ORLANDO — Universal has had record-setting success with its Harry Potter-themed lands thanks in part to the cinematic flair of making visitors feel like they're in the movie. They can walk into Gringotts Wizarding Bank and through the halls of Hogwarts Castle.
But the scene-setting for Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, which opens on Thursday at Universal's Islands of Adventure, never appeared on film. Designers still managed to create an authentic feel. With an estimated budget of more than $300 million, they used some of the same movie talent to create props, a castle and a Forbidden Forest of real trees.
It could have been a back story we just never saw on the big screen.
Universal planted more than 1,000 live trees to create the Forbidden Forest and likely spent more than $300 million on this attraction, estimated theme park expert Dennis Speigel of International Theme Park Services. And it's money well-spent, he said, given that attendance at Islands of Adventure jumped 76 percent from 4.6 million in 2009 before Harry Potter to about 8.1 million in 2013, according to estimates by the Themed Entertainment Association.
And by making a new setting, "it gives them more flexibility in the future," Speigel said, noting that the new Fantastic Beasts series of hit films could be incorporated into Universal theme parks.
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We rode the new coaster for the first time at a media preview on Tuesday. In addition to the thrilling ride, there are lots of Easter eggs for Harry Potter fans.
The story goes that Hagrid, the gentle half-giant who serves as gamekeeper at Hogwarts and also teaches a Care of Magical Creatures class, used the grounds of an ancient Scottish castle on the edge of the Forbidden Forest to work on his many hobbies. The ride's queue passes a room where dragon eggs and other specimens are stored. You can see a projection of Hagrid working with Mr. Weasley to get a muggle motorbike magicked so that it can be flown through the sky.
Miranda Langford, 26, a social media manager for Pottermore, J.K. Rowling's official fan website, was intrigued.
"That's what the theme parks do. You have your own imagination and the story is all around and you create your own experience," Langford said. "I wouldn't say the rides are canon. You don't have Bill Weasley guiding you on the Gringotts Bank ride in the movies. It's an immersive, themed experience and that's totally fine."
The elaborate queue keeps guests occupied on what will undoubtedly be long lines to get to the coaster. But when they finally reach the ride, it's a doozy.
It reaches speeds of up to 50 miles per hour and has a record-breaking seven launches, the most of any coaster in the world. It's only the second in the nation to feature a vertical drop, the track disconnecting in a free-fall.
As a "story coaster," there is a narrative arc to the ride. We won't give away any spoilers except to say you will be hurtling backward at one point because Hagrid's magic powers aren't the best.
The ride car is the motorbike from the films. Riders can choose between sitting on the motorcycle and hanging onto handlebars or sitting in the sidecar where some story elements are closer.
With nearly a mile of track, it's a full 3 minutes and 25 seconds. Though it's fast, it's not especially scary. Riders must be at least 48 inches tall, so it's a good one for an adventurous 8 year old.
An animatronic Hagrid makes an appearance, made with the help of actor Robbie Coltrane, who played Hagrid in the Harry Potter films. Coltrane created dialogue just for the ride, and Universal created the animated figure using an extensive motion profile of 24 different body movements and facial expressions, mimicking Coltrane's exact motions.
Riders will encounter the fearsome three-headed dog named Fluffy and Cornish pixies, the electric blue tricksters who create mischief. Potter fans will recognize Devil's Snare, a perilous plant from the wizarding world that can strangle people who touch it. It looms large in one part of the ride.
Keep an eye out for a centaur, a magical creature with a human head and torso joined to a horse's body, and a Blast-Ended Skrewt. That's a creature that appeared in Rowling's books but not in the films. It's described as a cross between scorpions and elongated crabs that can create actual fire from their "blasting-ends." Riders will catch a whiff of their powerful scent, similar to rotting fish.
The castle has sculptures, made by movie set designers, of various magical creatures including Merpeople (mysterious underwater-dwelling beasts) and Grindylows (horned, pale-green water demons). Listen for the voices of creatures and gnomes known to scurry about the grounds, and read the graffiti on the walls of the castle from past Hogwarts students who hung out there. Some are well-known characters.
Universal announced this week that it may deploy its Virtual Line option for this ride starting Friday. That requires theme park visitors to make reservations through the official app of Universal Orlando. Future passengers select a time and number of riders, then can show up when its their turn aboard Motorbike Adventures.
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @SharonKWn.