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:
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.
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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I wonder if the elements will react to visitors a la the RFID tech Disney continues to roll out? If so, will Universal implement some sort of high tech wrist band as well?
The wand stuff could be similar to Magiquest at Great Wolf Lodge but there just aren't enough details to make a determination yet.
The questions are:
Are they removing the old location?
If so, what will they replace it with?
What do you think about Gringott's being in 3D? I've always appreciated the fact that HPATFJ wasn't in 3D.
I'm not a fan of 3D movies and it seems like having glasses on your head may limit the amount of movement and speed of the ride.
What are your thoughts?
I heard there are fences up at AK and preliminary work has begun, but no spy shots have surfaced that I know of.
I am also amazed when comparing TH's photos to the superimposed map I created a long time ago. It is almost a spot on match. Gotta love leaked blueprints, Google Earth and Photoshop.
Instant cash cow.
This might make some people angry, but how many people really bring their wands back to the park after they've bought them? I can't imagine it would be enough to really get complaints. I mean, it's not like it does anything at your house.
So, no need to break your old wands!
I'm excited for this expansion, but have a feeling that this ride could end up being the size of Mummy at USH.
But boy is it going to make the rest of Universal Studios feel shoddy. It's already the least attractive theme park in Florida - basically just a series of boxes with attractions inside - and whilst some of the attractions are decent, (Mummy,Transformers, Men in Black), the rest is on the average end of the scale. I can see Diagon Alley totally dominating Universal Studios and drawing 90% of the crowds and sitting very awkwardly within the park.
I don't think there's as much of an issue in Islands of Adventure. Hogsmeade is so small it's basically just another of the themed lands around the lagoon and those other lands are generally well defined and well landscaped with good quality attractions in all of them. The whole park feels coherent even with the Potter boy in residence.
Shrek's not long for this world, I believe, so that's the next space I'd target for a big upgrade at the Studios. But once that happens, I think you'll have a pretty consistently well-themed park all around the lagoon.
Universal is spending its Potter money to upgrade elsewhere in its parks.
Diagon Alley will make people forget about the new Dwarf's roller coaster at the New Fantasyland. In this case, Disney's delay will not work to its advantage. Not only did its delay in completing the New Fantasyland hurt its attendance in 2013, they are unable to capitalize when faced with real competition in 2014.
And we're getting Springfield.
I have a solution. They ought to have a specific car for round trips. Either the car goes half way along the tracks and returns or it doesn't leave the station at all. The passengers just exit the car when the show is over. They never really see outside of their window so they don't know.
That's not my point - my suggestion is that once Diagon Alley opens the quality of that attraction is going to be so superior to everything else in US that it is going to draw a vast percentage of the crowds that currently populate US leaving the rest of the park relatively deserted and the Potterverse horrendously crowded.
I will have to disagree about Diagon Alley making the rest of the park look shoddy. I have always loved the more open feel of Universal Studios compared to the way IOA is laid out. If you really take a look around at all the detail that goes into buildings that are just used for props sake, it is very impressive.
IOA has trees, shops and barriers that feel like narrow hallways and everything feels farther away than it is, at least to me.
I do think you will see some big changes for both parks when the Potter 2.0 bucks start to roll in.
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Perhaps you have more info on this subject that you cannot share at this time, but I fail to see how any of the described interactivity is raising NextGen to a new level. Seems to me Universal is simply following suit with what is happening down the road. Which is fine by me as I support just about any attempt to make theme parks more immersive and interactive.