Over the next few years, Florida will welcome two major new theme park lands. At Universal Studios Florida, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley will open later in 2014. Walt Disney World, meanwhile, has just begun construction on Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom, which is expected to open in 2017.
Both lands will be part of a major transformation of their host parks. Universal Studios Florida has already seen the addition of Transformers: The Ride 3-D and the Simpsons-themed Springfield area in 2013, and we can expect more new attractions at the park by the time Pandora opens. Disney's Animal Kingdom, meanwhile, will introduce a new nighttime show, an evening safari and, for the first time, will open until late.
The rivalry between Universal and Disney, of course, is much broader than a simple battle between Harry Potter and Avatar's Naʼvi. Still, we thought it would be fun to compare the two new lands and the very different experiences that they will offer for theme park fans.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley will bring to life the magical shopping street in London seen in the Harry Potter books and movies. The new area will be much broader than just Diagon Alley, however. There'll also be recreations of London's Embankment (incorporating a mish-mash of landmarks from the real-world city), murky Knockturn Alley (where dark wizards like to hang out) and two all-new areas: Carkitt Market and Horizont Alley.
The power and allure of the Harry Potter brand has already been proven by the success of the original Wizarding World at Islands of Adventure. We can expect Diagon Alley to be just as popular.
Pandora - The World of Avatar will be themed around James Cameron's Avatar and its upcoming sequels. While Avatar hasn't attracted the same kind of die-hard following that Harry Potter has, the movie itself was hugely successful. It brought in some $2.8 billion at the box office - more than double the receipts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2.
Disney's Animal Kingdom was always intended to host a land dedicated to mythical creatures (we've previously taken an in-depth look at the never-built Beastly Kingdom). Pandora and its host of other-worldly creatures are therefore arguably a good fit for the park.
Rides and attractions
Universal has built a reputation for pushing the boundaries of technology in its rides, most recently with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (currently ranked number one in our ever-changing list of the highest-rated theme parks rides in the world). The two rides in the new Wizarding World promise to continue this trend.
The Hogwarts Express will take guests on a journey from Kings Cross Station in Universal Studios Florida's Diagon Alley to Islands of Adventure's Hogsmeade Station and vice-versa. Along the way, guests will see simulated scenes of London and the British Countryside and will encounter characters and creatures from the Harry Potter movies. The ride will be completely unique - it is the only one in our extensive database of 3,500+ rides to be listed as belonging to two different theme parks!
The scenes in Harry Potter movies in which Harry and his friends race through Gringotts Wizarding Bank in a roller coaster-style cart were always destined to become the basis for a ride. And now they will, in Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Expect a heavily-themed queue through the bank, as well as high-tech effects such as projection screens and simulator-style motion sections.
We know less about the rides that will feature in Pandora - The World of Avatar. We do know, though, that the headline attraction will be a 3-D flying ride. Inevitably, this has led to comparisons with the existing Soarin' ride at Epcot, which uses a suspended, hang-glider-style ride system to take guests on a tour of California. Given Cameron's involvement, though, and the elements that are visible in the plans, it appears that the Avatar ride will actually be considerably more technologically advanced than Soarin'. The plans show four separate theaters, spread across 3 floors.
Housed partially on the ground floor of the same building that will host the flying attraction, and partially outside, will be a boat ride through Pandora's forests. Speculation suggests that Disney will employ advanced audio-animatronics to bring to life the inhabitants of Pandora as guests travel around the circuit.
In the Harry Potter books and movies, The Leaky Cauldron pub forms the entrance to Diagon Alley. Muggles see just an old, rickety shop front on Charing Cross Road, but wizards are able to pass through a hidden doorway and enter the mysterious alley. At Universal Studios Florida, The Leaky Cauldron will become the main dining outlet, performing the same function as the Three Broomsticks in the original Wizarding World. Expect Butterbeer aplenty, along with traditional English dishes. No word yet on the menu, although it is expected to include fish and chips and bangers and mash.
In the books, Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour is a small shop with indoor and outdoor seating areas. It serves up lots of colorful ice cream flavours, along with toppings such as chopped nuts. Expect similar fare at Universal's version.
We know much less about the restaurants that will feature in Pandora - The World of Avatar. While it features some stunning eye-candy, much of the original Avatar movie is set in a fairly grim army base. And that could provide the setting for the area's quick-service dining location. No word yet on if there'll be a more upscale restaurant, too.
This is one area where Universal has a huge advantage. Not only has the original Wizarding World proved that Harry Potter fans love to buy merchandise, but Diagon Alley itself is one long shopping street. The unusual stores, such as Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, are going to generate a fortune.
Disney has a tougher job on its hands with Avatar, which features creatures that can't really be described as "cute". Still, the company has years of expertise in developing attractive merchandise, and can bring that to bear in its new land.
Universal has already proved with the original Wizarding World that it can create a land that is amazingly faithful to the one seen in the movies. With production designer Stuart Craig on board, expect a similar level of stunning detail in Diagon Alley. We're particularly looking forward to seeing the huge animatronic, fire-breathing dragon that will sit atop Gringotts Bank.
It's clear from Disney's concept art that lighting will play a very important role in Pandora's theming. This could go as far as "ripple effects" built into the sidewalk, as well as glow-in-the-dark plants (remember, Disney plans to open Animal Kingdom late into the evening once Pandora opens).
Rumors have been circulating for months that the most popular merchandise item from the original Wizarding World - the wands sold by Ollivanders and the Owl Post - will be taken to a new level in Diagon Alley. The rumors suggest that they will be equipped with RFID chips, enabling them to trigger effects and animations at various different points in the land.
Walt Disney World, of course, has already pioneered the use of RFID in its parks with its MagicBands. These could play a part in triggering effects in Pandora, which is expected to enable guests to interact with "nature". Rumors point to a walkthrough attraction and regular "visits" that will enable guests to see Pandora's inhabitants up-close.
Find out more
We've collected all of our information about Diagon Alley into three main articles:
- Everything we know about the Hogwarts Express.
- Everything we know about Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.
- A virtual walkthrough of Diagon Alley, including its shops and restaurants.
All of our information on Disney Animal Kingdom's new addition is available in our Pandora - The World of Avatar guide.
You can keep up to date with the latest confirmed and rumored opening dates for new attractions through Theme Park Tourist's "New Attraction Watch" section, and by signing up for our weekly newsletter.