Vague Thoughts on a Soft Opening: The Wizarding World Hollywood

February 20, 2016, 12:13 PM · Disclaimer: The world does not need another review of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It certainly doesn’t need one inspired by a single day of soft openings. It certainly, certainly doesn’t need such a review from a theme park fan so profoundly ignorant, he can only claim five parks to his name, all in Southern California. (Okay, technically I’ve been to Tokyo Disneyland also, but they weren’t open yet. They let me wear an adorable baby-sized hard hat and everything! True story.) Nonetheless, if you’ll allow it, here are the nonsensical ramblings of a fellow who made it out to Universal Studios Hollywood this past Sunday on a total Valentine’s Day whim, to check out the “new” Harry Potter land.

Altogether, WWOHP is a fantastic land, and an even better, a fantastic addition to USH. Due to its size and available land space, the Hollywood park has always lagged behind Florida. It gets by on the tram tour, but it’s never really had anything like themed lands. Remember, USH is ground zero for the “studio park,” where barebones soundstages house whatever IP was randomly deemed most profitable at the time of installation. Much of USH’s “place-making” has been with post-modern silliness – the studio park trick of admitting to their own fakeness. This helped set USH apart from Disney at the time.

But they’ve been edging ever closer to being a true theme park lately. With Harry Potter, USH can boast a whopping nine rides (6 or 7 of those E-tickets), where once they just had the tram tour and some supporting shows. With tiny acreage, attractions alone can only do so much. The brilliance of WWOHP in USH is that the land itself extends the time a guest spends on its acreage, much more than “Forbidden Journey” could do on its own. It’s a very different way to tour USH than one does on the Lower Lot, where you just run between the three (awesome) rides, then wander off. And the guests I saw used WWOHP as it was intended: grown men in wizard costumes, children testing wands on every storefront, nearly every guest fully engaging with each minor nicety (except for the random fandom of vocal, vulgar Magic Mountain maniacs).

By USH standards, this WWOHP is immersive. You can still see some outside distractions, most beyond Universal’s control. Nearby skyscrapers loom over the quaint cottages. Heck, I glimpsed the Warner Bros. backlot from within Hogwarts! Plus the distant mountains covered in suburban sprawl. These are all unavoidable facts of USH’s location.

Immersion breaking moments which Universal could control – Springfield is visible from the “Forbidden Journey” entrance. (Springfield is USH’s former most immersive spot, a complete “Simpsons” land, but it’s too garish and cartoony vs. Potter’s semi-realism to work as well in a theme park environment.) From the Three Broomsticks and other spots I could see the “Forbidden Journey” show-building beside its façade. And there are prominent speaker poles and misters erected in queues, useful, yet odd for a land which wants no detail out of place.

But WWOHP’s batting average is great! People talk about how in Florida it created a new degree of immersion never before seen in any theme park ever, ever, ever. Every product, every cast member interaction, all work towards immersion. There’s no Coke, only Pumpkin Juice. I’m surprised they accept U.S. currency. In truth, Universal just fine-tuned and rediscovered something which has been around at least as long as Main Street U.S.A. or Knott’s Ghost Town. In ’55, Main Street was a lot closer to a genuine small town, with a barber shop and bra store and such. New Orleans Square was similar. Disney’s error has been to oversaturate every section of their parks with the same generic Disney style, until Main Street became just a really nice looking mall. (Eisner’s self-conscious attempts to undermine theme for profits, this is what Disney stood for when Potter first premiered.) But Disney is moving away from that, slowly.

I think the reason people would call Potter more effective than these old-school lands is due to Potter’s one-franchise focus. This is a near-literal duplication of locations seen in some films and books, so it’s really, really easy to connect with audiences. Who today could connect to a 1900 small town as easily? It takes more imagination and more effort (on the guest’s part) to engage with a non-branded, semi-historical location. But as Potter fades with time, as “Cars” fades, will their lands still work? I think so, at least with these examples. If the settings appeal regardless of IP, they’ll last. I sort of detest the “Cars” films, yet I adore Cars Land’s retro desert vibe. I’m indifferent towards Potter, but the idea of a wizard’s village could have worked even without an IP. I think WWOHP leans a little heavy on the guest’s familiarity with the source material. But it works.

“Forbidden Journey” is a fantastic experience, queue and all! The queue is Indy-level brilliant. The locker setup is a bonkers free-for-fall. My only complaint with the ride is, curiously, the addition: the 3D. The spex blocked my field of vision, and they darkened the non-screen parts of the ride. My second time through, I took the glasses off for the dark ride sections, and my experience improved immensely. (Reportedly, these soft opening glasses were stolen from “Transformers” using a Cloak of Invisibility, so some upcoming spectacles might improve the spectacle.) I also suspect that the ride’s intensity has been toned down in order to keep the glasses from magically vanishing. Perhaps this is Universal’s sneaky attempt to lower the height limit and make a (slightly) more family-friendly ride.

“Flight of the Hippogriff” – the family coaster – is bipolar. Where it is themed, it is beautiful. Hagrid’s cottage, the wicker ride baskets, the bric-a-brac in the loading station. And yet…it’s a bare-naked roller coaster. The track is painted the same tones as the local landscaping, but still. I’m fine with a coaster, in the proper setting, but when Potter does so much to appear accurate, this stands out. I understand they needed more than one ride, and in IOA this was grandfathered in from the pre-Potter land. It’s a minor intrusion, but it grates.

Food and snacks and such were all fine. Butterbeer is neat, though it’s no vodka. The pub grub was slightly below the quality served at my local watering hole, which means for a theme park it was exceptional. I loved exploring the shop interiors, admiring every item for sale, and every moving, animated detail in the nooks and crannies. That right there, those animated details, those are the best thing about WWOHP. I looked up from a Butterbeer queue once and saw a magical imp dash into a chimney. (This wasn’t my first Butterbeer, so I might’ve just been hallucinating.) Some say they could visit WWOHP, do no rides, and still be satisfied. This is true.

These kinetic movements, lived-in details, sensible products, in-character employees – the best of what a theme park can do. WWOHP combines these qualities more consistently than you’ll usually find. Potter is the perfect vehicle for this, a world which was already fully-realized and pleasant.

I had fun!


Replies (35)

February 20, 2016 at 1:44 PM · Nice well written thoughtful article. At the end you really nailed it. I'm no HP book or film fan,but I find myself spending tons of time in Hogsmeade & Diagon Alley (Orlando), hours & days in fact. There's just so much to explore and discover, and most of all to enjoy & be entertained by. It's not just a beautiful immersive area like some that you walk by and look at for 30 minutes, express your ooohs and aahs, and then continue to the next theme park land. It's an experience to live as if you were a character in the HP universe....I understand the Hollywood's park inherent sight line problems and it being smaller than Orlando's Hogsmeade. But if Universal Hollywood ever adds a full scale Diagon Alley, the nature of the buildings should allow them to do what they succeeded in doing in Orlando, namely completely blocking out the view and existence of anything but the Harry Potter world.
February 20, 2016 at 5:51 PM · Universal and Disney are putting their own version of what it means to do a theme. Universal's Harry Potter is the most pure. What you saw in the movies and books is what you get. Disney is reinventing a theme park land. Star Wars inspires the new land, but it appears to be a new creation instead of the planets seen in the movies. Disney isn't trying to do a Harry Potter type attraction where immersion is so complete. It made it more Disney in approach. Sort of generic Disney and generic IP.
February 20, 2016 at 2:07 PM · I'm very surprised they carried over Flight of the Hippogriff from Orlando. When I heard they were, I wondered if it would be designed to be less incongruous than it is in Florida. Apparently not. Sounds like the exact same problems as USO. You feel like you are actually walking through the magical village of Hogsmeade - where wizards apparently decided to build a mildly amusing family coaster...based on an eagle horse.
February 20, 2016 at 3:38 PM · To me it sounds like Universal did a great job bringing Harry Potter to USH, even if there are some noticeable flaws. While I don't think USH will ever be as popular as USF I think it's safe to say this will lead to stronger attendance, and more new things to come. I hope they dont totally go to the Universal Flordia/Disney approach of just being another theme park. Universal Hollywood was and to a certain extent still is a working film studio and they should keep as much of that intact as possible.
February 20, 2016 at 4:18 PM · It seems like I have a reason to plan another visit to L.A. in the future. This was a terrific article, well written and you brought humor and your enthusiasm toward this "new" addition to USH. Welcome to the title of "Writer"!
February 20, 2016 at 4:48 PM · A very well-written article and a pleasure to read. I also wish Universal had done more with Flight of the Hippogriff to make it fit the area more organically. That was a missed opportunity. I'm looking forward to visiting this summer and trying some Butterbeer.
February 20, 2016 at 8:54 PM · Excellent article and a great way to start as a writer. It sounds like USH did a great job fitting the land into a park which barely has enough space for an immersive themed land. You're never going to achieve perfect immersion in a theme park, but if you can (mostly) ignore the outside world then it works. From what I've heard, Forbidden Journey will be receiving google-like 3D glasses next month to help with the issues, and once that occurs perhaps it will rival Indiana Jones Adventure for title of best dark ride. As someone who has never visited the land elsewhere, I'm very excited to see for myself, though unfortunately that may have to wait until the fall.
February 20, 2016 at 11:55 PM · If you have to plan a trip go to Florida. The Harry Potter experience there is superior and the two Universal parks combined are an amazing theme park experience. If you have to travel then Florida should be the destination, not Los Angeles. If you're local to the Hollywood park or within a reasonable drive (3-5 hours) then USH is a great option to experience Harry Potter.
February 21, 2016 at 6:22 AM · Nice work, Mr. Hindley, thank you for sharing. After reading your review and others, it appears that the feather in USH's cap for non-locals is still the tram tour. I cannot imagine planning an extra day in SoCal just because of a Harry Potter land that, for the most part, seems like a step down from the expansive world in the Orlando parks. Now, if they someday add Diagon Alley and the Hogwart's train - well, then I would book a one day visit as part of a larger SoCal adventure, just to avoid the $50 upcharge people who do not park hop have to pay to ride the train in Universal Orlando.
February 21, 2016 at 9:39 AM · I am still not completely sold on how this is going to fit in USH. The draw of USH is not the rides, but rather the tram tour. This is the historic movie studio and...actually...a real working studios (not the USO/DHS fakery).

I would hate to see Universal (and Disney) just copying success at the parks by just building new thing just for money. I know it is the nature of the game, but I would come up with new ideas! I think Star Wars land should only be at DHS by the way!

February 21, 2016 at 10:03 AM · James and Anthony what a lot of die hard fans often forget is that for most people their attendance at a particular park is simply a matter of geographical convenience. Which is why cloning in a country like the USA makes prefect sense.
February 21, 2016 at 11:24 AM · Thanks to all for your kind and thoughtful replies.

There's a bit of talk above regarding USH's tram tour. I agree with others that it is the true highlight of USH, and it shall remain that way even with Harry Potter. I'd say the tour shows Hollywood's hybridized identity: it is a tour through a genuine working movie studio (the last ride of its type in a theme park, to my knowledge), and yet it includes Kongfrontation, Supercharged, and other "enter the movies" moments. Some guests prefer these fantasies. Others (myself) enjoy the movie sets and history more. USH needs to provide both, and Potter provides the strongest theme park fantasy escape they've yet had. It balances against the tour; it doesn't undermine it.

February 21, 2016 at 11:42 AM · James: The new hot rumor is that Universal Hollywood is thinking of building a second theme park where some of the sets are now. This would house Diagon and enable them to have a Hogwart's Express linking the two parks. Thought you'd like to hear this because it appears Universal might be one step ahead of you. They want your $50.....LOL......Note:Yes,there is a rumor on this out there. I didn't make this up myself.
February 21, 2016 at 1:24 PM · @MikeSharp In my defense, I did note that I was referring to "non-locals".

@Rob Figures. Universal Hollywood barely has enough attractions to justify one park and yet they are thinking about building another. The greed of these companies simply knows no bounds. I guess I'll just stay home and drink my Reed's Flying Cauldron Butter Beer instead. Honestly, whether USH builds another park or not, I bet they add an upcharge to the train. How can they resist?

February 21, 2016 at 12:06 PM · Mark, James isn't criticizing Universal for copying WWOHP. He's just simply stating that, as someone who isn't living in LA, he won't be tempted to plan an entire visit to USH just to experience WWOHP because it's not nearly as impressive as the one in Florida, which he has already visited, and because the park still doesn't have enough to offer to be a full-day park.

Although I do agree that cloned attractions is something of a necessity. I'd be pretty jealous if Anaheim kept Haunted Mansion and POTC all to themselves, and it's just fun to compare cloned attractions to see how alike and different they are from each other.

February 21, 2016 at 12:22 PM · FJ is one of the greatest rides in the world, so it's a bit of a shame that they felt the need to make it yet another 3D ride. Because it's a clone of a famous ride, I think there was some pressure from the corporate bosses to introduce something "new" in the attraction.That's unfortunate, if it detracts a little from the original's greatness.
February 21, 2016 at 12:46 PM · The FJ in Japan is also 3D, after an initial two months of operation without 3D.It's been 3D for a little over 12 months. Reports have Orlando FJ converting to 3D within a year.
February 21, 2016 at 5:26 PM · @Rob I am tentatively planning an Orlando trip next May... What are the rumored dates related to FJ being down for this purportedly unnecessary transition to 3D?
February 21, 2016 at 4:08 PM · James: No dates yet. There's so many attractions down with all of these expansions coming that they're probably being cautious on limiting park capacity. They may be looking at a slow time, but there's not many of those anymore. If I hear any possible dates in the future I'll post it on a Universal oriented thread. I'm hoping it's converted before May 2017, since they have so much going on in 2017. They're opening VB & Jimmy Fallon early in 2017 and Fast & Furious late in 2017. We've heard they're making a number of changes & adding enhancements to make it better than the version that Hollywood opened. The building is really going to be "huge". That's why it's pushed back to fall 2017.
February 21, 2016 at 4:02 PM · Wasn't the conversion in Japan an overnight thing? I'm sure Orlando would have the same.
February 21, 2016 at 4:47 PM · Japan was already set up for 3D when they opened the ride originally, so I'm unsure if Orlando has any other work to do in preparation for the enhancement. But they've already made numerous changes to the projector brightness and toned down the movement of the Kuka arms in the last two years, so perhaps they won't need more than a few days or weeks to make the final move.The other thing to keep in mind that the attraction is six years old now & they've never done a shutdown time refurb on it yet. That could possibly figure in the plans with a 3D transformation and add some days to a conversion. All just guesses at this point though.
February 21, 2016 at 4:53 PM · Not so concerned about VB (water parks...ugh!) or Fallon or even Fast and Furious, but if FJ is down, I'll have to move my dates. So keep us posted, brother.
February 22, 2016 at 2:04 AM · Does ANYONE know how long this soft opening will be? My man and I are celebrating our 10 year anniversary this saturday and we planned to go to universal studios of Hollywood because I heard about this soft opening and lost my shiizzz. Lol. Rumors are it will be all week long but I literally need to KNOW. ugh this is so stressful. Anyone?
February 22, 2016 at 4:52 AM · I hope what Rob has been hearing about converting Orlando's FJ to 3D is just Universal giving an early April Fool's joke. Why do they need to convert it to 3D?! It's completely unnecessary!

First off, the ride isn't even a decade old yet, so I don't think that such a drastic change could be justified yet. Second, FJ is one of the most if not the most popular ride in the resort; many consider it one of the greatest rides ever! So it doesn't need to add any gimmicks to maintain relevance. Third, everyone seems to be complaining that the 3D is taking away some of the ride's quality; do why then add it to the only existing version that wasn't intended to have 3D and has been doing just fine without it? And lastly, one of the biggest complaints Universal gets is that they're overly-reliant on 3D, so why add more fuel to the flame?!

This is the theme park equivalent of when George Lucas digitally "remastered" the original Star Wars trilogy.

February 22, 2016 at 9:48 AM · Will do James. Whatever happens shouldn't be one of those long refurbs. Universal has too much tied up in their HP vacation packages. Probably anything from a few days to a few weeks and hopefully during a slow time in 2016.
February 22, 2016 at 10:26 AM · This news about Orlando's FJ is a big disappointment. Those parks already have too much 3D. I can understand closing the ride for a refurb, but adding 3D is totally unnecessary and may actually detract from the quality of the attraction.
February 22, 2016 at 3:14 PM · To,

The soft opening is supposed to last all the way until the official opening day on April 7th. However, the land may not operate every day and may have different hours from the rest of the park. This information will not be announced, you will either have to check at the park or search through social media. If you are going to USH primarily for Wizarding World of Harry Potter and you do not have a pass to come back if it isn't open, you would be better off waiting until after the official opening date.

February 22, 2016 at 4:29 PM · Universal IS a working studio, but they don't film that much there. Mostly just TV (the Voice, CSI, NBC sitcoms). It was used HEAVILY when travel was too difficult, but now MOST movies are filmed on location. Also A LOT of other states are paying BIG money for the studios to film there, even TV (see Walking Dead, anything set in New York, Nashville, etc). That is why Universal has been moving more and more towards the theme park angle.
February 22, 2016 at 4:50 PM · Full Disclosure: I work at USH. I've been on the new FB-3D and recently spent two days exploring WWOHP-Orlando. In Orlando, I'd heard FB would convert to 3D but not sure what the plans are now. And to James Rao -- I respect your opinion as a theme-park enthusiast and value-oriented consumer, but it's wrong to classify Orlando as charging $50 just to "ride the train". But the reason I'm posting here is about FB-3D. Thing is, I get it. 3 of 6 in-park rides will be 3D when WWoHP opens, plus the two 3D attractions/rides on the Studio Tour (King Kong and Supercharged). That's a lot of 3D. But with FB, it worked. From the opening, when Hermione commands you to say a spell and you fly through the Vortex, to the Dementors coming at you, to the Flying Snitch in your face, to just the overall clarity of the images on screen, it's impressive in it's own way. As for the non-screen portions and how those look through the temp-glasses, I didn't notice an issue, and I were glasses under the 3D goggles, but perhaps for some people it will be a distraction. In the end, though, I'd be very surprised if guests ultimately disapprove of the 3D conversion. Overall, it looked awesome.
February 23, 2016 at 4:51 AM · @ You wrote that I was "wrong" about Universal Orlando's upcharge on the Hogwarts train, however if you go back and read my statement again, you'll see it was OBJECTIVELY correct. But, I don't want to digress again - people know where I stand, and I am happy to find out that I don't stand alone. To your main point about 3-D, it is not so much that folks don't want or like 3D, just that it seems wholly unnecessary and gimmicky in this case. FJ is a good enough ride on its own and doesn't need another gimmick to power it to the spotlight.
February 23, 2016 at 5:40 AM · At what point will there be a public backlash against the overuse of 3D at USH? If Gringott's Coaster is built that'll be one more. If there's a park that doesn't need more 3D it's USH. I'd rather USH get the regular version of FJ without the 3D and let Orlando have the "upgraded" 3D version instead.
February 24, 2016 at 11:39 AM · Objective or not, James, it's doesn't fully consider the realities behind-the-scenes. Hogwarts Express is built to take you between Potter universes, not just between the parks. There's no place to put the guests that just want to ride that train, unless you ask them to queue up to ride back, and in peak season this would overcrowd an already over-crowded platform. But what you're also not considering is that Warner Bros and JK Rowling have the final say on how their property is operated and paid for. JK demands authenticity, and it's not authentic for a "wizard" to ride Hogwarts in and out of London... but not actually enter the world they're traveling too. Conceivably you could do that if you have the park-hopper, but that's the right you've earned if you'd paid for both worlds. My guess is most guests don't do that, however. Plz understand, I get your point-of-view but it's somewhat of an outlier. And I don't write this to argue with you, just to present an "insider's" pov.

I don't think they'll be a backlash against 3D at USH-- just a lot of grumbles. Ha. It's totally subjective for people. Gimmick or not, in ways it enhances a ride. On FJ, I found it cool... but everyone's right, the original ride is one of the worlds best so why tinker? But on other rides, like Despicable Me, to watch children reach out to "touch" the minions and things floating in front of them is fun to see.

K... that's all from this employee. Back to work.

February 25, 2016 at 6:08 AM · @ The reality I fully consider is the one that costs me, a non-park hopper and his family of five, $250 to ride an attraction at Universal Orlando. Were it not logistically possible for Universal to offer a "round trip ticket" for non-park hoppers, you would have a point. But as it is possible, and something Universal even considered at one time, then all the pretty words you put around this ticket gouging policy won't change the actual reality: it is a money grab, and many of us "outliers" (I prefer the term "fiscally responsible people") don't like it.
February 25, 2016 at 12:34 PM · Well I thank you for at least considering me pretty... in a way. : ) If I could hook you and your family up with a free day, if it was in my power, I would. I can't even fathom what the cost must be like to entertain a family of 5 on a consistent basis. But I do encourage you to reach out to Orlando Guest Relations, if you haven't already, to voice your concerns. I know in Hollywood, the Guest Relations department is very in-tune to complaints people share on social-media so perhaps your views will earn you a complimentary something or other. And I hope you understand my pov in all this -- about all the perks that come with that extra $50, and not just a singular attraction. But if not, that's ok too.

I'll end my involvement in this comment section here. The OP wrote a great, thoughtful article about USH and the WWoHP soft-opening, which we all are very excited about. It's a beautiful land, and so important for USH. Many of us can imagine Hogwarts Express choo-chooing it's way down the mountain toward Diagon Alley on the backlot, if in fact that's were it goes... if it's even built. But for now, thank you for engaging with me, James. I do hope you have more positive experiences at Universal Theme Parks in the future. Best to you and your family.

February 26, 2016 at 11:14 AM · @ Make no mistake - I have wonderful experiences at Universal Orlando. I don't need some lame, upcharge train ride to complete my day. Plus by saving $250 I have more money to spend on other things like a few sit down restaurants instead of counter service, and a new T-Shirt or two. Universal gets my money, they just don't get it in the form of an upcharge for a train.

And I do get your POV - it is the POV of a park hopper. To non-park hoppers, the only "perk" of the $50 upcharge is riding the train.

You are welcome back to this site anytime. Don't be a stranger. And best of luck with your career at Universal Studios!!!

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