ORLANDO, Fla. —Imagine if Peter Jackson had been able to chat with J.R.R. Tolkien while directing "The Lord of the Rings" films, or if Walt Disney had been able to run the plans for his new Captain Nemo ride by Jules Verne.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened two weeks ago at Universal Orlando Resort's Islands of Adventure, will no doubt prove to be many things to many people — a haven for die-hard Potter fans, a starting point for the uninitiated, a template for park and ride designers — but it is also a monument to speed. Not the sort that sends riders whirling around on the Dragon Challenge roller coaster but a dramatic acceleration of the creative process that, for better or worse, has already begun to change publishing and filmmaking.
Think about it. Twenty years ago, an unknown would-be author named J.K. Rowling had an idea; now, she has a theme park. So popular, and lucrative, were her characters that as the second half of the seven-book series was being written, films were being made, racing to keep up with the demands of the audience and the real-time aging of their younger stars. Then, four years ago, as the second half of the films were going into production, plans began on the theme park.
This timing proceeded not only with Rowling's blessing, as opposed to legal or creative wrangling with her estate, but the participation of the filmmakers, including production designer Stuart Craig, art director Alan Gilmore and screenwriter Steve Kloves.
"It was essential for us to have access to Warner Brothers, to the art department and the cast, so it would be authentic," says Thierry Coup, vice president of Universal Orlando Creative. "Because we wanted to bring everything to life for the fans."
For the folks at Universal Orlando, it was an opportunity like no other, one that offered both a wealth of creative resources and a heightened sense of anxiety. If Jackson couldn't ask Tolkien what color the brooches of Lothlorien should be, neither did he have to worry about how the author would react to his decision to completely excise the character of Tom Bombadil.
"It started with the story," says Coup firmly from the air-conditioned comfort of the Wizarding World's Three Broomsticks restaurant, where the line for pumpkin juice and other Hogwartian fare is already snaking out into the mid-90s heat. "The overwhelming desire of the fans was to actually go to Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, to know what it feels like to play Quidditch. So the books were the first place we went for inspiration because it's all in the books."
Neither Rowling nor Universal Orlando was about to diminish one of the most beloved fantasy worlds in the history of fiction with glow sticks and corn dogs. Rowling did not visit the Wizarding World until the week of its official opening, but from her home in Scotland she signed off on sketches, models, film footage, even the food and beverages.
In fact, Coup's most anxious moment was watching Rowling take her first taste of butterbeer, the preferred beverage of Harry and his friends when they visited Hogsmeade's Three Broomsticks Inn. "She was quite specific about how it tasted in the books," Coup says. "But still, it was a big relief when she smiled."
And unlike other movie-themed rides and parks that had to re-create details and draft actors often years after the films had premiered, the Wizarding World had access to "hot sets" — many of the details in the park are actual props — and the people who built them. At one point, Coup and his designers stood over one of the film's models of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade and used a string to snake through the various landmarks — Hagrid's hut, the Forbidden Forest, the Hogwarts Express — and literally delineating the Wizarding World's narrative.
Coup has worked with the likes of "Spider-Man" creator Stan Lee and Matt Groening, the man behind "The Simpsons," to create rides for Islands of Adventure and its neighbor Universal Studios Florida. But nothing compared to the four years he put in with the Potter team. He and other Universal Orlando executives took an early trip to Scotland to meet Rowling and explore her environs (including the Hogs Head pub in Edinburgh) for inspiration. Coup directed 20 minutes of original footage for the ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and cast actors (with Rowling's approval) to play the founders of the four houses of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in talking portraits on the Forbidden Journey ride. The creation of the Wizarding World was a journey through the multimedia world of the new millennium.
And while Coup and his co-workers used many of the theme-park tricks they've learned over the years — although the path that runs through Wizarding World seems narrower and more intimate than those in other areas of the park, that is just an illusion created by the cant of the roofs and chimneys — some of the decisions they made were heretical to theme park canon.
Coup points out that one rule of theme-park additions is that they bring added color, which does not traditionally mean tones of black, white and gray, the palette of the Wizarding World. And retail should always trump detail, another rule that has been broken by stores, including the one attached to the Forbidden Journey, that are genuinely, perhaps even prohibitively, intimate.
When asked how long he thinks folks will be willing to wait in line to buy things, even cool things like genuine Hogwarts robes, Coup seems unconcerned. "We were just being true to the vision," he says. "Otherwise, it would be like a mall store. It has to be like you've entered the pages of the book."
As for why they chose to make it winter in a place that rarely dips lower than 60 degrees, Coup quickly points out that many fans associate the books and films with winter, though it is not actually winter in the Wizarding World, it is spring. "Hogsmeade is a village in the Scottish mountains," he says. "If it was winter, we would have to have snow piled high in the streets."
And that was one bit of authenticity even he was not prepared to cope with.