On the evening of Tuesday, April 5, Larry Kurzweil – President of Universal Studios Hollywood – stood on a temporary stage in the shadow of Hogwarts castle to introduce the third iteration of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to the world. An evening filled with movie stars and fireworks and a concert conducted by one of history’s greatest composers began with a speech that felt like it would be more at home at an investor call. “Tonight,” he beamed, “Universal Studios welcomes one of the most powerful brands of our generation, and the preeminent cultural cornerstone of contemporary literature and movies.” He was then followed by Tom Williams, CEO of Universal Parks and Resorts, who talked about, “the power of the Harry Potter brand,” and Warner Bros.’ CEO Kevin Tsujihara boasting about the way, “[Harry Potter] has grown into an incredibly important property for Warner Bros.” On a night meant to celebrate the extraordinary creative achievement that is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal brought out the men more interested in the trucks of money this thing is about to make.
Ever since the very first Wizarding World opened at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 2010, I’ve been dying to see it. Like so many others, the Harry Potter series captured my imagination and the tantalizing prospect of being able to visit some of its iconic locations in real life was almost unbearable. I never did make it out to Orlando’s version, and certainly not Japan’s, but with Universal Studios Hollywood only a half-hour drive (traffic permitting) away, I finally got to visit Hogwarts and the neighboring village of Hogsmeade. It is, in a word, breathtaking. The word ‘magical’ is thrown around a lot (particularly by that other theme park down the freeway), but even painfully cliché as it is, it’s hard to think of a better word to describe what Universal has done here. They’ve taken the imaginary and made it real, made it tangible. And not just as a ride that you enjoy for 5 minutes before jetting off to your next adventure, but as a living breathing place filled with life and implied history. The experience of entering Hogsmeade is uncanny; it’s at once an experience of discovery and rediscovery. It’s somewhere new and unexplored, yet also familiar. Aside from any of the rides, just the experience of living in that world is powerful.
It’s so powerful, in fact, that it might even be dangerous… but we’ll get to that. By now, no doubt, you’re really wishing I’d just cut to the chase and talk about the damn attractions already, so let’s get to it!
NOTE: Despite April 7 being the official opening day, Wizarding World of Harry Potter has been in ‘Technical Rehearsals’ (soft openings) since February. I will be acknowledging some of the changes made during this time when it was technically still incomplete, which may not be entirely fair, but I think it’ll make for interesting discussion. Do with that what you will.