Talking about the impact that a certain boy wizard has had on Universal Orlando, Mike Aiello, the parks' director of entertainment creative, says that "There's almost an A.D. and a B.C." Maybe that should be "B.P.," as in "before Potter."
Since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter first opened in 2010, it has helped to elevate and transform Universal's Florida theme park resort from an also-ran caught in the long shadow of its mouse-eared neighbor up the street to a burgeoning, groundbreaking destination in its own right. Visitors flock there year round, largely to escape into the meticulously crafted mythology first conjured by J.K. Rowling in novel form and then represented by the beloved series of films.
Once a year, however, Universal Orlando takes an even deeper dive into the world of wizards, wands, and Weasleys by presenting A Celebration of Harry Potter. The 3-day event, a sort of Comic-Con for geeks who are passionate about the spell-casting gang, will be held January 26-28.
Most of the features, which include panels with the films' stars and creators, an expo, demonstrations, and movie screenings, are included with general admission to the theme parks. Some diehards, however, many of who travel from far-flung corners of the globe, go all-in and purchase vacation packages that include multi-day passes, hotel accommodations, special access to the event's activities, autograph and photo sessions with the celebs, and invitations to an exclusive evening party in the parks.
Those in attendance at the special party will be the first to see The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle, a new projection show that is set to debut at Hogsmeade in the resort's Islands of Adventure park. It follows an impressive Christmas-themed castle projection show that Universal premiered at its recent holiday event. With the infrastructure in place, the park is planning to present digitally mapped Potter shows on a regular basis. Nighttime Lights, which is nearly identical to a presentation that Universal Studios Hollywood launched last year at its Wizarding World, focuses on the four Hogwarts School houses, namely Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, Slytherin, and Gryffindor. Aiello promises that among the scenes will be a talking Sorting Hat.
The film stars scheduled to join in the fun at the celebration will be Bonnie Wright, who played Ginny Weasley, Oliver and James Phelps, the Weasley twins, Natalia Tena, who played Nymphadora Tonks, and Stanislav Yanevski, the actor who portrayed Viktor Krum. They will participate in Q&A sessions and talk about their experiences during the making of the films. While fans enjoy seeing the celebrities, the actors get a kick out of visiting the Potter lands. During production of the films, they were on partial sets that had no ceilings and lots of green screens. At the parks, "it is really the first time they see these worlds fully realized, 360 degrees," says Aiello.
Costume designers, a special effects guru, and graphic designers who worked on the movies will also share their Potter experiences. If you want to sharpen your wand combat skills, Paul Harris will be leading a workshop. "This is the actual guy who choreographed the scenes in the films," Aiello notes, calling Harris' particular set of skills, "wandography." Attendees will also be able to join a Beauxbatons and Durmstrang dancing class (if you don't know what a Beauxbatons is, you probably shouldn't get your Durmstrang groove on).
Over the five years that Universal has presented the Potter celebration, the event has grown. For example, the expo, which used to occupy one of the park's smaller buildings, now fills two large soundstages. It's crammed with merchandise, displays, and booths from vendors such as Pottermore, J.K. Rowling's digital hub, Harry Potter book publisher Scholastic, and Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, which welcomes visitors to the actual sets where the films were shot.
As evidenced by the legions of fans that are expected to come dressed as their favorite wizards and cosplay at the celebration, the fascination with Rowling's saga shows no signs of abating. Aiello says that the actors who attend the event inevitably tell him that they never realized the impact or the longevity that the films would have. "They are amazed how it has tendrilled out into what we do at Universal." The zealous folks who will be making the pilgrimage to the parks "love all things Potter with every fiber of their being," he adds.