Universal Orlando's Harry Potter land: Robot-powered ride debut June 18

UPDATE: See our coverage with exclusive pics and video of the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with picture of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and JK Rowling herself and see our video tour of the Harry Potter world at the Orlando theme park!

Universal Orlando Resort has finally confirmed the official grand opening date for its long-awaited Wizarding World of Harry Potter land at its Islands of Adventure theme park: June 18, with an undetermined number of "soft opening" days before that.

WalletPop was the first to bring you Universal's Harry Potter Super Bowl ad, five days before it aired on television, and for today's announcement, we've got the goods on the core attraction of the new Harry Potter land, the enormous, no-expense-spared ride, "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey," which up to now has been a locked-down secret.



WalletPop talked with Mark Woodbury, President of Universal Creative, who is the lead brain in charge of developing Universal's attractions. He has been working with Universal's theme parks since 1988, and has taken a lead role in every major attraction built there since then. It's his business to anticipate what American families want to spend their money on during their vacations.

Woodbury confirmed the attraction's inclusion of the book series' major characters, which means that Daniel Radcliffe and other major actors (Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton) will be appearing. The movies' production designers, their studio, Warner Bros., and author J.K. Rowling have been on board since the beginning.

Of more interest to regular theme park vacationers -- which would include most American families -- it was also confirmed the ride will combine cutting-edge robotics and film technology. That appears to confirm the more specific rumor that it will carry groups of passengers at the end of wide-ranging robotic arms, reputedly built by RoboCoaster, that travel through the building on a track. He would not elaborate on the mechanical details of the attraction, but he did promise the moon, saying, "This is the next generation of theme park attractions that really is unparalleled."

Press materials describe it as the "first-ever combination of advanced robotic ride system technology with innovative, immersive filmmaking." Will theme parks change forever? Maybe -- but they certainly got a lot more expensive to make. The new Harry Potter area, of which this ride is by far the most elaborate part, cost a reported $310 million to create -- probably more.

The attraction will have 12 scenes, including the "pre-show" queue areas, which at Universal generally comprise an interactive or entertainment element rather than simply filing guests through switchback barriers. From entering the attraction building to leaving, it will consume about an hour of Potter-specific references, from the Whomping Willow to the Sorting Hat to a dragon attack.

We got more about the story out of him:

WalletPop: What are you making in that giant Hogwarts Castle that's looming over Orlando?

Woodbury: What we're doing is we're taking some of the greatest stories of our times, these terrific characters, this great action, and marrying it to an unbelievable set of technologies that bring this stuff to life in a way that's never been seen before.

WalletPop: Sounds tantalizing. What kinds of technologies?

Woodbury: We've combined a variety of technologies, but we're not going to get into too much detail about what, specifically, they are. I can tell you this: You're going to come face-to-face with Ron, Harry, Hermione, you're going to get the sense of flying. You're going visit places like the Forbidden Forest, you're going to get into the middle of a Quidditch match, you're going to feel the cold, sucking feeling of the Dementors. You're going to get the real deal when it comes to bringing the fiction of Harry Potter to life.

WalletPop: Universal already has attractions that give guests a sensation of flying, such as the E.T. Adventure. How is this going to differ from that?

Woodbury: Well, here we've used a combination of great live-action film and advance robotic technology to do something very different from what we've ever done before.

WalletPop: So you aren't going to confirm the vehicles, or even if there are any. Can you tell us about the story, then?

Woodbury: Well, you come into the Hogwarts Castle, and this happens to be the first day in history that Hogwarts Castle has been open to Muggles. We'll come through the castle, and when I say that, you really have to see it to believe it. The level of detail, the spaces that we visit: the Oxford Corridor, the Portrait Gallery, Dumbledore's office, and ultimately, through these spaces, we tell the story of your welcome to Hogwarts Castle when we come face-to-face with Dumbledore himself, who really introduces us to this wonderful opportunity to tour Hogwarts as Muggles. Then he sends us on our way into the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, where we first encounter Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger. And when I say "encounter," you are going to come face-to-face with them. You are going to be in the room with these characters by virtue of these technologies I'm talking about. They, of course, tell you that the tour you're on is really quite boring, and that you should skip the whole thing and follow them to the Quidditch match, and by virtue of a spell cast by the lovely Hermione Granger, we're off to the Quidditch match and the rest of the adventure ensues.

WalletPop:
Is that the point where you go from the queue to the ride portion of the attraction?

Woodbury: That's pretty much right. You also visit a few more steps along the way, like you encounter the Sorting Hat, and you're given a few final instructions. But that's where the real adventure begins. That's where you take off, or take flight, into what's going to be a breathtaking experience.

WalletPop: Islands of Adventure's Spider-Man ride broke new ground in the late '90s and it's still a gold standard in the theme park world. How will Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey advance the ball for attraction design?

Woodbury: This is definitely going to take it to a new level. Spider-Man was and is a great attraction. This is different from that, but clearly another threshold attraction that breaks completely new ground.

WalletPop: How have guest expectations changed over the past decade, and how does it affect what you build and spend?

Woodbury:
I think it's a great question. Expectations have grown with advancements that are mainly driven by the film industry and special effects. What people see on film has become the standard for what they expect in all their experiences, whatever their entertainment forum. We use that benchmark and try to exceed it and create a level of immersion that can only be felt in a theme park context. We look at those visual stimuli as one level and we try to amp that up by creating a three-dimensional and 360-degree experience.

WalletPop: Are you going to be able to top this down the road? It sounds like a pretty hefty endeavor.

Woodbury: I was afraid that question would come up at some point in the conversation. We set this benchmark pretty high. We set a pretty darn high bar.

Tom Schroder, Universal Publicity: I'll just jump in and add this. When Mark and [his team] created the Spider-Man attraction, they had a vision and had to invent the technology to pull it off and tell the story the way they wanted to tell it. For Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, [it was the] same situation. They had a vision for the story situation and had to go out and invent a technology to do it.

Woodbury: At the end of the day, this isn't a technological experience. This is an immersive storytelling one. So aside from the fact we put years' worth of effort into developing the technology, it'll all be in the service of telling a great story.

WalletPop: That may be true, but after they ride it, people are probably going to be talking about how incredible the technology was.

Woodbury: I think they're going to be wondering how it was done.

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