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07.15.10

Harry Potter and the Plotless Theme Park

When Walt Disney first merged theater and film to birth theme parks, fiction came alive in the rides. But Andy Dehnart writes that the Wizarding World is all experience, no story.

Hogwarts emerges from jagged brown rock that bleeds green moss, as if the building had been carved from the earth. Its familiar spires reach into the sky, the arched walkway hovering high above.

Not even the Florida heat and humidity can interrupt the forced perspective effect that makes a theme-park façade look massive and imposing. The arched walkway seems like it is hundreds of feet in the air and dozens of feet tall, at least until you look to the right and see the massive warehouse-looking building that houses the attraction and that Universal did not conceal. What’s inside is equally impressive to Harry Potter fans: talking portraits, Dumbledore’s office, the Sorting Hat. And that’s just the queue.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

This may be the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a mere corner of Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure theme park, where a path between two other lands was turned into Hogsmeade village, but it is the most tangible version of J.K. Rowling’s vision. What never existed before in actuality—the burning, fiery sweetness of butterbeer; the ceiling of Dumbledore’s office (which didn’t exist on the films’ sets); a functional Three Broomsticks pub—has come to life. Fans, tourists, and even the actors themselves finally know what it is like to stand inside Rowling’s world.

Alas, it’s missing a central part of Rowling’s work: a story. But this is not a surprise, because stories have been subjugated to experience at theme parks in recent years.

More than half a century ago, Walt Disney merged amusements with theater and film and gave birth to full immersion, making visitors feel like they weren’t at an amusement park on a rusty ride, but in the middle of a fictional story that came alive. (The Magic Kingdom’s Splash Mountain, for example, isn’t just a log flume ride, it’s Song of the South.) Innovative Omnimover ride systems, like the Doom Buggies at the Haunted Mansion, controlled our point of view and concealed effects, while massive soundstage sets offered such rich detail that they sometimes inspired films, such as Pirates of the Caribbean. Even the simplest rides have detailed stories: Hollywood Studios’ Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster wraps an ordinary coaster with a story that begins in the queue and ends in the post-ride gift shop. During a tour of their recording studio, Aerosmith invites you to join them backstage at a concert across town; their manager, played by Illeana Douglas, orders a “really fast” “super stretch” limo which awaits in a masterfully designed parking garage and after speeding through Los Angeles, drops you off on the red carpet.

Every single element of these attractions plays into their narrative. But the pendulum lately has swung back toward their predecessors, rides that were just experiences with names, and maybe some paint and decorations. Stories are no longer as interesting to us as immediate experiences, and that’s evident at Universal. The new, centerpiece attraction may be called “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” but there is definitely no sign of Joseph Campbell here, just a series of moments.

The line for the attraction winds through well-known Hogwarts spaces, and there’s a beginning of a story: Visitors are Muggles visiting Hogwarts, something the fat lady portrait outside the Gryffindor common room—an exceptional if simple effect—expresses great consternation about. In the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, Harry, Ron, and Hermione—projections of the actual actors, filmed in the U.K. around the end of production on the sixth film—tell you to meet up with Hermione and she’ll sneak you out of the castle. Then the story begins to fall apart: The Sorting Hat is there in the hallway outside the Room of Requirement, and as you board magical flying benches, Hermione sends you through the Floo system, and then you’re flying. There’s a dragon, and spiders. Later, Dementors suck your soul out, and then all of the students at Hogwarts have gathered to cheer for you along with Dumbledore. What? What happened?

The truth is, this doesn’t really matter in the moment: The ride is spectacular. The transitions between the immersive filmed segments and real-life sets and special effects are fairly seamless, and flying around with a full range of motion that’s unlike any other ride, you rarely get the sense that you’re moving through an attraction on a track like earlier dark rides such as Disney’s Haunted Mansion or Universal’s The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. Because of the design of the ride vehicles, you don’t even see the person next to you, never mind anyone else: Everything happens just for you, and you feel fully as if you are in the world of Harry Potter.

Alas, the reasons we came to care about Harry and his friends in the first place—characters developed throughout a rich, seven-book narrative—are lost.

This absence is unlikely to be noticed by most people who will be high on the succession of experiences, flying through a Quidditch match or narrowly avoiding a real-life Whomping Willow. Not until well after I left the park and thought about the ride did it occur to me that I didn’t really understand the chaotic journey I’d taken, even after watching someone’s home movie of the ride. What was the point beyond immersing me in parts of Harry’s world?

That, it turns out, is kind of the point. After riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, I asked Thierry Coup, the Universal vice president of creative development who led development of the attraction, about the mission for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. “That was the first goal: taking all of the best moments, the most thrilling moments of the adventures and having our guests experience them,” he said.

The “experience” of “moments” seems to be the general direction theme parks are taking. Over at Walt Disney World, there’s Soarin’, an attraction at Epcot (and California Adventure) that incredibly lifts theater seats off the ground and into a curved screen, and with the addition of slight motion, wind, and other special effects, really does make you feel like you’re on a hang glider over California. It’s wonderful, but awkward, because there’s no story or even logical transitions between scenes. One moment you’re flying over the ocean in Monterey, the next you’re on the side of a snowy mountain at Lake Tahoe. But I don’t care when I’m flying, always instinctively lifting my dangling feet as if they’ll get wet as we skim waves at sunset.

Disney has even replaced attractions that tell stories with attractions that emphasize experience. Instead of riding through scenes depicting the history of transportation at the World of Motion, visitors to Test Track now wait, sometimes for hours, to board open-air vehicles that go over a bumpy surface, brake, turn corners, and go 65 miles per hour.

Of course, not all attractions have obvious narratives. It’s a Small World has always been just a series of set pieces that climaxes in a final scene where the singing characters gather in a white space wearing white clothing as an awkward symbol of racial unity. And theme-park storytelling isn’t entirely dead: Disney is building rides at its parks on both coasts that tell the story of The Little Mermaid.

If there ever were a place for a story to come to life, though, it would be at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but instead there is no attempt at narrative cohesion between the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride and Hogsmeade Village. There, tourists’ pale skin burns as they wait in line for Ollivander’s (forget that it’s supposed to be located in Diagon Alley) where piles of dusty wand boxes rise into the rafters high above. Here, tourists aren’t treated like Muggles, as they are in the ride, but as young wizards and witches getting fitted for a wand. After experiencing the special effects, the person chosen can buy the wand that chose them for $28.95 in the store next to Ollivander’s, which offers to sell anyone one of 13 Universal-designed wands or a replica of a character’s wand. (The connection of experience and commerce left one chosen child I saw ridden with anxiety: Clutching the artfully designed box, he worriedly asked an attendant, “How much does it cost?” as if buying it weren’t optional. He seemed to understand that here, participation is often via purchase.)

The rest of the land is a world of things to look at and experience as John Williams’ musical cues fill the air: There’s the car Ron and Harry crashed! I hear Moaning Myrtle in the bathroom! Try the pumpkin juice! Impressive details abound, from packaging to costumes, although some are less impressive than others (the Book of Monsters, for example, lacks the life the computer-generated version had in the movie, and seems like a prop with a limited range of motion, not a living thing).

This fleshed-out version of Rowling’s world is so finely tuned, in fact, that it influenced the films: Universal’s Coup told me that production designer Stuart Craig designed Three Broomsticks for the park, and used those blueprints when they needed to create part of the space for last year’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Coup said that when his team visited the set in London to do research and eventually film scenes with the actors for the ride, “it was a very breathtaking moment for us to walk on the sets at Leavesden in London and see Dumbledore’s office, but then you lift your head up, and there’s no ceiling. It’s all CG. And then you look around the corner, and there’s just a hole there. It’s never been built. Being able to create all that for real [was a] huge challenge.”

Rowling’s role in that challenge, Coup told me, “was very much of a collaboration more than just a review and approval.” Is it possible that in between sampling butterbeer recipes and writing the script for the Sorting Hat’s dialogue she didn’t notice that Universal was missing a key part of her universe? That the narrative that binds her rich characters and extraordinary settings, which showed us how friendship can help us overcome anything, is barely here?

That’s doubtful, and maybe it’s a subversive part of Rowling’s design for the Florida theme park. The films offer a world that is impressive but fake—not even the actors get to do the things we see them doing—while the theme park offers realism and full participation without a purpose. That leaves Rowling’s books as truly the only place where Harry Potter can fully come to life for people, and perhaps that’s exactly the way it should be.

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Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.