Universal's Diagon Alley is a big win for theme parks. So why not embrace that?
Published: July 7, 2014 at 11:57 AM
Why? Because, at this moment, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley offers the best example of a themed entertainment environment in America, and perhaps, the world. Diagon Alley creates the type of experience that rewards fans for their love of theme parks while making others into new theme park fans.
Obviously, the hundreds of millions of people who have loved the Harry Potter books and films will reap the most from a visit to Diagon Alley. We've heard from dozens of fans who spent six hours or more in Diagon Alley on their soft-open visits over the weekend, even without getting to experience the land's top new ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. There's just that much detail to take in. Diagon Alley is, at its heart, a playground for Harry Potter fans, who can discover countless references from the Harry Potter stories while imagining themselves wizards or witches in this Wizarding World.
But you don't have to be a Harry Potter fan to be a fan of Diagon Alley. Theme parks do best when they provide environments that transport your imagination to a different place or time. Universal Creative's work here engages visitors' every physical sense, sparking the imagination of even the most jaded theme park visitor. It's simply the most convincing themed environment ever created, topping the original Wizarding World in Islands of Adventure, not to mention any single land currently available at Walt Disney World or Disneyland.
If you love theme parks, why wouldn't you want everyone to see that?
Yes, theme parks are businesses — big businesses, earning billions of dollars a year from their visitors. And businesses don't make a habit of promoting their competition. No one should expect Disney, or any other theme park company, to lift a finger to promote Universal Orlando's newly opened investment.
Yet that doesn't mean Disney can't profit from Diagon Alley. If Universal's new Wizarding World entices more potential visitors to come to Orlando, that's nothing but good news for Disney and everyone else who makes a living from tourism in Central Florida. Anything that makes more people into theme park fans also is great news for the company that attracts more theme park fans than any other chain in the industry.
Not everyone will love Diagon Alley, as richly detailed and wonderfully executed as it turned out to be. No theme park production will ever capture 100 percent of the potential market. That's fine. One of the wonderful qualities of theme park industry is the wide variety of experiences it makes available to its visitors. Inevitably, some people will be convinced to visit Diagon Alley only to be disappointed by the experience. They will prefer something else and will be entitled to those opinions, as will be the many others who will love their visit to Universal's new land.
What doesn't make sense, however, is attacking Diagon Alley without visiting it. Universal's done nothing to deserve that type of preemptive criticism. It's not cheapened a beloved franchise with inadequate investment or irreverent changes to the canon. It didn't leave fans frustrated with a ridiculously long or ever changing development schedule. It hasn't altered its plans for the worse, leaving fans feeling like the victim of a bait and switch. It hasn't treated its fans with a moment of contempt during this project. Heck, Universal even used the fan-driven #Potterwatch hastag to announce the land's soft openings on Twitter.
If Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts fails to operate consistently following its official opening tomorrow, Universal will, and should, face criticism for that. Some fans with certain vision disabilities will be disappointed by the Gringotts ride's use of 3D. Others will find the Revenge of the Mummy-style ride system unaccomodating to their physical restrictions. But, on the whole, Universal has worked to make Diagon Alley more accessible than its original Hogsmeade Wizarding World, with wider pathways and queues and a milder ride experience on Gringotts than found on Hogsmeade's Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
After Hogsmeade opened, four years ago, we asked What's the deal with some Disney theme park fans and Universal? If you love Disney's theme parks, great. You should. They're among the best in the world. (Heck, we just honored Tokyo DisneySea as the world's best theme park for the third year in a row.) But reflexively attacking any new theme park attraction that isn't Disney's doesn't make you a better Disney fan. It just makes people who do that look like close-minded jerks. And that doesn't reflect well on Disney, having fans like that.
Everyone who works in or who loves theme parks wins when a creative team develops something as wonderful and engaging as Diagon Alley. It will bring new fans into the market and encourage investment in new and better attractions throughout the industry. Whether you are a Harry Potter fan, a Universal fan, a Disney fan, or just a fan of theme parks, you should be welcoming Diagon Alley's official opening tomorrow.
And if you aren't, maybe it is time to ask... why not?