Inside the Wizarding World with Art Director Alan Gilmore
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter officially opened at Universal Studios Hollywood in April of 2016.
I deliberately avoided reading anything about the other Wizarding World attractions because I wanted it all to be completely new to me when it finally reached LA. So I was really excited to have a chance to stop by during one of these soft opening days and get a guided tour by Supervising Art Director, Alan Gilmore. This London-based Irishman was happy to be working in sunny Southern California after working on the film series and the theme parks in Florida and Japan.
"We wanted to bring our very famous film series to life in Los Angeles. I represent a great team of filmmakers in London who are very excited to have their work realized here in Los Angeles," says Gilmore. " It's a big deal for us – to bring that across the Atlantic and show what we do, show our skills and our ideas."
While the LA and Florida Wizarding World's have a similar footprint – with one less ride in LA, they're not identical, they're kind of tailored to each location. "This is the latest and greatest and this is actually my favorite."
In addition to being able to improve upon certain things based on what they learned in the other parks, Gilmore finds the Southern California sunshine adds a bit of extra magic. "When I came here several years ago to work on this, I realized the light in California is so amazing – it's actually enhanced all the texture in more detail and more colors. I felt we really could make the film come to life here. Florida is a little bit more hazy and the light isn't as good. California light is amazing."
So let's take a little tour of the Wizarding World through Alan Gilmore's eyes.
Entering the Wizarding World Hollywood
Visitors will enter the Wizarding World through a controlled access gate with regulated admission so that it doesn't get too crowded at any time. Once inside, you've basically entered the set of the movie.
"Everything you see here is based off reality," explains Gilmore "the design, the colors, the details, all the little features are actually based off reality, but kind of a heightened reality. Stuart Craig is the Production Designer of the movies and he's my boss. He's a visionary. He has visualized all that is Harry Potter, and he works very closely with J.K. Rowlings to really get inside her head. Then what's inside his head comes out and we help create it."
The visuals created for the movies, and by extension, for the parks, is a fantasy completely based on real details.
"He creates storyboards. He creates paintings. And those paintings then become architectural drawings – and that's where I come in," says Gilmore. "I help create all the architecture, so I help make sense of those sketches. He might sketch a window and I will create that window to look absolutely real, based off an English Victorian or Georgian window, maybe a medieval detail. All this architecture is based off real places, real buildings, real towns."
Three Broomsticks Inn at the Wizarding World Hollywood
According to the books, both Hogwarts and Hogsmeade are 1000 years old. The historic town is created to look like a place that evolved over hundreds of years, but whose most recent additions were likely still hundreds of years ago.
"Some of the buildings are medieval," says Gilmore. "The oldest building would be the Three Broomsticks, which is the inn where wizards come to stay and where you can have food. "
We wander over to the front of the massive inn with its twisting and turning chimneys. "This came from the very first time period, and then over hundreds of years, it has grown, so you'll see in little things like windows that the windows change in design the further away from the Three Broomsticks you get."
Indicating the windows high up on the Three Broomsticks, "Look at the little diamond panes of glass," Gilmore points out, "That's a much older style of window. The much larger panes are more recent, maybe several hundred years ago. It kind of tells a subliminal story. Many people will just look and enjoy, but if you start delving into these details, it's absolutely authentic. So if you're an architecture buff or a historian, you'll look around and go, wow, it's even correct down to that level of detail. Almost far beyond the books, but we wanted the books to be that real."
The designers explored dozens of old villages in Scotland to come up with all the individual details that came together in Hogsmeade. People think all the leaning and twisting buildings are an effect to heighten the fantasy, but not so, according to Gilmore.
"The reason everything is leaning and twisting," he explains, "is because the older buildings just basically distort over time, and what you do in Europe is that you actually remake the windows and doors as buildings lean. So over time, your windows and doors start to lean as well. It's a really cool detail." The multiple stepped gables are another very Scottish element.
Inside Three Broomsticks at the Wizarding World Hollywood
The Three Broomsticks is cavernous inside, with gray walls and towering walkways where the wizards would find their way to their sleeping quarters. No sleeping quarters here, but there is lots of hearty food - English, Scottish and Irish specialties, with not a soda in the house - per J.K. Rowling's instructions. Gilmore is partial to the fish and chips that went through a lot of testing to get just. It reminds him of home.
The walls were built with an old construction technique using old lime plaster, which lets moisture seep in, letting the building breathe. Gilmore gleefully points out the stones in the wall, the little windows, all the little details that people might not notice that make the place authentically immersive.
"Everybody wants to stay here," he tells us. "I wish we could make it into a real place you can stay. That would be fantastic!" It's clear that he's as much fan as creator.
Hogshead Pub at the Wizarding World Hollywood
On the other side of a giant fireplace, where a giant cauldron hangs over a non-existent fire, is Hogshead Pub. A number of tables with mismatched chairs are marked reserved for the VIP tours making their way through the park on this day.
"All the chairs are mismatched," says Gilmore. "That's very deliberate. We wanted to give this very interesting sense of an eclectic old place - the furniture - a lot of it’s based on my wife's parents' house on a little island off France....You can get an inspiration from anyplace."
An animatronic hogs head protrudes from the wall behind the bar. The bartender activates the growling creature for our entertainment.
The bar is a full bar. It also serves the Wizarding World's signature non-alcoholic beverage, Butterbeer, which is like drinking straight corn syrup with a hint of butterscotch. Three custom alcoholic beers are also on tap including Hogshead Ale, Dragonscale and Wizard's Brew. They also carry a number of other English and Scottish beers and Guinness. A signature whiskey is also in the works.
The Hogwarts Express
The Hogwarts Express is always in a state of just having pulled up to the Hogsmeade Train Station. Inside the station, Gilmore tells us, "This is our recreated Hogwarts Express carriage. It's a cool little detail. Those are the racks there from the film set. And the fabric - So you can touch and sit on the actual fabric that Harry Potter sat on."
Ollivander's Wand Shop at the Wizarding World Hollywood
The creative team learned from Florida that Ollivander's Wand Shop needed to be more experiential, so it's in a different location in Hollywood, with more space for wands to choose their wizards. Unlike Harry Potter's first visit to Ollivander's, where there were no other customers, you'll have to compete with throngs of visitors for the attention of the skilled staff who can help you find the perfect wand.
"This side of the room are the character wands," Gilmore explains. "These are wands of the characters in the films. These are the actual wands they had. These were all designed for the movies. We have Fred Weasley, George Weasley, Harry Potter…they're all here."
Although the Harry Potter wand is quite popular, wands from more obscure characters also have their fans. Some people go more for the look and feel of the wand than the character.
On the opposite wall are the Ollivander wands. Gilmore points out the set of wands made of 13 different woods based on the 13-month Celtic calendar. "J.K. Rowling helped us create a background for each wand…. There are 13 descriptions. You're meant to read all 13 to find your personality. You'll be described in one of these. Each wood has a month and each month has a characteristic about it. For example – "Reed people are good with words and steadfast in their beliefs." So if you think you're good with words, that might be your wand. These are hugely popular, and they're also interactive."
The Map of Spells at the Wizarding World Hollywood
There are collectible wands that have no special powers in the park, and then there are the interactive wands that let you try your hand at casting magical spells at 11 different locations within the Wizarding World. There are interactive wands in both the character collection and the Ollivander collection.
Gilmore shows us the Map of Spells. "You get this map designed by the movie graphic designer. You see numbers and follow around the edge to where that number is and it gives you the spell and the shape of the spell, so you can practice it beforehand. You can go to all eleven. You can go multiple times. On the back it teaches you how to cast a spell."
Spell Casting 101 at the Wizarding World Hollywood
There are wizarding coaches at each spell location to help train young wizards in proper spell-casting techniques.
This alleyway, called Town Wall, is something unique to Los Angeles. It doesn't exist in Orlando.
HoneyDukes Sweet Shop at the Wizarding World Hollywood
A kid in a candy shop describes Gilmore's excitement to show us all the delightful elements inside HoneyDukes Sweet Shop. Set designers and graphic artists went beyond the items described by J.K. Rowlings in the Harry Potter books to stock the shelves of the shop in the films. But for the movies, it was all set decoration. For the parks, they filled all that packaging with real magic-inspired products based on British sweets.
"When the kids went to HoneyDukes in Diagon Alley, they saw many of these things, but they were just props. Now we've made them real. So the set has come to life."
"We brought to life Chocolate Frogs. We brought to life Bertie Bott's Beans. You can get your Bertie Bott's in a dispenser, you can buy them in a box, you can get skulls, lollipops, Fudge Flies, Eyeballs..."
As you can see from this photo of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans, the packaging is as whimsical as the candy in ways you might not even notice at first glance. There are layers upon layers of details to be discovered.
The Owl Post at the Wizarding World Hollywood
As is typical in theme parks and magical worlds, the different business facades on the outside house shops that flow into each other on the inside.
We walk over to the medieval Owlery, a sheltered patio where animatronic owls roost in the rafters, their artificial droppings on the pavement adding to the authenticity. Within the Owlery, we find the entrance to Dervish and Bange's department store, where, in addition to souvenirs, such marvels as the Monster Book dwell.
"Monster books are very, very vicious so you have to be very careful," Gilmore warns. The furry book in question snoozes away with the occasional snore as we look around, then suddenly comes to life snapping and growling.
Gilmore guides us through Dervish and Bange's to the Owl Post, where the feathered creatures. "In the Owl Post, you can send a letter anywhere in the world with the Hogsmeade postmark. You can even get Harry Potter stamps. It's a real post office. The owls will transport your mail for you."
Cho Chang's Dress at Gladrags Wizardwear
We step from the Owl Post into Gladrags Wizardwear. On display is one of the unique items that can only be found at Wizarding World Hollywood. It's the actual dress worn by Cho Chang (Katie Leung) at the ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. There are more real props and furniture from the movies scattered around all the parks, but few original costumes, although all the costumes worn by park employees were also designed by costume designer Jany Temime.
None of the original props throughout the park are marked. According to Gilmore, "We want people to find out through storytelling and through reading about the place. They'll know where to look."
Now you know to look for Cho Chang's gorgeous ball gown at Gladrags.
Hogsmeade to Hogwarts at the Wizarding World Hollywood
"Hogwarts and Hogsmeade are actually several miles apart in the films," explains Gilmore, "but in our world, they're joined together. We kind of compressed them to help the experience. There's a space here where the three places meet. There are Hippogriffs, that's the roller coaster, Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, they're all very separate really in their identity."
Back Door to Hogsmeade at the Wizarding World Hollywood
A free-standing archway - which you can totally walk around - indicates that you've left the village of Hogsmeade and are entering the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster and Hogwarts Castle.
The Flight of the Hippogriff at the Wizarding World Hollywood
The Flight of the Hippogriff is a big deal for Universal Studios Hollywood because it's their first outdoor coaster, but it's by no means a big thrill ride. But then a Hippogriff flies a lot smoother than a broom. The one minute ride, with about 45 seconds of track time, is very smooth and family friendly - similar to the coaster at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, but you only get to go around once. The most exciting thing about this coaster is the view of Hogwarts from the track seen in the photo above and in this Flight of the Hippogriff video preview.
There doesn't seem to be a lot of Hippogriff theming. You ride in sort of a basketweave sleigh. But on the way into the line for the ride, you'll also see Hagrid's motorcycle with sidecar and his hut. "We like to think of the whole place as enchanted," says Gilmore. In the films, Hagrid's hut moves around Hogwarts and the village changes each time, so it's magical."
Mandrakes at the Flight of the Hippogriff at Wizarding World Hollywood
A cute detail in the theming of the Flight of the Hippogriff is the rooftop Mandrake Garden near the line. It's behind a tight metal grate to avoid prodding fingers, so I had to shoot this up close through the tiny slots with my cell phone so it wouldn't show the bars.
Hogwarts Castle at the Wizarding World Hollywood
Hogwarts Castle is absolutely stunning. I'm not allowed to show you the really cool back view that the staff get of the castle rising out of the cliff, but there are plenty of awesome views that the public get to see.
The castle is Gilmore's favorite part of the Wizarding World - along with the Hogshead Pub.
"Hogwarts Castle is a collage of many amazing castles. It's main language is Gothic architecture – that's what ties it together."
Entering Hogwarts Castle at the Wizarding World Hollywood
"Everybody has to have a house robe," says Gilmore. It shows you're a proper student of Hogwarts." In addition to the staff and students of Hogwarts, many of the visitors choose to wear their house robes as well, adding to the immersion factor. They're available in a number of shops such as Wisacre's and Filch's Emporium inside the Wizarding World, as well as the Universal Store on Universal CityWalk.
Inside Hogwarts Castle at the Wizarding World Hollywood
Hogwarts Castle houses the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. The experience begins at the gate and takes you through many different parts of the castle, including Dumbledore's Office and the Gryffindor Common Room.
Keep an eye out for the Dark Arts Classroom, another place Gilmore says you'll find original props. "In the Dark Arts classroom, the school benches and the chalkboard are from the film set."
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at the Wizarding World Hollywood
Making your way through Hogwarts to the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, you'll go through many, many rooms and halls lined with talking portraits to keep you entertained. They mostly talk to each other but pay attention. Sometimes they talk to you.
It's really dark inside the castle, so it was a challenge to get even a couple good photos. You'll have to go yourself to appreciate the extensive detail that went into creating a convincing replica of the movie set.
The ride itself is not for the weak of stomach. Wearing 3D Quidditch goggles you virtually fly around with Harry and company through several exiting aerial adventures while your body is whipped around on a 360-degree track ride. I lost track of the story concentrating on keeping my lunch inside me. I didn't take advantage of it, but, apparently, there's a special area at the ride exit for people who need a few minutes to regain equilibrium before exiting the castle.
Hogwarts Castle at the Wizarding World Hollywood
There are so many great angles to appreciate Hogwarts Castle and all of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I didn't have nearly enough time to do them justice, but it was a real treat to see it from the eyes of one of the creators.
Hope you enjoyed the tour!
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