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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Begins!

By Jami Philbrick — June 18th, 2010

We travel to Orlando, Florida for the grand opening of the new theme park based on the popular film franchise

All eyes are on Orlando, Florida this week for the long awaited grand opening of "The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter," a new theme park based on the phenomenally successful series of children's books and beloved films, which include Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and the upcoming final chapters of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II. The attraction is located at Universal Orland Resort's Islands Of Adventure, which is their literary themed park that also features Dr. Seuss and Marvel Comics inspired rides and stores.

While the park doesn't officially open until today, Friday June 18th, it has had a soft opening since Monday allowing some special fans and media to be the first to experience this incredible new amusement park. We had the rare opportunity to travel to Orlando to be among those lucky few and even attended the exclusive red carpet gala celebration Wednesday night. The event was attended by hundreds of guests including lucky fans, family of the park's staff, media, creators of the park, executives from both Warner Bros. and NBC/Universal including Jeff Zucker and Alan Horn, as well as the filmmakers, the cast of the films, and of course the author and creator of the books, J.K. Rowling.

The event began with Thomas L. Williams, Chairman and CEO of Universal Parks & Resorts, thanking the crowd of fans for their enthusiasm and Rowling herself for providing the basis for this amazing new attraction. The celebration was held at the end of Hogsmead Village in front of Hogwarts castle and after a few words from other Universal and Warner Bros. representatives, Williams introduced a special treat, actor Warwick Davis who plays both Filius Flitwick and Griphook in the films, along with the Frog Choir, which included actual singing frogs. Davis conducted the singing of the Hogwarts anthem and it was a big hit. Following that, legendary composer John Williams who wrote the theme for the film series took to the stage along with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra to perform the film's theme.

Finally it was time to open Hogwarts, which had been unlit up to this point. Actors Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George Weasley), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and of course ... Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe entered the stage to great applause. At the beginning of the event, all guests were given a special wand with an un-lighted bulb at the end of it and it was now clear what that was for. Radcliffe asked the audience to wave their wands and say, " Lumas Maximus!" Magically the light bulbs on all of the wands suddenly came on and so did the lights illuminating the castle, which looked absolutely breathtaking. Some images of the past films were projected on the wall of the castle while the theme played and one of the best fireworks shows ever was displayed above the castle in the evening sky.

After the event guests were welcomed to be the first to ride "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey," which is the signature ride and what lives inside the Hogwarts castle. The line for the ride is fantastic as it allows fans an opportunity to explore inside the castle while they wait, which was brilliantly designed by the park's creative director Thierry Coup, the film's art director Alan Gilmore and the film's production designer Stuart Craig. As you walk through you get to see replicas of many important items and rooms including Dumbledore's Office and the green house, which is where you board the ride. You also see moving paintings and Dumbledore giving you some friendly safety tips. The ride is amazing and incorporates filmed segments as well as animatronics. It has a great story to follow and allows you to fly with Harry and also face evil Dementors and even a dragon. It's truly the best movie themed ride that you'll ever go on.

We had an opportunity to walk around the rest of the attraction, which begins with Hogsmeade village. The village itself is kind of like a "Potter-ized" version of City Walk. It features six "Harry Potter" themed stores including Dervish and Banges, Filche's Emporium Of Confiscated Goods, Honeydukes, Olivianders, Owl Post and Zonko's, as well as one restaurant and pub, Three Broomsticks and Hog's Head, respectively. You can also by Butter Beer at several vendors as you walk down the street as well as at the restaurant, which also serves Hogs Head Brew. As you first walk in you can see Hogsmeade Station with the Hogwarts express shooting off steam and the conductor (who is always in character) told me that it leaves every September 1st from Kings Cross Station at 11AM sharp.

Another great interactive experience is at Olivanders, the wand shop. Guests can go in and have the wand keeper help a wand to "choose" you, which you can then purchase next door but it makes for a neat experience for the kids. You can actually mail a real letter from Owl Post and the architecture and attention to detail everywhere is just awe worthy. If you visit the rest room and hear a strange noise, don't fear, it's just Moaning Myrtle and there are tons of other cool Easter Eggs hidden in the park for fans. The other two rides include a crazy, double roller coaster called "Dragon Challenge," and a ride for the younger kids called "Flight Of The Hippogrift," which is actually pretty fun for adults too.

On Thursday we had a chance to sit down with some of the creators of the park, filmmakers behind the movie franchise and cast of the films to discuss the park, the movies and everything "Harry Potter." We began by asking actor Warwick Davis what it was like to open for John Williams and conduct the Frog Choir? "It was an amazing honor to be asked to do that," explained the Davis. "There are certain things that you do in your career that stand out and that was certainly a stand out moment for me standing up there and then to sit in the orchestra and watch John Williams conduct was amazing. I said to him after, that I felt sorry for him because he had to follow me," joked the actor. "It was wonderful and they are tremendous singers all of them singing behind me. It will be one of the highlights in my career for me, absolutely. We just finished shooting the film last week and it's nice to come here, it lifts every ones spirits a bit to be here," he explained. "It's really wonderful."

The accomplished actor was also part of another beloved franchise having starred in Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi and the actor compared the two series. "They are very different but of course both have huge fan bases. I think they are both very detailed and made by extremely skilled filmmakers that represent their subjects brilliantly," he explained. "The Harry Potter films were really great sets to work on. In both these films the worlds are immersive but the sets can be immersive too. I mean the Great Hall is a three dimensional place and the only thing missing is the enchanted ceiling and when you are filming in those environments you really feel like you are there. Where working on a Star Wars film it's a lot of green screen and maybe they build a six-foot wall over here but the rest is your imagination. As filmmaking goes, that's how the two franchises are different."

We asked the cast who were experiencing the park for the first time to talk about their first reactions. "Last night was a culmination of everything, said Tom Felton. "The castle is amazing and you get the same sense of awe that you do on the real set." "It was a really amazing experience actually," said Daniel Radcliffe. "This world is even more complete. On the set we don't have four walls or a ceiling so there's never that. There is never a moment here where the illusion is interrupted." When asked about their favorite part of the park, Rupert Grint answered, ""I really like the pub."

Felton and Radcliffe talked about their first reactions when they heard that Universal would be doing a Harry Potter themed attraction. "Well there were rumors for years and I didn't know if they were true," said Felton. "My reaction was ... okay? Because you don't know how that is going to work out and what's been amazing about actually coming here and seeing it is the attention to detail is equal to what we do on film and that was gratifying to see," explained Radcliffe. Oliver and James Phelps discussed their favorite parts of the park. "I went to the Owl Post where you can send a letter and they'll post it there, put a stamp on it and it can go anywhere in the world so I sent a letter to some friends there," said Oliver. While James had this to add, "One thing I do on set is I tap the walls to hear that they are hallow, you can't do that here. They are real and made of stone."

As we mentioned, there is plenty of new footage that the actors shot specifically for the "Forbidden Journey" ride and we wanted to know when they actually shot it and what the process was like for them? "Well I did that over a year ago," answered Michael Gambon. "I just remember doing it but I don't remember what I said so it's nice see it for the first time." "We did about a month of extra shooting at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince so that's when we shot that, which was brilliant," said Radcliffe. "It was very weird because we shot it in away that we're not used to, talking to the camera as we were often encouraged not to do. But the technology they are using is quite amazing," he said. "I always like to point out the irony of having Michael Gambon do the instructions for the ride," joked and Radcliffe. We followed that up by asking Gambon, a classically trained British actor if it was strange giving instructions like "If you have neck pains, a heart condition or are pregnant you should not participate in this ride." "Yes because I don't abide by them myself," laughed Gambon. "I just say what they tell me to say."

The cast spoke about their favorite part of the "Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey" ride and Radcliffe had this to say. "I love the moment ... and I think it's fantastically clever where the Dementors come and take out your soul and you see your face dragged out in front of you." "I haven't been on the "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" yet but I will later today but I've been on "Dragon Challenge," answered Gambon. We asked the sixty-nine year old actor if he enjoyed the ride. "It was terrifying," he said. "I closed me eyes and didn't look. As soon as I got on it I knew I made a mistake and I won't go again."

Felton and Radcliffe were asked what they had seen at the park so far that had touched them the most? "I saw two children gasp yesterday when they first saw the park and it's great to see the children's faces when they are taking it all in," said Felton. "It's that little noise that children make," said Radcliffe. "If you could bottle it, that's why this park exists." Felton also talked about the real-world difficulties of playing a villain as well as he does. "I've learned to take it," he explained. "I had a lovely child come up to me yesterday and say, I hate you. I said, thank you very much," he joked. "It's great fun to play the bad guy and hopefully he is someone who is a lot different than me. It's painful because they always come with hugs and kisses for these two (indicating Radcliffe and Grint) but not a lot for me. I'm very used to it."

{no_person|Mark Woodbury), President of Universal Parks & Resorts creative team talked about the opportunity to collaborate with the series creator J.K. Rowling on the theme park project. "I can tell you that from the beginning she was an integral part of developing this theme park and will remain to be so. She was a big part of the process from beginning to end including being here last night." "The thing about J.K. is that she knows that the films are different than the books," said the movie's producer David Barron. "She understands that so she is wonderful to collaborate with and is very encouraging and helps to take advantage of the opportunities in front of us." Barron and fellow film series producer David Heyman went on to both tell stories that illustrate Rowling's influence on the film series. "Ten years ago she gave me a map," said Heyman. "We met for the first time and she drew a map of the "Harry Potter World" and I still have it. That really helped build the relationship of where Hogwarts is in relation to other things and it was very useful for us."

"It's fantastic to go to her when you need a little advice," added Barron. "We were doing the Black family tree for one of the films and in the book it doesn't list a lot of names and we wanted a shot showing many of them and so we called her up. Fifteen minutes later this family tree with a hundred names, birthdates, death-dates and who was married to who showed up on my computer. Her knowledge of this world is so rich and you notice that at this theme park is the detail. It really is an immersive experience because everything comes from J.K.'s imagination and the talents of Stuart Craig, Alan Gilmore, Mark Woodbury, Thierry Coup and his team. The attention to detail in this park is amazing. It's just unbelievable, thank you guys." Both Craig and Gilmore discussed helping to bring their film creations to life here in Orlando. "I think one of the great things that has happened is the collaboration between us and the people at Universal Orlando," said Craig. "Together we created something wonderful. They have done something just wonderful here and it is breathtaking." "For me the journey was taking Stuart's film designs and making them real, said Gilmore. "I've been an art director for many years but never did I think I would help design a theme park but here we are and it's amazing. It's been a great experience."

Actors Matthew Lewis and Bonnie Wright have been a part of the film series since the very first movie. They have both seen their roles grow over the years and both have pivotal parts in the final films. The two actors talked about their characters and the joy of being a part of this series. "It's weird because I read the books when I was younger, I read the first four before I auditioned I think," said Lewis. "I was a huge fan and knew Neville was a great character who was involved in the story but I really didn't understand until I read book five when the prophecy was first announced and he became a member of Dumbledore's army. Even then I didn't know what was yet to come and I spoke to J.K. at one of the premieres and she said that she had some good stuff in mind for Neville and I said, don't tell me, I don't want to know," stated Lewis. "She said okay, I won't tell you but it's coming and every year the character just grows up more and more. He's got this courage that's constantly getting better and better and then comes to a close in a beautiful way. There is a lot about the character people can relate to because he pulls through when it counts and that's what I like about him," finished the actor. "Yeah it's been great," answered Wright. "If someone told me years ago how this would end I don't think I would have believed them so it's been great. Watching everything unfold has been a really fulfilling experience. It's nice to see her grow into her own over the years."

Since Warwick Davis had mentioned that the film just finished shooting last weekend, Radcliffe began talking about wrapping up the film series that he has been a part of for almost a decade. "It was very emotional. It was very strange. They edited together a wonderful short film that will hopefully eventually make it on to a DVD, which shows images from the last six months of shooting and it was kind of devastating." As recently seen in the sneak preview that was shown during the MTV Movie Awards, there is a scene in the upcoming final films where Ron and Harry have it out and the two actors discussed this volcanic eruption in the character's otherwise peaceful friendship. "Yeah that was really fun to do. At that point in the story I'm very unsure of Harry's ability so yeah it was a cool scene to shoot," teased Rupert Grint. "It's great because usually the scenes we have together we have a happy relationship so it was actually really great to do something else," said Radcliffe.

The young lead actors also explained what they had lined up for "life after Potter." "Next year I'm doing a show on Broadway, "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying," which opens in the spring," said Radcliffe. So I'm starting to take singing and dancing lessons." "I don't know? I might be doing Eddie the Eagle about the skier, answered Grint. "That would be amazing," added Radcliffe. "I'm just going to enjoy the time off," said Felton. "But I shot a film three months ago in Berlin called The Apparition and it was very bizarre to be on a different film set," confessed the actor. "I've been doing this so long that it was a little nerve racking to go on to a new set but I'm very excited about it and it comes out next year." Felton explained the therapeutic advantages of the park for the cast now that the film is ending. "They are keeping the candle alive aren't they? It's nice for us that if we ever get with drawls that we can just come here, so I'm excited." On that note, Radcliffe added this story. "I had a friend from New York that moved to Los Angeles and anytime that he would get homesick he would go to one of the studios and find their New York set and have a coffee, so I guess that's what I'll be doing here."

Finally, this morning the park officially opened and we were there for the grand opening ceremony. The event was held at the entrance to Hogsmeade village right in front of the Hogwarts Express. With children from all over the country present and eagerly awaiting to enter the park, the Hogwarts Express Conductor walked out and said, "Right on time." After an introduction by Bill Davis, Chief Operating Officer of Universal Orlando Resorts, the Hogwarts Express' whistle blew and the conductor introduced the actors from the film who were present for the ceremony, which included Gambon, Davis, Lewis, Wright, the Phelps Brothers, Grint, and last but not least, Radcliffe.

After greeting some of the children who were sitting up front, Radcliffe had this to say to the capacity crowd. "I'd just like to say on behalf of everybody up here, that we're all very, very excited to be here today. We've had a chance to look around the park and it is incredible. What Universal Orlando has done with "Harry Potter" is really, really fantastic. We are all very grateful that the next part of the "Harry Potter" legacy has been so well done, and well made and it really is fantastic. You are all going to have an amazing time I'm sure."

The entire cast took a moment to come down off the Hogwarts express platform and spend a few moments greeting and talking to the children. Radcliffe was pretty amazing with the kids and seems to be in real-life every bit the gentle soul that he portrays on film. Finally, James and Oliver Phelps had a special surprise in store as they revealed fireworks in the form of a giant rocket that the claimed to have purchased from Zonko's toy shop. After attempting to light it several times to no avail we heard a loud noise go off in the distance and it turned out to be a spectacular fireworks show happening in the sky above us. With that, the conductor welcomed everyone in to the park and the stars of the film and some of the children walked hand and hand into "The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter."

In the end, what the creative teams at Universal Orlando, the filmmakers and J.K. Rowling have been able to do, bringing the world of "Harry Potter" to life at this park is nothing short of extraordinary. The attention to detail is amazing, the rides are fun and the experience is a must for any fan of the books, films, or just children of all ages in general. There is no doubt that this park will be a major attraction for some time, it's pretty much a forgone conclusion at this point. But what is truly astonishing is what Rowling has been able to do, creating a property that could rival Disney World. Can you imagine any other book, film, comic, or TV series that would be able to justify it's own park? "Harry Potter" is truly a phenomenon in every sense of the word. Being here this week and witnessing history has truly been amazing. Imagine actually being in attendance at the original opening of Disneyland in the '60s, that is the only thing that could even come close to describing the magnitude of what we witnessed here in Orlando this week.

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