The opening of Universal Studios' new Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hollywood brings to the West Coast what many consider the grandest theme park attraction in North America.
A mix of fully realized sets — including a steamy, fire-breathing dragon — as well as screens interspersed with actors from the "Harry Potter" films, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a highly kinetic motion simulator that aims to re-create the sense of flying. Guests sit on what appears to be a bench, pull down an over-the-shoulder harness and are soon whisked into the air, gliding in and out of filmed moments and elaborately constructed scenes.
A dragon, captured in a cinematic pose in one juncture, appears in-the-flesh — well, if theme park creations had flesh — and lurching toward riders in the next.
FULL COVERAGE: WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER
Thus, the ride captures a crossroads facing the theme park industry and perhaps all of Hollywood: Do we move forward by creating virtual worlds or strikingly detailed practical sets? This, after all, is the year of virtual reality, what with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive having been released in recent weeks.
Forbidden Journey shows that the future may be right in the middle, as the ride blends traditional dark ride effects with the high-speed thrill-like aspects that come from steering guests around screens with fast-moving images. Earlier this week, The Times declared it "possibly the best dark ride ever," and its popularity may affect North American theme parks for decades.
Universal's main competitor in the theme park space, Disney, is building lands inspired by the worlds of "Star Wars" and "Avatar," and, while much is unknown, each supposedly has a showcase attraction that relies heavily on motion simulator aspects. Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., are said to be getting an experience in which guests will be able to feel what it's like to pilot the Millennium Falcon, and Orlando's Avatar: Flight of Passage will re-create the sensation of riding one of the film's winged creatures.
In Orlando, Universal will launch Skull Island: Reign of Kong this summer, a ride that's supposed to have massive animatronics.
"We spent a lot of time thinking about how we merge the real world and the virtual worlds," said Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative, of Forbidden Journey. "How do we do that in a seamless way? In some ways, the virtual world is the only way you can effectively deliver on certain experiences."
That meant, for instance, "Harry Potter" actors would be making an appearance in the ride rather than there be next-generation animatronics. One of the most striking moments of the ride is when Hermione (Emma Watson) appears on a screen to wave a wand and send guests whisking into the air. It creates an illusion of interactivity, breaking down some of the static barriers that typically come with screen-based rides.
Forbidden Journey opened in Orlando in 2010, and Woodbury said the goal was always to create something that had more classic theme park aspects and was not a pure simulator. So the chaos of a Quidditch match is simulated, but when riders encounter phantom-like specters from the film, they dip, turn and twist onto their backs around more lifelike figures.
"Your ability to fly alongside Harry Potter and Ron and Hermione was really something we thought we could only effectively do in virtual," he said. "But tying together more traditional dark ride effects, like the Dementors, Death Eaters and all that, we were able to use those devices to give the ride the full spectrum of elements you would see in a theme park."
In fact, theme park traditionalists should take heart. Forbidden Journey may unwittingly make the argument that practical sets are here to stay — or at least should be.
For one, as virtual reality moves into homes and becomes less of a theme-park-only novelty, a premium is placed on tangible, immersive environments. The whole of Wizarding World as well as, say, Cars Land at Disney California Adventure is a testament to the idea that stepping onto a real movie can still be more breathtaking than visiting a virtual one.
After multiple rides on Forbidden Journey, the moments that linger in my mind are increasingly the ones that are built rather than virtual. Little details, such as the broken wood as riders wonder where the dragon went — seem to better create a sense of presence when they feel like they can almost be touched. Likewise the temperamental Whomping Willow tree. As guests spin and the tree lurches, all sense of direction is obscured, a deception that isn't broken by a blur of the screen.
"The reliance on screens, while entertaining and fun, definitely takes away some of the visceral experience," said Ricky Brigante, owner of the theme park news and reviews site Inside the Magic. "I think they're still figuring out what that balance is. What's the right amount of screens? What's the right amount of practical? I don't think parks are anywhere near abandoning practical elements by any means."
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