Those who want to immerse themselves in the world of The Boy Who Lived no longer need to travel to England or Florida — Universal Studios Hollywood has at last opened it’s beloved attraction “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” for SoCal Muggles to enjoy. Open to the public as of Apr. 7, I took a sneak peek inside the new experience, accompanied by supervising art director Alan Gilmore, who oversaw the original attraction in Universal Studios Orlando when it opened in 2010 and has looked after the Hollywood version, as well. Gilmore served as art director on two of the Harry Potter films, “Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Goblet of Fire.” You can also check out our new Artisans video exploring the attraction below.
Gilmore takes great pride, rightfully so, in creating a fully authentic experience from the moment you enter the land. “We see this as being in a live movie,” Gilmore notes. “You’re a character in it.”
From the start, you’re greeted by a replica of the Hogsmeade Express, the train that takes Harry to Hogwarts every year (except for that time in “Chamber of Secrets” when he took the Flying Ford Anglia — that’s elsewhere in the park.)
Next to the ticket booth is a replica of the seats from the train where you can have your picture taken with different backgrounds. The set is familiar in every detail, even using the actual luggage racks from the films. “Wherever we can find the real thing, we will,” says Gilmore. “And if we can’t find the real thing, we’ll replicate it.” He adds that the fabric is from British Rail, and he can recall riding trains with the same fabric as a child. “I’ve seen people stand here and it’s so immersive, they’re in this moment of absolute happiness.”
Asked how this park differs from the one in Orlando, Gilmore says they’re very similar, but many of the details have been refined. “Little nuances have been tweaked,” he says. “We designed it very much for the light in California. The light in L.A. is so pure, it really helped me refine the detailing and textures and colors. Coming from a set design background, that realism is the most important thing to me.”
That includes cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways and buildings with slightly askew chimneys made to look like a real English village. “It’s all about making it feel like it’s been here a thousand years,” says Gilmore. “And that includes moss and adding some grime here and there.”
Among the shops in the land are Madam Puddifoot’s tea room; Honeydukes, where you can purchase sweets like chocolate frogs; and Bernie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans. (Having been traumatized by once trying the “vomit” flavor, I took a pass on that.) And of course, there’s Ollivanders, where young wizards choose their first wand (or it chooses you.) One of the most impressive aspects is just how many wands are available. Sure, you’ll find Harry and Ron and even Voldemort wands, but there are lesser-known characters as well, from Mundungus Fletcher to Rufus Scrimgeour. As a die-hard Brendan Gleeson fan, there was no doubt I would be purchasing an Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody wand, which ran me about $40.
Even better, the wands are interactive. At 11 locations marked with a subtle seal on the ground, you can wave your wand and something magical will happen. “J.K. Rowling helped us create the spells,” says Gilmore. “We worked with her to add these extra layers to create a seamless journey from the books to the films to the parks.”
No detail is overlooked, right down to fake owl droppings on the ground outside the Owl Post, a fully functioning post office. Standing outside the building, you can even see a Howler — a letter that screams it’s contents when you open it before destroying itself. And you can send a letter to anywhere in the world with a stamp postmarked from Hogsmeade.
And there is food aplenty, from the Three Broomsticks, a replica of the tavern from the books and movies that serves traditional English fare (the Shepherd’s Pie is delicious) and features Fire Whiskey and three beers created specifically for the park: Hogshead Ale, Dragon Scale and Wizards’ Brew. Gilmore says all the food and beverages also have Rowling’s seal of approval. “Everything we create has to go through her filter, in a way, so it’s authentic to the world,” he reveals.
Of course, the big draw has to be the Butterbeer, the non-alcoholic beverage served in the park that any reader of the books has likely dreamt about. It’s a tall order to fill, as it’s been described so deliciously, and I’m thrilled to report it is indeed fantastic. It has a smooth butterscotch taste without being too sickeningly sweet, and a cream foam is put on top that somehow manages to remain to the last drop.
And what theme park would be complete without rides? At “Wizarding World,” there are two — “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” 3D-HD ride and the “Flight of the Hippogriff” roller coaster. To access “Forbidden Journey,” you have to walk through Hogwarts Castle, which in itself is a trip. Eagle-eyed fans will spot so many details, from talking portraits to replicas of props in Dumbledore’s office.
And the setting for the castle is the perfect integration to the space. On one side, you look into the park and on the other, you look into the hills of Hollywood. “I think this is my favorite setting,” notes Gilmore. “The environment works with the world. One side is like Scottish Highlands, the other is an English village.”
Though the park is an amazing experience for any Harry Potter fan (or non-fan, really), I had to be greedy and ask about more. In short, with the upcoming film adaptation of Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” hitting theaters in November, could elements from that companion book find their way into the “Wizarding World”?
“That story takes place in a different era and location,” Gilmore explains. “It’s really a separate world.”
Sounds like maybe another park could be in the works.