Expect 'NextGen'-style animation and interactivity in Universal's Diagon Alley
Written by Robert Niles
The leaks keep on coming from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley, now under construction at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando. We told you in December 2011 about the Gringotts coaster that will provide the centerpiece of the new land, and in March of this year we described about the various shops and restaurants you'll find when Universal Orlando's second Harry Potter land, which opens in the summer of 2014.
Now, we're hearing more about the various atmospheric details that will distinguish this new land.
You've likely heard of Disney's "NextGen" initiative, which, among other things, includes the installation of new animation and interactive elements in queues and other public spaces in Walt Disney World's theme parks. Well, Universal's creative team is raising the stakes with a similar initiative of its own inside the new Wizarding World.
Universal's pushing the intersection of technology and stagecraft with its development of these features, which, if successful, will help make Diagon Alley the most convincing and immersive themed environment ever created in a theme park. If Universal pulls off what it has planned, as one insider told me, Disney's NextGen will be several generations behind Universal's.
So what is Universal planning for Diagon Alley? Let's start by reviewing what we already know:
Concept art courtesy Universal
Diagon Alley Attractions
We've got two rides coming: the Gringotts dark ride, which will blend Premier Rides roller coaster track with a 3D story-driven dark ride. Twin, 12-person, Victorian-inspired open-air cars, arranged in three rows of four, will take riders through the Gringotts vaults, where they will encounter dark wizards, including Voldemort. The ride vehicles will have a motion-base component, making this a blend of Revenge of the Mummy and Transformers in the ride's technology.
The second ride is the Hogwarts Express, which will shuttle visitors between the two Wizarding Worlds: Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida and the original Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. Trains will travel on an elevated track through the backstage are connecting the parks. The windowless train cars will feature digital screens that simulate windows overlooking the passing English countryside -- but don't expect a smooth voyage. As this is a theme park attraction, expect that something will go terribly wrong. (It might be best to keep some chocolate handy. I hear that helps.)
Riders will exit the Hogwarts Express outside the two lands, and might be required to queue to enter the Wizarding World on the other side during busy periods in the parks, according to a Universal survey obtained by Parkscope. The Hogsmeade station will be located underneath the Dragon Challenge track, exiting on the "Lost Continent" side of the Wizarding World. The Diagon Alley station will exit through the facade of King's Cross station, next to the Disaster! exit in Universal Studios Florida.
In addition to the two rides, I'm told that Universal is working on a live show, which will play in the open area under a glass canopy near the Gringotts ride's exit.
Gringotts Coaster building (lower left) and the rest of Diagon Alley under construction in May 2013. Photo from TH Creative's gallery from earlier this week.
Diagon Alley Restaurants
The Leaky Cauldron will be the main restaurant in the new land, standing next to the Wizarding World's entrance. Your other refreshment options will include Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour, located near the Gringotts bank tower, and what looks on the land's plans to be a Butterbeer stand over one the other side of the land, nearer the Gringotts exit.
Diagon Alley Shops
Universal's creating another Ollivander's wand shop, this time with three rooms to handle to the "wand picks the wizards" show. In addition, you'll be able to stock up on Wizarding gear at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions and Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment (that will be the store at the exit to Gringotts).
The plans also call for Borgin and Burkes in Knockturn Alley, located over to the left of the land's entrance, underneath King's Cross station. And that's where things get really interesting.
Diagon Alley's Interactive and Animated Elements
Here's where we get to the fresh stuff! The experience will begin even before visitors step into Diagon Alley, as the Knight Bus, which will be parked on the London promenade outside the land, will feature interactive talking heads.
We already know about the giant fire-breathing dragon that will inhabit the top of the Gringotts bank tower. This dragon really will breathe fire (if all goes well in construction, of course), and it represents the largest of the many animated elements planned for Diagon Alley.
It might be worth taking another look at the Weasley Wizard Wheezes scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for some clues as to the additional interactive and animated elements Universal's planning for its version of that iconic joke shop.
Elsewhere in the new land, be on the lookout for suits of armor that fall apart then rebuild themselves, as well as self-stirring cauldrons and some skeletons that perform with a surprising effect that my sources refuse to tell me about in more detail. And goblins, too!
The most cryptic clue I've heard, though, concerns the wands. There's a huge time crush, obviously, to finish this land by June 2014 (for a planned July opening), but I keep hearing hints that Universal's got something planned that involves wands. One's imagination runs wild.
Which, of course, is the whole point. Universal is working to create a land that will appear to come to magical life for each visitor. With so many interactive and animated elements, the idea is that the entire land becomes a platform for an individual experience within the Wizarding World. It's not just about queuing up for a roller coaster ride. Diagon Alley has been conceived as a public place that supports personal stories, as each visitor discovers the various details and elements available throughout the land.
And the technology that Universal's developing for Diagon Alley won't be limited to this land. Expect Universal, at some point after the opening of Diagon Alley, to begin work retrofitting the original Wizarding World with new interactive and animated elements, so that the magical experience continues at the same sophisticated level across both lands.
Update: I'm hearing now that Universal is working on a "new generation" of souvenir wands, which will have interactive capabilities inside the park and some (undisclosed) additional use at home, too. So your old wands won't be able to do what the new ones will. The wands' abilities are described as more complicated than simple RFID-based triggers.
Finally, many of us are debating just how animated the Gringotts dragon will be. Will it just breathe fire, or will it move, as well? I haven't heard a definitive answer on that, and anyone who's been around Animal Kingdom's Yeti can tell horror stories about trying to maintain a functional animatronic figure on that massive a scale. But the dragon inside the Gringotts ride? Well, that appears to be a different situation.
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