has risen by 64.5% since the first Potter land opened there in 2010 whilst Universal Studios next door has had a 29.6% boost following the launch of its land five years ago.
It propelled Universal’s resort to attendance of 22.2 million last year according to consultancy firm AECOM and the Themed Entertainment Association. As the table below shows, this means that more than three times the average number of spectators at an NBA game pass through Universal’s turnstiles every day of the year. Its average daily crowd comes to more than double the number of spectators at an MLB game and it’s even 28.5% more than the average crowd at last year’s soccer World Cup – one of the world’s biggest sporting events.
Universal is only beaten by the crowd at an NFL match and the daily number of spectators attending Formula One – the world’s most-watched annual sports series. Universal beats even them when its three other parks around the world are included as it gives it a daily total of 137,173 visitors.
Creating an original story for the new Potter attraction was the magic touch it needed to keep the attendance going in the right direction. It ensured that guests would have to see the ride to find out what happens as it isn’t copied from scenes from the movies. This also makes it even more of a draw for the armies of Potter fans who crave anything connected to the series.
The endorsement from the movie actors themselves is perhaps the strongest evidence that Blumenstein has succeeded in making the new ride a bona fide part of the Potter universe. “The creative team showed us their interpretation of why there is this ruin at Hogwarts and it would be where the students had snuck off to. So it’s really cool to learn new parts of it and stuff that I hadn’t even thought of,” says James Phelps, who played one of the Weasley brothers along with his twin Oliver.
“It’s about realism here and making sure that the guests, whichever angle they look at something from, it’s real as opposed to a film set where you know a camera can only be in a certain number of positions and therefore it has to look real from that perspective,” says Warwick Davis who has played three parts in the Potter movies including Griphook a goblin who helps Harry break into Gringotts.
“Many of the things you see here are from sculpts that were done for the films, the textures, the walls and those sorts of things. So the same people actually work on the two – the sets and the Wizarding World here, so those elements are very similar.”
Oliver Phelps adds that “they really did their research. When we first came here we were all knocking the walls because we were so used to hollow sets…It’s certainly more immersive than when you’re filming because it’s all fully finished here whereas on a film set you’ve got lighting rigs and all that different side of it. Here they planted 1,200 new trees just for this ride.”
Indeed, it’s so immersive that Universal has come up with a new name to describe the attraction. It’s called a ‘story coaster’ as it combines the thrills of a roller coaster with the storytelling aspects of traditionally slow-moving but detailed indoor attractions, which are known in the trade as dark rides.
“We have combined all of these thrill elements with the show that you would normally see in a dark ride. I don’t think there is another ride like this in the world,” says Blumenstein. He adds that although there were hundreds of team members working on the ride it took just three years to develop from start to finish “which was one of the largest challenges of this project. The scope of it is just under seven acres. Our track is 5,053 feet, which is the longest roller coaster in Florida.”
Universal has set such a high bar that the only question is how it could possibly top it. The answer to that question came at the start of this month when Universal announced that it had already broken ground on a third park at its complex in Orlando.
Called Universal’s Epic Universe, it will also feature an entertainment center, hotels, shops and restaurants within a 750-acre site. It will nearly double Universal’s total available acreage in Orlando and create 14,000 jobs to add to the 25,000 it currently employs there.
The cost of the development hasn’t been revealed but when it was announced, Brian Roberts, the chairman and chief executive of Universal’s ultimate parent company Comcast, said that it “represents the single-largest investment Comcast NBCUniversal has made in its theme park business.” There is good reason for this.
In 2018, Universal’s theme parks revenue was up 4.4% to $5.7 billion and onsite hotel occupancy reportedly topped 90%. Comcast’s NBCUniversal segment increased its capital spending more than 15% to $1.7 billion, “primarily reflecting investment at theme parks,” according to the company. The new park “will build on everything we have done and become the most immersive and innovative theme park we have ever created. It is an investment in our business, our industry, our team members and our community,” said Tom Williams, chairman and chief executive of Universal Parks and Resorts.
Universal hasn’t announced any of the lands or rides which will appear in the new park but fan sites have pointed out similarities between one part of the concept art for the new park and plans for a Super Nintendo World which is being built at Universal Studios Japan. Given its success, Potter is sure to be in the mix and another part of the art shows an arena which bears a striking resemblance to the one used for Harry’s favorite game, Quidditch.
Even at this early stage the plans seem incredibly detailed and, testimony to this, Blumenstein says that when Universal takes on a project it “makes a huge commitment to getting it right.” As we have reported, this doesn’t just extend to its parks in Orlando but also its elaborately-themed onsite hotels and its water park which looks like it has been ripped out of Polynesia.
Attention to detail is particularly crucial when it comes to creating new Potter attractions. “Potter fans are absolutely sticklers for details” says Blumenstein. “We really do think about what the hardcore fans expect of us and we make sure we are hitting the right notes.” They aren’t the only ones who benefit from this.
Universal Orlando currently contributes more than $302 million in annual state and local taxes and its tally is set to nearly double when the new park opens. That’s just the start of the story. The majority of the businesses Universal Orlando relies on are either regional firms or national ones with a large regional presence and that casts a powerful spell.
A study recently carried out by Sean Snaith, Economic Professor at the University of Central Florida, found that Universal Orlando has generated $73 billion of combined direct and indirect economic benefit for the Florida economy since Universal Studios opened in 1990. According to the report, construction of the new park alone will contribute a total of $11.5 billion in direct and indirect economic benefit to the Florida economy. So although it remains to be seen when the park’s doors will finally swing open, it already seems set to have a happy ending.
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