Expect 'NextGen'-style animation and interactivity in Universal's Diagon Alley
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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Interesting. Gotta love how nothing remains secret for long these days!
I think it's scale more than anything else. The scale of individual elements, plus the number of elements in the land.
Hmmm... still sounds like more of the same, but I am glad Universal is getting on the NextGen bandwagon nonetheless.
I really hope the main areas of the new section are able to accommodate crowds better than the original WWOHP. It's like a nightmare over there and every time I'm there I wonder WHAT they were thinking when they designed it. I know they were trying to make it really FEEL like the village but OMG - it's ridiculous at times.
The design for this new land really feels more like a traditional "hub and spoke" design with a central alleyway and four others than branch off of it. It should have better visitor flow than the original, though the placement of interactive and attraction elements throughout will affect that.
I'm fascinated to see King's Cross - which has recently been redesigned into one of the most architecturally uninteresting buildings in London... Perhaps they'll just focus on the platforms and not so much on the shopping mall.
I'm really happy Universal is stepping up to the plate with this! However, it kind of seems like universal is finally copying Disney with this. Disney has had an incredible AA dragon lurking in Disneyland Paris for, like 20 years. Small interactive elements abound in the parks. Moving trashcans, talking suits of armor, AA parrots, and more. I hope Springfield and the area around Transformers will include these kinds of interactive elements too, then one corner of Universal Studios won't outshine the entire rest of the park.
However Universal does it I think it will be miles ahead of Disney in creativity and technology. WDW still has not been able to match the Spiderman, Transformers and Potter ride and now new tech is set to debut. Can't wait!
I was wondering if they were going to put Ollivanders in the new section since that's where is belongs thematically. I also correctly suspected they would add more rooms.
Given the amount of money Universal makes selling wands, I can't imagine it closing the IoA wand shop.
Amazing, thanks for sharing this Robert! Do you have word on restaurants outside of the Leaky Cauldron?
Sounds great I can imagine people running around triggering effects with wands and little kids begging their parents for wands of their own so they can join in on the fun.
Universal has had 'Next-Gen' style interactivity for years and it didn't cost them billions either. 23-years ago E.T. started calling my name on the E.T. Adventure and he's still doing it today, though botching it nearly every time.
^That's right! ET's been messing up names for years. No wonder Universal has waited so long to try again! ;) Thanks for the reminder, Eric!
Robert: You da man!!! Watergate was amateurs compared to the Niles Big Leak Machine.
I don't know what to think about the 3D. It's used so poorly in so many places, but I like what Universal did with it on Spider-Man and Transformers. Still, some people can't see it, and that makes Gringotts less- or in-accesible to them. In general, I guess I do prefer parks to stay away from 3D.
Does someone have a wand that they bought at Universal Orlando, and would be willing to tear it apart to see if there's an RFID chip or some other element in there that could be used to support some interactive effect? I wonder if what Universal's working on is something that will apply only to new wands, or if the capability on the wand end is there already. *UPDATE* Strike this. See my updates, above and below.
Robert, I have multiple wands from IOA -- they all appear to be some sort of solid resin material that is made to look like wood. I would imagine that new, updated wands will be in order for these interactives. Another money-making gimmick, to say the least!
That's a smart idea, but I'm not willing to tear it apart.
I can already see some problems about the wands given how many have sold already. Can't you just imagine someone who came in 2010, returns in 2014 and sees someone else's wand interact with the land while they have to buy another one if they want to join in. I wonder how Universal will deal with this potential customer service nightmare.
It sounds like Universal is going all in on HP 2.0... can't wait to see it. It will just up the ante in the theme park wars and Disney will put their creative caps on when it comes to Avatarland.
I was thinking the same thing with making the wands RFID. Everyone who already has one will now buy another one.
I would personally love to see something like MagiQuest, with different quests that you can complete at your leisure and a collectible spellbook or something similar. One of the most memorable parts of the movie is the various spells, so being able to complete them using a wand would be remarkably cool and intimately personal at the same time.
Just posted an update above. Yes, we're talking new generation wands here. The old ones won't work for whatever Universal is planning.
For some reason breaking the wand is reminding me of the end of Deathly Hallows. Won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't read the book or saw the movie, but if you have you'll know what I'm talking about.
Oh, no. Don't get me started railing against the inferior ending of the movie, compared with the book!
That is why I have never read the books....
Does the size of the Gringotts show building seem small? Currently on Google Maps Sat view you can see "inside" the building. The show floor is currently at ground level with the rest of the park. And it doesn't seem to have the height to accommodate a 2nd level like Transformers.
The interactive wands sounds interesting - hopefully they will be even more interactive than the "events" that happen in Disney's detective-style cell phone activity at Epcot's world showcase.
Wasn't their talk about interactive wands before but was it cancelled because of the crowds triggering the effects every second of the day ruining the surprise (like now at Magic Kingdom).
I agree with Mr. Niles! The ending of the movie was so much better than the book. I mean, Voldemort turns out to be Luke's father and Rosebud turns out to be a sled? I'm not buying it!
I find myself wondering how unbalanced Universal Studios is going to be after the opening of Diagon Alley. From the sounds of it we shall have a totally immersion themed area, (although there's still way too little of it to call it a 'World') and it truly looks as if the level of attention to detail and overall 'feel' will be very, very impressive.
David, I think that's why we're seeing Universal remake the area around The Simpsons Ride into a more immersive Springfield land. You've got theming around Disaster and Mummy now, and Men in Black is a nice building. Transformers is a box, but a well-decorated one. It's the strip between Shrek and Despicable Me that really needs the most help, after Springfield.
We have two wands from 2011. We will GLADLY reach in our pockets and pull out some $ for two more...especially if there is interactive possibilities. I had read somewhere when rumors about WWOHP 1.0 was first announced, that the wands would have some "in park" functionality. So I think the idea was there all along. Maybe Universal just didn't have time to implement that aspect. But NOW??? Different story. So excited...will be there September 2015 ready to cast some spells, and head to our vault in Gringott's. Thanks for all the updates Robert! I come here everyday because I can count on information like this!
These updates are getting better every time. I love the wand rumors. In fact, a local park already has wands where the kids can make things happen when you wave a wand. Its at the dinosaur exhibit at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana.
Universal: "Your move Disney.."
David, I think it's a stretch to say that the rest of the park feels "shoddy". Only one portion is themed to a movie studio, and that's Production Central, which has the "boxes" that you're referring to. The rest of the park is very pretty and feels complete. Hollywood, New York and San Fransisco develop a strong sense of place and have excellent theming. MIB looks nice, as its themed to the World Expo.
I wonder if they have considered the situation of the people who are going on a round trip instead of the second park. These passengers shouldn't have to exit the station and then come back to the original station.
I realise I'm out of synch with most people here but Universal Studios just doesn't float my boat at all. My wife and I do it because it's there but very little actually excites, (that might change post Diagon Alley of course). It's good to know Universal are spending Potter money upgrading the rest of the park but Springfield leaves me cold - mainly because the attraction at its centre is appalling (The Simpsons ride is crude both technologically and stylistically). Even if they prettify the park itself, for me the attraction line-up remains weak, (apart from the afore-mentioned trio).
It's hardly a ghost town now without Potter 2.0. Not as crowded as IOA, but quite densely populated these days.
"From 18.104.22.168 on May 15, 2013 at 2:56 PM
FYI, I deleted a few comments and banned a user. Debate parks and what they do all you want, but we don't take kindly to direct personal attacks on other members around here. Be nice to each other, please.
Thank you, Robert. That banning has been a LONG time coming.
About time he got banned.
NB = Banned. No wait... I'm still here. :)
I think London will fit in just fine. Production Central and New York are sets while the rest of the lands are on location.
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