Home » Behind the Ride: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

Behind the Ride: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

A few years after the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal officials faced a difficult task. They needed to build something…more. As popular as the first Potter themed land was, it had a small budget that had caused designers to take several shortcuts. Now that the concept had become wildly popular, the next Potter expansion would face higher expectations. It needed an anchor attraction to satisfy the heightened demand, and that’s exactly what happened. Let’s go behind the ride to learn all the Engineering feats that have helped make Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts the most popular ride at Universal Resort Orlando.

The Experience: Entering the famous Gringotts Bank from the Potterverse

The Trick: Populating the bank for maximum immersion

Both locales at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando require the same attention to detail. J.K. Rowling is famously exacting in her demands for the themed lands. In choosing Diagon Alley as the place for the second Potter expansion, Universal strategists had to settle on a design that would satisfy Rowling, her loyal fans, and casual park guests alike.

Diagon Alley is a logical choice since it’s the shopping mecca for Hogwarts students and their parents. Guests who visit here are doing the equivalent of Back to School shopping; they’ll be spending lots of money. Universal wants its customers to do the same. Let’s not be naïve about the fact that Diagon Alley is the most commercial expansion possible. Its purpose is to make money. To that end, there’s a certain level of cynicism in choosing a bank at the linchpin part of Diagon Alley.

From a creative standpoint, however, the choice is spectacular. Park planners got to construct one of the most famous buildings from the Potterverse. In both the final book and the final movie, it was the setting of a daring robbery wherein Harry Potter and his loyal friends, Hermione and Ron, reclaim a Horcrux. It’s a seminal moment in the series and arguably the greatest chase/action sequence. The premise functions well as the backbone of a thrill ride. Just as importantly, it’s a terrific setting for the building that houses the ride.

Gringotts is one of those rare instances where art and commerce blend perfectly together. As a business, Universal can sell guests on the idea of exchanging their real dollars for Gringotts bank notes, wizarding money that has no value outside the parks. For guests standing in line for the ride, however, this detail enriches the experience.

Universal built a series of audio-animatronic gnomes, the overseers of the bank. They didn’t do this for the ride, though. Instead, they’d done it for the first Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion, which had the first cash-for-wizard-money exchange. Since they already had the technology, it was a natural extension of the idea to populate the bank with a roomful of gnomes. It has the serendipitous side effect of creating a level of immersion the instant that the guest enters the bank. Nothing helps with suspension of disbelief like an entire room of fantastical creatures moving and interacting as if they’re real.

The Experience: A fire-breathing dragon holding court over the bank

The Trick: sculpting and some pyrotechnics

The most visually impressive part of Diagon Alley was actually one of the easiest aspects to design, at least once the plans were in place. The next time you’re in the area, pay attention to the Ukrainian Ironbelly that rests atop Gringotts Bank. The bank is the focal point of the new themed land, and its dragon is the wienie that draws attention.

When you pay attention, however, you’ll realize that the dragon doesn’t do much. It simply “stands” on top of the bank’s domed ceiling, occasionally breathing fire to intimidate guests. While the dragon fire draws all the scrutiny, the dragon just stands there. It’s not an audio-animatronic like the tellers inside the bank. Instead, it’s a lifelike sculpture that Universal engineers have left hollow inside. They’ve done this so that they can add the combustion element to produce fire from within the sculpture.

I’m not saying that the process was easy. To the contrary, building a complex, detailed statue on top of another new structure requires all sorts of strategy sessions and construction tricks. Adding a fiery element creates another degree of difficulty to the process. Also, Universal had to do several safety checks to ensure that the fire that the dragon produces is never a danger to onlookers on the street level, the ones naturally gazing up in curiosity. It’s just not as difficult as your instincts would cause you to believe. The dragon security system is proof that the best tricks are oftentimes the most straightforward.

The Experience: A descent into the depths of Gringotts in search of a Horcrux

The Trick: a mash-up of the two most popular kinds of theme park attractions

In the years and months leading up to the debut of Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, Universal marketers were unusually dodgy about the type of attraction they were making. Once guests experienced the ride for the first time, everyone understood why. It’s not quite a roller coaster, but it’s more than a dark ride. Yes, this attraction is the world’s most recognizable theme park mash-up.

The same design team that developed Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is responsible for its spiritual successor, too. They understood that a carbon copy of the first Potter ride wouldn’t sell the new themed land. Instead, it would feel derivative bordering on shamelessly lazy. They had a plan, though.

Universal’s team of (technology) wizards employed many of the ideas from Forbidden Journey in plotting Escape from Gringotts. These ride elements provided a foundation for the new attraction. Even the 3D aspects carried over. To differentiate it from its predecessor, however, the vault exploration would need a special touch, and we now know that this improvement is a roller coaster style.

Image: UniversalUnlike Forbidden Journey, Escape from Gringotts runs on coaster tracks. It’s not a giant amount of track by any stretch. In fact, the entirety of the ride is only 2,000 feet of track. For a regular coaster, that would be tantamount to a 60-second trip down the tracks. The bank battle is a four-minute ride. What’s the explanation for the dramatic difference in time?

Forbidden Journey is a true dark ride, one that pulls guests along a set path at a predetermined pace. Escape from Gringotts contains many of those same characteristics, but this fact gets hidden by the roller coaster aspect and something we’ll discuss in the next section.

By putting Escape from Gringotts on coaster tracks, it can provide highlight moments that are impossible on a dark ride. During the journey through the bank vault, guests experience several twists and turns and a 50-degree drop at one point. The roller coaster aspect enriches the storytelling possibilities, as it enables quick, dramatic movements. For all the brilliant aspects of dark rides, the pacing is one thing that limits the experience. In creating a mash-up of a dark ride and a roller coaster, the designers of Escape from Gringotts could take the strongest aspects of each ride style. This sort of hybrid attraction should grow more popular in coming years due to its unique utility.

The Experience: Retelling a famous story in the books and movie from a different perspective

The Trick: Bringing back the actors from the film franchise to shoot new scenes

Image: UniversalRather than create a new story, Universal mines familiar territory here with the Horcrux chase at Gringotts. The critical change is that you experience the sequence from a different point-of-view. You’re no longer one of the main protagonists from the story. Instead, you’re someone who has chosen the worst possible day to go to the bank. You get swept up in the heist, straight down to a showdown with Voldemort and his failing disciple, Bellatrix Lestrange, the person in charge of security for this section of the bank.

The action feels authentic to the movies because Universal opened up their own vault. They paid the cast members from the film franchise to shoot new scenes specifically for the attraction. While the same thing was done with Forbidden Journey, the difference is that it’s a standalone story. With Escape from Gringotts, the action during the ride ties back to the scene that Potter fans already know from the film franchise. You get a different look at the chaotic battle between Harry, Voldemort, and their respective allies. Plus, a cantankerous dragon is in the mix.

Image: UniversalOne of the most daring parts of the ride design is its inclusion of several boss fight-type sequences. Trolls in knight armor attack, desperately trying to cleave you since they believe that you’ve set off the security alarm. Nagini slithers toward you menacingly, sizing you up as a potential snack. And Voldemort casts a spell at you, one that you somehow survive in spite of your Muggle status. Due to these exhilarating battles and near escapes, Escape from Gringotts is much more of an action ride than its predecessor.

The similarity of the dark ride aspect is on full display, too. The actors have their new scenes projected on the walls. Universal created a novel digital display system so that the coaster will move in tandem with the “movie” shown on the monitors. It’s an augmented reality made possible by the 3-D glasses that you wear, but the immersion is believable due to the presence of faces that you’re familiar with from the films. It’s the best possible combination of the great ideas from Forbidden Journey added with roller coaster concepts and a high-end digital projection system, one that makes Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts the greatest technological triumph at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.