Wednesday, August 29, 2007
J.K. Rowlings Magical Gift
Just last May it was announced that Warner Bros. and Universal were partnering to create a 20 plus acre Harry Potter ‘theme park within a theme park’ at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando. Disney Imagineering had officially lost the bid to celebrate all things 'Boy Wizard' within their own theme parks.
Intuition would tell us that the Disney Company had just dropped the ball on one of the most lucrative franchises on the planet. But for Disney Imagineers this was no loss whatsoever. In fact, it was cause for celebration. "Perhaps the best thing that's ever happened to WDI" one top level executive was overheard saying.
It’s certainly no loss to the notoriously quality obsessed J.K. Rowling either. Universal is sparing no expense to make sure this fully immersive environment will be of the highest caliber. Within this “Wizarding World” guests will be able to interact with many of the locations from the books and films, including the village of Hogsmeade, the Forbidden Forest and the iconic Hogwarts Castle. “I don't think fans of the books or films will be disappointed," said J.K. Rowling.
Taking a cue from the genesis of WED Imagineering in its golden age, talent isn’t being bartered from art school interns or freelanced out to fly-by-night design firms but is coming directly from artists, technicians and visual story-tellers from the motion picture industry itself. Stuart Craig, the three time Academy Award winning production designer of the Harry Potter movies (as well as Gandhi, Dangerous Liaisons and The English Patient) is heading up a core design team well versed in the incredibly specific milieu of three dimensional fantasy environments.
“The philosophy on the movies,” Stuart noted, “was to make everything seem as real and credible as possible. We undertook a period of research and looked at the great European cathedrals, Oxford University in this country. All of this informed us and helped us keep the world credible; to keep the detail very real and very specific. That same philosophy was applied to the theme park.”
You can bet that come late 2009 guests to Universal’s Islands of Adventure will feast on an intricately detailed fantasy environment that promises to rival the richness of a Pirates of the Caribbean or a Haunted Mansion, an ironic homage to the classic Walt era Imagineers. J.K. Rowling wouldn’t have it any other way.
After the official press release from Warner Bros. and Universal Orlando you’d have thought that Bob Iger would be marching several legions of Disney Executives to the guillotine or that an angry mob of stockholders would be storming the castle. Instead a group of resilient battle weary Imagineers were quietly grinning from ear to ear, cracking open a bottle of champagne and staring out upon a very, very ‘blue sky’.
Chat with any Imagineer that’s lived through the last couple decades at WDI and they’ll tell you tales of the good old days back in the 70’s and 80’s when the company took pride in being an industry leader and when it was not only fun but vital for Imagineering to one-up the competition every step of the way. This was a time when so much was going on at then WED that even friendly rivalries between creative leads on separate in-house attractions broke out, assuring the highest quality showmanship from every corner of the company.
Now more than ever Imagineers are itching to step up to the plate in the spirit of knocking the socks off the competition. With ‘Harry Potter’s Wizarding World’ opening in Orlando the competition has never been more fierce.
“We are going to devote more time, more money, more expertise and more executive talent from throughout our entire organization and creative team,” noted Tom Williams, chairman and CEO of Universal Parks, “to ensure that this entire environment is second-to-none.”
Universal can go right ahead and follow the franchise. The heritage of Disney Imagineering, however, is one of building franchises from the ground up. With Hogwarts Castle looming on the horizon, WDI is primed and ready to show the world something fresh, exciting, original, daring and wholly surprising, to dare to deliver to guests an experience they never knew they wanted.
Make no mistake about it, it's going to be tough for WDI to top what's going on over on those islands of adventure. But they will. They have to. For the company that put the ‘theme’ in theme parks nothing less than their reputation is at stake.
And for todays Renaissance Imagineers the challenge couldn’t be more intoxicating.
Gentlemen, start those engines.