The scent of butterscotch and the sound of whimsical orchestral music fills the air. The streets are bustling with men and women in sleek robes, waving wands at elaborate window displays. Witches and wizards of California, rejoice: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood is just around the corner.
Officially opening April 7, Wizarding World Hollywood is the third such park in the world, following the ones in Orlando and Tokyo. While each park is similar, Harry Potter fans will find that California’s park still has surprises to offer. The park feels magical from the first step. The eccentric Hogsmeade Village draws guests in with colorful shops, magical scents and the distinctive theme music from the Potter films. Its perpetually snow-covered roofs, roughly cobbled streets and quirky, crooked façades complete the feeling of having left California.
The park’s authenticity can be credited to the hard work and detail-oriented eyes of Art Director Alan Gilmore, who not only spearheaded the design of Wizarding World Hollywood, but also the third and fourth movies in the Potter series: “Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Goblet of Fire.”
“Any time I get the call to do another Harry Potter, I just say yes because I feel it’s like my life, in a way,” Gilmore said.
While he has worked on other movies such as “X-Men: First Class” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” he said that he has grown close to the Potter crew and universe.
“I know so much about this world,” Gilmore said. “It takes a long time to learn all of this; it really is like a vocation.”
Every inch of the park is impeccably detailed, with distressed wood and chipping paint that evokes thousands of years of European history. Each stone looks as if it were taken from ancient stone quarries, something that Gilmore said even impresses natives of Europe who visit the park.
An exact replica of the Hogwarts Express, the train that ferries all of Hogwarts’ young witches and wizards to school, greets visitors as they enter the park. Many train enthusiasts specifically visit Wizarding World, Gilmore said, as the replica has all the aesthetic details of an authentic 1950s British Hall Class steam train. Right next to the train, guests can sit in a train cabin modeled after the Harry Potter movies, donning costume pieces to complete their look as Hogwarts students on the way to wizarding school. This experience, unique to Wizarding World Hollywood, offers commemorative photographs for purchase, where the otherwise green screen window is replaced with interactive scenes from the films.
A selection of shops, straight out of the movies, can be found in Hogsmeade Village. While most may seem to sell a similar assortment of touristy souvenirs, each store has its own specialty and charm.
Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods displays the Marauders’ Map and sells equipment for the wizarding sport Quidditch. Dervish and Banges has various wizarding odds-and-ends, but at its center prominently features a large cage housing “The Monster Book of Monsters,” which snarls at guests who come too close. And while Gladrags Wizardwear specializes in clothing for witches and wizards, such as Hogwarts school robes, Potter fans may recognize fabulous fashions from the “Goblet of Fire” Yule Ball on display. In the Owl Post office, parkgoers can even mail postcards to their friends with a special Hogsmeade stamp and postmark, while animatronic owls stare down from the shelves.
One of Gilmore’s must-see spots is Honeydukes, which sells candies and cakes from the wizarding world. The window display features trading cards found in packages of Chocolate Frogs, which are sure to entice fans who need to complete their collections. Inside, various whimsical candies fill the shelves, such as Cauldron Cakes, Fizzing Whizbees, Pepper Imps and, of course, Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans.
“There are so many layers of detail,” Gilmore said. “Every window has a story to tell.”
Stone buildings are dotted with meticulously placed artificial moss and lichen, and concrete walls have ancient-looking water stains. Walking through the open-air Owlery, one can look up and find animatronic owls hooting in the rafters. Even the cobblestone path underneath is splattered with painted owl droppings. The amount of detail is sure to please even the most finicky Harry Potter fan.
“Every inch of this is hand-done,” Gilmore said. “You can’t buy this. You can’t find it in a catalog.”
Gilmore also recommends Ollivander’s wand shop, whose shelves are piled high and haphazardly with wands of all kinds. Ollivander’s does not only sell replicas of wands from practically every character from the films, but also special wands that unlock hidden scenes throughout the park using magic words and wand movements. Randomly selected guests may also be invited to try out an interactive experience where the wand chooses them, much like when Harry Potter’s wand chose him in the book, “The Sorcerer’s Stone.”
The biggest building in Hogsmeade, by far, is The Three Broomsticks, a restaurant with a lopsided entrance and rustic architecture. The dining space is spacious and airy with walls and beams made of natural wood, something Gilmore said makes the building “breathe.” The menu offers British fare inspired by the magnificent dinners seen in Hogwarts’ dining hall, such as turkey legs, fish and chips and shepherd’s pie.
As for drinks, beer lovers can sample drinks specially crafted for Wizarding World at the Hog’s Head pub under the watchful eye of an animatronic, grunting hog head.
On the topic of drinks, a day at Wizarding World would not be complete without a taste of Butterbeer, its signature, non-alcoholic, butterscotch-flavored beverage. The drink – concocted with a recipe approved personally by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling – has the perfect amount of butterscotch flavor and fizzy foam. Imitation sodas do not even come close.
Hogwarts Castle, impressively recreated from the medieval castle featured in the films, looms over the village, guarded by gigantic-winged boar statues. Brilliantly designed forced-perspective architecture makes the castle look even bigger than it actually is, but it isn’t just the exterior that is larger than life.
“You’ll be amazed when you go in there,” Gilmore promised. “You’ll be blown away.”
Indeed, the castle offers another mesmerizing look into Harry Potter’s life. Along the way, one can find a greenhouse with pots of baby mandrakes, the Mirror of Erised and an animated talking portrait of the Fat Lady that guards the Gryffindor common room.
Perhaps the most impressive is a room full of portraits of important wizarding figures from history, featuring the four founders of Hogwarts, deep in conversation about the merits of Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived.
Harry, Ron and Hermione welcome guests into the Defense of the Dark Arts classroom, where a dragon skeleton looms over the set replicated piece-by-piece from the films. A hologram of Dumbledore also greets visitors as they walk past his office, complete with all his knick-knacks and fancy furniture.
The winding path through the castle interior doubles as the queue for Wizarding World’s hallmark 3-D ride, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” where guests sit on enchanted benches that take them through iconic moments from the Harry Potter films.
Outside the castle, families can find enchantment in “Flight of the Hippogriff,” Universal Studios Hollywood’s first outdoor roller coaster. The path to the ride takes guests around the hut of Hogwarts gamekeeper and magical creature aficionado Hagrid, where mysterious sound effects from wizarding beasts combine with screams of excitement from thrilled riders.
While Wizarding World Hollywood is smaller than its sister parks, so much detail and design is packed into the park that one day may not be enough for visitors to see everything.
“You can spend days and days, and many people do,” Gilmore said. “They come back continuously to learn more about it. They bring their (Harry Potter) books here and read while they’re here, so they can find those words that describe those places.”
True enough, Wizarding World Hollywood wonderfully combines a slice of magical Britain with the sun and energy of Los Angeles, complete with plenty of secrets to explore and moments to discover.
Cal State Fullerton students, faculty and staff can get exclusive discounts for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the rest of Universal Studios Hollywood by purchasing advance tickets at http://www.ushtix.com/csuf.