So, you're a Harry Potter fan.
You've read the books; you've seen the movies. You've shared every moment of Hogwarts hijinks. You've got strong opinions about which house you'd be in. (I aspire to be a Gryffindor, but let's be real: I'd probably be a Ravenclaw.) You know the correct pronunciations of all the best spells (“levi-OH-sa,” not “levio-SAH”). You follow J.K. Rowling on Twitter. You've been to Whimsic Alley. You add the letter U into words it has no business touching in North America. You've got a favourite (see!) quidditch team (the Holyhead Harpies), a favorite fictional food (Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans), a favorite mythical beast (blast-ended skrewt). Sometimes, when you're not even thinking about Harry and Hermione and company, the movie's theme song creeps into your head, during your elevator ride, or on your morning commute.
If you identified with that paragraph, Universal Studios' new Wizarding World of Harry Potter was made for you. If your favorite Harry Potter character is Gandalf or you think you recognized some of those words from Game of Thrones, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was made for you, too. In creating the ultimate IRL tribute to the series and its fandom, the park's creators sought to blend the boundaries between the books and the movies while also appealing to both fans and muggles alike. You don't have to be a Harry Potter fan to appreciate their efforts, but the park will do its best to convert you.
In fact, there's so much going on at the park that it would take a time-turner to document it all. So L.A. Weekly recruited an expert to walk us through the process of bridging several worlds across several years to create an ode to British magic in the middle of Hollywood: Alan Gilmore, supervising art director for the park and art director for the second, third and fourth Harry Potter films. (Gilmore's favorite character: Sirius Black. The Hogwarts house he'd be in: “I won't reveal it.”)
Here are 9 ¾ things to know before the park opens on April 7:
1) The park was designed by many of the same people who created the films.
After his work on Harry Potter movies two through four, Gilmore was art director for The Bourne Ultimatum and X-Men: First Class. He was working in London when he got a call from Stuart Craig, production designer for the Harry Potter films. Craig said, “'We're going to do a theme park,' and my first instinct was, 'Oh my God,'” Gilmore remembers. He'd been to other theme parks, and he wasn't impressed by their production quality. “I was nervous. It was a very interesting first few steps.”
Much of the original U.K. team behind the films' aesthetics signed on to work on the park, where they began to create Hogwarts and Hogsmeade all over again. “We took our designs and translated them exactly the way we had designed them for the films,” Gilmore says. The team re-created Ollivander's, Hogwarts and the streets of Hogsmeade Village, with a few notable exceptions including lighting and materials.
The biggest challenge was turning a very temporary film set into a real place — one that relied on the Southern California sun for lighting instead of a director of photography and could be easily traversed by real people. “On a film set we can have very strange-shaped rooms with low archways,” Gilmore says, “and in a theme park we're creating a safe place where children and adults and people with wheelchairs can actually visit.”
Because the development of the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter park at Universal Studios Orlando overlapped with the creation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the film team was able to borrow some of the film's actors — including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint — to shoot extra footage specifically for the parks. Visitors will recognize a few famous faces as they make their way through Hogwarts for the “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” 3-D ride. Tell the Fat Lady we said hello.
2) The magic is in the minutiae.
There is no part of this park that an entire team of people couldn't write a dissertation about. The creative team — set designers, costume designers, food designers, etc. — began with 60 to 70 people, but that number grew into the hundreds once the work crossed over to the United States, Gilmore says. And all of those people were hyper-focused on making the park as realistic and as true to the series as possible.
“Every detail gets attention, no matter how big or small,” says Gilmore, including some details visitors might not notice even after multiple trips. Don't even get him started on the amount of work that went into the restrooms. In some of the offices in the park's Hogwarts castle, all the books have words on their pages, even though no visitor will ever flip through them. “It's a world of small details. As people go and visit several times, they should see more and more little moments and little things from the film.”
Ultimately, Gilmore says the hardest part was deciding what to cut — a list that included series landmarks like the Shrieking Shack: “We had to focus and pick the most iconic parts.”
3) J.K. Rowling worked directly on the details, of course.
“She was involved in everything,” Gilmore says. “In the early days, she had absolute, detailed involvement — all the food tastings and the costumes. What we created is exactly what she saw in her head.”
4) There are Easter eggs hidden all over the park.
This is where a time-turner would come in handy. (If only the ones in the gift shop actually worked!) The Hollywood version of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is home to more original props from the films than the Orlando version, including luggage racks and seats from the Hogwarts Express, the school benches and chalkboard from the Dark Arts classroom and Cho Chang's dress from the Yule Ball in The Goblet of Fire.
“The original props blend in with the actual props,” Gilmore says. Everything from the brass markerboard in Dumbledore's office to the bottles of firewhisky at the Three Broomsticks was created to resemble the way audiences saw them in the films. “The quality is so high that you can't tell the difference between the original props and the re-creations.”
5) The park was scripted and storyboarded just like a film.
“It was a very interesting process, because we didn't have a perception of what a theme park really is,” Gilmore says. So from the beginning, the U.K. design team approached the park just like a film. “The way we design a film is that it's for real anyway. Here the sets are joined together and all merged into one place, so it all became one big film set. “
This time, the creative team couldn't take visitors from one location to another using cuts, as they could with a film audience. So instead they designed the park with a series of reveals, Gilmore says. As visitors walk through the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the architecture notes the transition from Hogsmeade Village to Hogwarts campus, which is based on a blend of a few real Scottish castles.
6) The food is an integral part of the experience.
As our food editor pointed out after his visit to the park, British food isn't anything to get excited about. Visitors who take a break at the Three Broomsticks will notice a handful of traditional options, including bangers and mash and fish and chips. But that's not the food you've been wondering about since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
When it came to re-creating the original food from the films, the creative team had complete freedom. We've all seen those enormous meals (no wonder everyone's wearing robes) in the Great Hall, but “a fan [of the films] would never get to taste that,” Gilmore points out. The books didn't come with recipes, which left the creative team a lot of room to brainstorm. “What is butterbeer?” Gilmore asks. “What does it taste like? What does a chocolate frog taste like? It was an amazing challenge.” Spoiler alert: Butterbeer tastes a lot like cold, liquid butterscotch.
7) Harry Potter might not have used technology, but this park definitely does.
Because muggles can't run to Gringotts every time we want to buy a stuffed owl, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is significantly more rooted in technology than the fictional world of Harry Potter. (Mr. Weasley would love it.) But in keeping with the rest of the park, even the ATMs are Gringotts-branded.
“Harry Potter is analog,” Gilmore says. “It's meant to be a world outside of our normal one in which we live now. Wizards exist, and there's enchantment, and there's no real machines about. It's not mechanical.”
The exceptions are both financial (Merch Rules Everything Around Me) and magical. In one example, the creative team tucked a series of projectors inside the Three Broomsticks to project shapes across the room and create a sense of illusion. Every once in a while, visitors might notice a house elf creeping by. “It gives people this little experience of, 'Oh my gosh, did I just see a house elf? I'm not sure,'” Gilmore says. “It's a world that's very easy to enter and get immersed in, even if you haven't seen the films or read the books.”
8) The most magical experience is watching the other visitors react.
The park's blend of painstaking detail, full-on cosplay and genuine enthusiasm make it an excellent place to people-watch. All along the faux-cobblestone streets, visitors and staff can be seen adjusting their capes, shouting out spells and flourishing wands recently purchased at Ollivander's. The park works those wands into the experience, transforming a good way to poke someone's eye out into a fun way to demonstrate (mechanical) magic. Visiting witches and wizards can practice their spells on 11 “magical windows” placed throughout Hogsmeade Village to allow visitors to practice what they learned in Charms class.
Gilmore's favorite part of the park is watching visitors in action, which is a new experience for him. “We never saw ordinary people experience the films,” he says. “Here, I get to see it coming to life. The chance to bring this story to life here has been really magical. “
9) The park is dominated by gift shops — and that's not a bad thing.
Most exit-through-the-gift-shop experiences tempt me to shout an Unforgivable Curse, but within minutes of entering the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I was more like, “Hellooooohamora.” There are so many things to buy spread throughout the castle and the shops of Hogsmeade Village that it's impossible not to reminisce about your favorite aspects of the series as you peruse. And like the rest of the theme park, no details were overlooked. There are enough Hogwarts house accessories available for you to decorate your entire body and a large portion of your home in Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin colors. If you always thought you'd be a prefect or a head girl, you can take home a pin to make that identity reality. The dark wizards among us can show He Who Must Not Be Named their allegiance with dark mark temporary tattoos and fitted “Avada Kedavra” V-necks. There's a piece of merch for almost everything you remember about the series (those pesky Cornish pixies) — and even a few items for things you forgot (to Google later: What's a pygmy puff, again?).
9¾) Even the restrooms are worth a visit.
Two words: Moaning Myrtle.