Magic is multiplying in Florida. Like the clandestine magical world it’s based on, little can be said about the work happening at Universal Studios Florida, so we must begin with the past.
In 2010, Universal stunned the industry when it opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the seventh themed island at its already standard-setting theme park in Orlando, Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The incredible land recreates the Scottish town of Hogsmeade from the acclaimed Harry Potter film series, with shops, restaurants, nooks, crannies, and even restrooms based on the series.
The craggily, snow-covered streets of Hogsmeade culminate in a rocky mountainside with the world-famous Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry overhead. Inside is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, an unprecedented dark ride that ascends past the standards Universal had set with its own Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man dark ride also located at Islands of Adventure.
Of course, attendance at Universal Orlando Resort skyrocketed following the land’s opening, with fans from across the globe descending on the resort, clamoring for a taste of Butterbeer and literally queuing for hours to get into shops (to the envy of competitors, of course, who have since tried their hands at signature drinks and limited-availability merchandise to no such success).
With the wild success of the land, Universal at once green lit an aggressive expansion strategy to secure its foothold in Orlando’s competitive neighborhood, beginning with repairing neglected infrastructure (adding a “value” hotel with the upcoming Cabana Bay Beach Resort, installing new walking paths, refurbishing existing attractions), capitalizing on its library (with the new and high-quality Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and an in-progress expansion around The Simpsons Ride to recreate that show’s famous eateries and shops), and a never-before-seen race to build (with a clone of Hollywood’s Transformers: The Ride - 3D set to open in May after breaking ground only nine months earlier).
Part of that rapid expansion also included the closure, demolition, and re-profiling of the park’s northeast corner, formerly home to the Jaws attraction. Seemingly overnight, the entire “Amity” land disappeared, and a massive show building sprung up in its place. So what’s to take a place of the land occupied by Jaws? Finally,Universal has admitted the truth: its installing a second Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this time based on London's Diagon Alley. The new land will open in 2014.
The Merry Olde Streets of London
Early on, rumors suggested that Universal would expand its popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter to overtake the remainder of the Lost Continent island, which was almost entirely sacrificed in the land’s construction. Dreamers hoped that an indoor, highly themed roller coaster akin to Universal’s Revenge of the Mummy might move into the show building for the Poseidon’s Fury walkthrough attraction located there.
They may have been right – just in the wrong location.
Indeed, it seems that Universal is prepared to expand its Wizarding World, but not where you might expect.
Careful observers noted that a diagonal backstage road between Universal Studios Florida and neighboring Universal’s Islands of Adventure runs roughly from the start of Hogsmeade to the land formerly occupied by Jaws. And as quickly as word spread, plans seemed to confirm that Universal was, in fact, going to do something no other resort had ever tried – it would connect two theme parks via an attraction. In this case, the Hogwarts Express.
Where Jaws once stood, London would be born. Guests would enter through the Leaky Cauldron into the British Diagon Alley which, in the series, served as Harry’s first encounter with the magical world – an avenue of curious shops selling magical oddities, textbooks, candies, and owls to prepare students for their first year at Hogwarts.
Of course, the highlight of Diagon Alley in both the films and the theme park equivalent is the incredible, towering Gringotts Bank, a literal bastion for a wizard’s gold and heirlooms overseen by none-too-friendly goblins and protected by enchantments and creatures of legend. Harry’s first encounter with the bank is an innocent descent in its mine-cart-style conveyance in the first film; by the last, the out-of-control race through the vaults was accompanied by loops, waterfalls, and captive dragons.
The massive show building being constructed on Jaws’ remains will be Gringotts, and indeed, black roller coaster track visible from within indicates that the Wizarding World will expand to offer new experiences and new adventures for Universal’s already flabbergasted fans.
Inside the vaults
So what will the Gringotts Bank roller coaster be like? Well, Universal hasn't unveiled the details of what would be one of their most impressive rides yet. But we do know what Universal is working with: an increasingly impressive arsenal of technological innovation. After its outstanding and unparalleled foray into what can only be described as “4-D motion-base dark-ride simulator” technology with 1999’s Spider-Man and the even-more-progressive Forbidden Journey, you can bet that a Gringotts roller coaster would not be a Space Mountain style ride in the dark.
In fact, some reports suggest that the roller coaster could be a combination of the park’s Revenge of the Mummy (dark-ride morphs into roller coaster) and Spider-Man (roving motion-base with seamlessly integrated 3-D screens). Universal had shattered its own standards in the past, so this would doubtlessly be no different.
Other reports suggest that the ride may opt out of technological overload and instead present a quality, high-octane thrill ride with outstanding theming that may incorporate a few surprises (launches, backward sections, or even free-fall track like Busch Gardens’ Verbolten or Alton Towers’ Thirteen).
It’s too early to speculate what the Gringotts roller coaster will actually entail. One thing is for sure – Universal has proven itself. Despite its apparent fate – doomed to play second fiddle to Walt Disney World – Universal continually outdoes itself and proves its commitment to quality. Under the direction of J. K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter book series and creative consultant for all eight films), Universal produced one of the most impressive, talked-about, and admired theme park elements in decades.
The Wizarding World may even be recognized as a major catalyst into the new age of expansion we’ve seen today, with Disney California Adventure’s Cars Land, Magic Kingdom’s New Fantasyland, SeaWorld Orlando’s Antarctica, and Animal Kingdom’s Pandora – The World of Avatar all attempting to emulate the immersive atmosphere and the new standard of building entirely new lands instead of independent attractions.
Whatever Universal and Rowling create at Universal Studios Florida is certain to be groundbreaking and impressive, and we’re energized and delighted that Universal’s aggressive expansion is not at the cost of quality. Instead, the Gringotts Bank roller coaster will certainly be a must-experience for coaster fans, park fans, and Potter fans alike.