Universal did everything in its power to prevent a recurrence of the Wizarding World's original opening, at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure park in June 2010. It seemed that day that Universal had been caught unaware of the turnout that the new land would elicit. Traffic backed up from Universal's parking structure onto Interstate 4, as crowds began amassing in the middle of the night before the land's opening, long before the garages opened at 5:30am. Tens of thousands of fans snaked through the park and out into CityWalk by mid-morning, as the wait time just to enter the land exceeded eight hours.
This time, Universal opened the Wizarding World in Hollywood on a Thursday during the school year. It moved the opening time up to 6:30am, both to minimize the turn-out and to avoid any conflict with the notoriously congested rush hour traffic on the adjoining U.S. 101 freeway. The park introduced a new ticketing system that encouraged people to buy date-specific tickets in advance, then cut off sales for the date of the opening. And the park revamped its annual pass system, cutting off all AP sales for months before the opening, then introducing new passes that blacked out the opening date and initial weekend. A couple weeks before the premiere, Universal did offer a new 365-day AP — at a price of $589.
Thursday wasn't really the first day of operation for the Wizarding World Hollywood, either. It was just the "official" opening — the land began soft openings on February 12. And everything in the land was fully operational from day one of its "technical rehearsals," something that hadn't always happened with previous Wizarding World soft opens. That allows hundreds of thousands of local theme park fans to get into the land before its official opening.
And yet, this still happened:
A few hundred fans camped out overnight for the Hollywood debut, but Universal was ready for them, keeping the garages open all night and implementing a wristband system to hold people's place in a virtual line, then an actual physical queue in front of the park for them once CityWalk had closed after midnight. At 4am, Universal began letting fans into the park, where they were held in another queue the park has established in Universal Plaza. Once the Wizarding World was filled after 7am, Universal activated its timed-entry ticket system for the land.
And then... it rained. While Southern California's theme park fans might love a magical British village, they will not stand for anything remotely resembling British weather. The slightest drizzle of rain clears all SoCal theme parks, and since the rain began falling across Southern California on Thursday afternoon, I've not seen the wait time for Forbidden Journey exceed one hour, monitoring the park's official USHWaitTimes.com site. (The rain is expected to continue through much of the upcoming week.)
With an extended soft opening and a smoothly managed official debut, the story of the Wizarding World Hollywood won't be of the huge initial crowds, as it was in Orlando, but of the land itself. Which is what Universal wanted. The park is blanketing the market with ads for the Wizarding World, but it needs strong word of mouth to elevate Potter beyond Fast & Furious, Springfield, and Despicable Me — all which boosted Universal's attendance nicely, but failed to elevate the park to the level of adoration among locals that Disneyland enjoys.
Potter has the potential to help do that, but Universal needs local fans' first impression of the land to be the land itself, and not a crushing hours-long wait to get into and through it. That is why the park started offering date-specific tickets, a long soft open, and a revamped AP system. (And probably why a lot of operations team members are quietly fist-pumping this weekend, as the ongoing rain holds down the crowds.)
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter establishes a new template for theme park attractions. The Wizarding World is not simply a well-decorated collection of commonly-themed rides, shows, restaurants, and shops, as so many of the best theme park lands have been in the past. It is an attraction unto itself — a platform upon which all its attractions stand... and upon which fans can create their own adventures, as participants in the land, rather than mere visitors to it.
Want to fully experience the Wizarding World? Put on your house robes, get an interactive wand, and start casting spells at the shop windows. Hungry? The Three Broomsticks isn't just a place to take a break and get some refreshment for the rest of your visit. It's an integral part of the experience, where the food supports and enhances the theme, rather than distracting from it. There's no Coke, no burger, no pizza here — just the pub food, pumpkin juice, and yes, Butterbeer that fans read about and saw in the Harry Potter books and films. The Wizarding World envelopes you and all of your senses.
This isn't a theme park land so much as it is a MMORPG — a massively multi-player, off-line role-playing game. It's addictive. Even if you walk in knowing nothing about Harry Potter, the community of fans who do can help make the experience relevant to you, as actor James Phelps explained:
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter celebrates the magic of community as much as it depicts a community of magic. That sort of experience is exactly the thing that Universal Studios Hollywood needs to become a place where local theme park fans just want to go to hang out together (like Disneyland), instead of a place where you go to once every year or so, when you're hosting friends or family from out of town.
Of course, no one else in this business is just going to sit around while Universal makes this play to expand its market share. Disney's already responded, revamping its plans for Star Wars Land to create an immersive platform along the lines of what Universal created with Potter. Knott's is planning to transform its Ghost Town into the same sort of interactive experience with this summer's Ghost Town Alive!, where actors will portray residents of Calico, creating an ongoing narrative within which visitors can participate. Even Six Flags and Legoland are stepping up with fresh experiences — a virtual reality coaster at Magic Mountain and a Ninjago-themed controller-free interactive dark ride at Legoland.
But until Star Wars Land debuts, sometime in 2019 or 2020, Harry Potter remains the most popular and powerful franchise to have its own land in a Southern California theme park. And until someone else tops it, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains the immersive, interactive standard for theme park lands around the world.
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