After years of waiting with wands at the ready, Harry Potter fans will finally get their first look at Wizarding World West starting Friday as the park begins "technical rehearsals," with the highly anticipated themed land opening without warning for several hours a day during the next few weeks.
I got an exclusive sneak peek at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter on Thursday as the finishing touches were being put on the attractions, restaurants and shops around the looming Hogwarts Castle. My tour guide was Alan Gilmore, the supervising art director for the Harry Potter movie series who has worked on the new themed land for two years.
"When we joined with Universal, we learned how to meld the film set and the real world together," said Gilmore in an Irish brogue. "It's really like making a movie that you can be in. You are in the story."
Entering through the arch leading to Hogsmeade Village feels like walking onto the set of the Potter movies. Forced perspective draws the eye toward the peaks of the pitched roofs of the crookedly constructed shops and skyward to the towering castle seemingly far off in the distance. Musical scores from the films play throughout the land, shops and attractions. The singsong voice of Moaning Myrtle echoes from the bathrooms.
In many ways Wizarding World West looks like a carbon copy of its Orlando, Fla., and Osaka, Japan, cousins -- until you look closely at the details.
"They're all a little bit different," Gilmore said. "The general design is the same, but they're all tailored to each location."
A few landmarks have been relocated while new additions have been introduced. Original props from the films are sprinkled throughout the shops and attractions. A photo op location tucked inside the Hogsmeade train station recalls the Hogsmeade Express experience at Universal Orlando.
"There are several backgrounds," Gilmore said. "You'll see Hogwarts in the window, the dementors and some of the more iconic moments."
The Ollivanders wand shop is twice as big as the 2010 Orlando original -- with a longer queue to match the additional capacity. Behind a hidden door, I stepped inside the interactive theater experience among floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with boxed wands. A wand keeper ran through a rehearsal with a fellow employee making bells ring and flowers droop before the correct wand finally picked the wizard.
Back outside, I borrowed the interactive magic wand of a villager (a.k.a. employee) and tried my hand at bringing one of the animatronic window displays to life. I waved the wand in the shape of a "4" and uttered "locomotor" to cause a tiered serving tray filled with desserts to spin at Madam Puddingfoot's tea and cake shop. Another wave of the wand in the shape of an "M" as I muttered "arresto momentum" brought the pastries to a sudden halt. Eleven of the interactive magic wand locations can be found throughout Wizarding World.
Most of the gift shops remain as ridiculously undersized as their Orlando brethren. As Southern Californians will soon find out, shopping at Wizarding World is a full-contact sport. Built to the scale of the candy shop seen in the movies, the interior of the vibrant green Honeyduke's is tight by any retail standards and will become all the more intimate when hordes of visitors descend on the new six-acre land.
"The reason we don't make it bigger is because we want to keep the spaces the correct scale," Gilmore said. "We kept it absolutely authentic to the film set design. We don't stretch the fantasy."
The small spaces throughout Wizarding World are a testament to J.K. Rowling's relentless attention to detail and her insistence that the themed land remain authentic to the books and movies. The cashier counters already show decades of wear and tear before the first customer opens their wallet. The water marks on the ceilings are by design and not a sign of faulty plumbing in the brand-new shops. The dusty windows are part of the set design. At times the level of detail can be too authentic. Universal has had to train the custodial crew not to clean up the owl droppings on the cobblestone pavement under the Owlery.
"Our level of patina is quite heavy and sometimes it confuses people," Gilmore said. "They're not too sure if it's a real detail or a faux detail."
The interior of the Three Broomsticks restaurant looked like the ribs of a ship's hull. Suitcases and steamer trunks sat outside doors in the rafters leading to the lodging rooms of the wizard's inn. A broomstick rack lined the wall at the foot of a staircase.
"It's so rich in detail in every corner," Gilmore said. "We've really worked hard to re-create the old stonework, the old lime plaster with the moisture seeping in from the outside. The building's breathing in a way."
The adjoining Hogsmeade Pub served the life-changing Butterbeer -- which was unfortunately not flowing during my visit. The addictive shortbread-cookie-and-butterscotch-flavored beverage will be available in standard, frozen and warm formats.
My tour ended at the 200-foot-tall Hogwarts Castle, guarded by a pair of winged boars that loomed over the entrance. The engine was still running on the Weasleys' enchanted flying car crashed in the outdoor queue. Moss grew on the side of the castle's stone facade. A walk through the seemingly never-ending queue amounted to an attraction in and of itself.
"There's so many layers here," Gilmore said. "It's all one seamless experience. We don't really think of it as a queue. It's a journey."
Along the way, visitors will encounter the desire-revealing Mirror of Erised, a patinated golden Griffon guarding a secret staircase and a portrait gallery where the subjects stir to life and talk to one another. The journey helps develop the back story for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey dark ride with stops in Professor Dumbledore's office and a Hogwarts classroom. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to ride Forbidden Journey or the Flight of the Hippogriff kiddie coaster, which were still in testing mode.
Both rides should ready to receive their first visitors when technical rehearsals begin later Friday. In theme park lingo, technical rehearsals are unannounced preview periods that can begin and end at any time -- and might not happen at all on certain days. Depending on the luck of the draw, the new Potter land might open for two, four or six hours at a stretch on any given day. Expect Friday's technical rehearsal to occur during the last few hours of the day.
A "soft opening" with longer operating hours is expected to begin in early March before the April 7 grand opening.
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