It's taken several years, but Hogwarts is finally ready to open its doors in California. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park extension at Universal Studios Hollywood officially opens April 7, but we were given an early tour by Alan Gilmore, the supervising art director for both the Harry Potter films and theme parks. California's Harry Potter park is is the fourth such park in the world. The first, also called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, opened at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure in 2010. Four years later, an extension called Diagon Alley was added to the neighbouring Orlando park and soon after that, another Wizarding World opened at Universal Studios Japan.
This newest park, an addition to Universal's existing Hollywood theme park, is a very close approximation to the original in Orlando. Both let fans walk through the wizarding village of Hogsmeade, complete with all the shops, sights, sounds, nooks and crannies people should remember from the eight Harry Potter movies. "You can watch the movies, then walk in here and it's the same," said Gilmore. "Everything you see here was originally designed for the movies, and we worked with Universal to make an absolutely perfect rendition of the film sets into reality."
For someone who hasn't been to the Orlando park, walking into Hogsmeade is a jaw-dropping, immersive experience. If you have been to Orlando, the park feels quite similar, with changes here and there. "It takes a really keen eye to spot the differences," said Gilmore. "It's generally the same, but theres a little more detail in a few places."
Actually, he's being modest. There are major differences immediately upon entering the area. There's a full new street nicknamed the Town Wall along one side. At the entrance gate, there's a replica of the Hogwarts Express, which links to a train cabin where patrons can take a photo. What patrons might not realise though are the luggage racks on the train are the exact same ones that were used in the films. They're just a few of the many real film props scattered around the land. "But you'd never know, because the actual movie props blend in perfectly with the recreated world," Gilmore said. (Gilmore revealed a few of the other screen-used props are Cho Chang's Yule Ball dress in a shop called Gladrags, and the actual desks and chalkboard from the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom inside Hogwarts.)
Most of the Potter-themed shops are the same as Orlando, just moved around and with some slight extensions and tweaks. You can buy gags at Zonko's Joke Shop, get some candy at Honeydukes, get fitted for a wand at Olivanders, send at letter at the Owl Post, have a beer (or non-alcoholic butterbeer) at the Hog's Head and eat at The Three Broomsticks. There are a few new additions too, such as Gladrags Wizardware and Wiseacres Wizarding Equipment. And no matter which shop you walk into, they have been designed top to bottom with detail upon detail, anywhere you turn your head. Floor to ceiling, even areas you aren't able to explore, are fully immersive, just to give the whole park an authentic feel and look.
"Everything here is hand-done. Everything," Gilmore said. "You can't buy any of this out of a catalogue. It really is art. Every stone, every piece of wood, everything you see was handmade by very creative people."
The layout of the park is also carefully designed to hold its surprises until the last possible moment. So, for example, though you'll see a forced perspective view of Hogwarts on the horizon when you walk in, you won't get the full reveal until you walk up through the park.
"We treat it like a live movie," Gilmore said. "So we storyboard it, we create all the views. It's very important for us that it's not too convenient. When you walk in we don't want you to see everything straight away. It's about the reveal. Lots of reveals. It's a storytelling journey."
Of course, though, the biggest part of the journey are the rides. Hollywood's Wizarding World has two, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is an interactive, thrill ride inside Hogwarts Castle, and Flight of the Hippogriff, a family friendly outdoor roller coaster. Each has a counterpart in Orlando, so they aren't exactly new, but there are some tweaks. (Full disclosure, when we visited, since the park wasn't yet officially open, we didn't ride the rides.)
On the Forbidden Journey, the queue still the best part. You line up outside next to Harry and Ron's flying car, walk through the greenhouse on the way into Hogwarts, which then is filled with recognisable artifacts, rooms and moving pictures. Inside, you'll encounter holograms of Dumbledore, Harry, Ron and Hermione that set up the story of the ride. Most of that is the same as Orlando, but the ride itself has been upgraded and is now in 3D, which is a huge change.
Here are just a few photos of what you'll see inside Hogwarts, while while waiting for the Forbidden Journey.
Across the way, Flight of the Hippogriff differs from its Orlando counterpart in that it's not just a refurbished old ride. This construction is totally new. On line, you get to walk by Hagrid's hut and, because it's outdoors, it's one of the best places to enjoy what Gilmore feels it the best attribute in the park: The light.
"We designed [the whole park] to light," he said. "California has amazing light. You can see for miles. The colours are vivid, it's basically the best place in the world for an art director to work."
And it's not a bad place to visit for Harry Potter fans either.
Top image: Hogwarts Castle at night at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios Hollywood. Images: David Sprague/Universal Studios Hollywood.