Universal Studios Hollywood is currently undergoing its biggest physical transformation ever, in preparation for the April 7, 2016 opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Everywhere you look, there is major construction underway, from the brand-new E.T. Parking structure, to finishing touches being put on Hogsmeade as we speak. With an April hard open date announced, fans are expecting that we could have soft open (industry term for “preview”) dates as soon as mid-February. In short, it’s about to get real here in Los Angeles, and all eyes are on Universal.
We made our way up the hill to Universal Studios this past weekend and braved the rain and blustery weather conditions to see what we could see and bring TPAers a brief update – quite honestly, possibly the final update regarding Potter before we actually get to experience it, if the soft open rumors are true.
In preparation for the increased number of guests who will be flocking to Universal Studios within the next few months, the main entry plaza has been re-master planned, and we’re finally seeing some of the work walls come down. The area is lined by palm trees, and features new walkway space and wayfinding. There are still construction walls up in this area, including around the iconic Universal Globe; soon, those will come down too and we’ll have a brand-spanking-new entry plaza at Universal Studios that is modern and really attractive.
Moving into the park, there are currently lots of walls up along the main walkway through the Upper Lot. Last year, we saw the demolition of the section of Universal known as Victoria Station, which contained a bit of retail and the House of Horrors walk-through haunted attraction. This section of Uni is rapidly coming together and is expected to house a lot of retail as well as food and beverage options for guests. According to various Universal fan sites and theme park blogs, the large construction site may also be the home of a yet-to-be-announced attraction; the next in a list of “coming soon” announcements that Universal is expected to make in the months ahead.
The facade work along the new “Victoria Station II” is coming along quickly and nicely, with some of the detailing starting to appear. There are some paint coats on the buildings, but it’s unclear at this point if they are final or perhaps color tests or undercoats. The company has been pretty quiet regarding this part of area development, but we assume these shops will be open and operational by the time Potter has its hard open in April.
Lunar New Year 2016 celebration is now underway at the park, and much like last year’s event, it is set up in Universal Plaza under archways of plum blossoms and hanging red lanterns. This is Year of the Monkey, so it’s only fitting that Curious George is one of the event’s ambassadors at Universal. Also popular is the Mandarin-speaking Megatron, which addresses visitors in typical Decepticon fashion – just in a foreign tongue! The area also features small plum blossom trees on which guests may hang “wish cards” from; this is a very popular element, and we’ve seen guests of all walks and ages participating in this.
Guests enjoying Lunar New Year at Universal Studios Hollywood may choose from a menu of yummy items from a themed food truck, which is parked in the Plaza, just feet away from the character meet and greets and wishing card trees.
Here’s the bummer: we visited Universal on a rainy day; the only afternoon we could make it, and the weather was windy and wet. The Lunar Festival area was pretty much vacated, save for some of the more permanent fixtures like the plum branch arch and big banners/signage items. We were totally disappointed that Mother Nature wasn’t cooperating with our schedule, which is why we don’t have many photos of the event to share. That said, when it rains, Universal doesn’t just scrap the characters, etc. for the day; everything is moved into the Globe Theatre, next to the Despicable Me attraction on the Upper Lot. Not only are there characters in abundance inside, there are also several wishing trees for guests to hang their cards on in the lobby of the theatre. Additonally, Universal offers free hot chocolate to guests when they visit the “Plan B” Lunar Festival on rainy days – something that is surprising; no other park does this kind of thing. It’ll be interesting to see if Universal continues this practice once Potter opens, or if guests will instead, be “reminded” that Hot Butterbeer is the perfect thing to sip on chilly, rainy days.
Since Universal’s Lunar Festival event only lasts a couple weeks, they’ve got to deal with whatever weather comes, and I think they have done a satisfactory job by housing the characters and some of the event’s activities inside the Globe. Definitely, you lose something when this occurs – however, for those guests who have paid to come to the park, this is much better than getting nothing; kudos to Universal for having a solid “Plan B” for inclement weather days during the event.
Also new to the park (and us) is an updated Special Effects show in Stage 59 on the Upper Lot, which was developed in part by Action Horizons, the team behind the operations of Universal’s WaterWorld stunt show. After multiple iterations (which haven’t been terribly good, in our opinion), this latest version combines the latest show with elements from past special effects shows at Universal; the final product is contemporary, educational, fun, and most importantly to us – it’s not written like the audience is full of idiots, which most theme park shows fall victim to. Though there are a few clunker lines, we found the show to be greatly improved and something we’d definitely recommend to people visiting the park. There’s a lot of ground covered during the show, from a live foley demonstration to a brief history of practical and matte effects. The pacing of the show is solid, and never once did we find ourselves looking at our watches or shifting uncomfortably in our seats.
The only issue we had – and this may have been a glitch when we saw it – is that some of the video playback on the big screens was laggy; like when you try to play an HD video file on a computer that cannot handle it well. If this is an on-going issue, Universal needs to address it immediately, because it’s distracting as hell when projected on a 20+ foot-wide screen in the middle of your show. We’ll assume (unless you tell us differently) that this was a rare technical problem and not the norm for this show. Other than this, the show is definitely worth checking out, and does a good job honoring the history of Universal’s movie-making legacy.
Last, but certainly not least, we took a look at Hogsmeade through the blocked-off entry of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Beyond the threshold on the Upper Lot, guests get a clear view of the snow-topped buildings of the famous village, as well as a stunning look at the dark spires of Hogwarts, in the rear of the land. In the foreground (just like in Florida and Japan), we can see the top of the Hogwarts Express engine; it’s really exciting to think that soon, steam will be billowing from it with the enchanting musical soundtrack background music underlining the visual.
We have not yet ventured beyond the gate to Hogsmeade; like everyone else, we are waiting on pins and needles for the first soft opening dates to happen. Word has it however, that the two attractions – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and Flight of the Hippogriff – have been cycling a lot lately, and that crews are already being trained to operate each one. It appears that entertainment practices have also been taking place off-site, and that the retail locations have been mostly stocked and are just about ready to go. The biggie that everyone is waiting for – Butterbeer – is also ready to go, as Team Members have already been trained on how to serve the magical brew, and yes… some have even had their first glass to enjoy! That alone is enough to send Potter fans into anticipation overdrive. It’s hard to imagine that after watching the Wizarding World of Harry Potter installed here in Los Angeles, that we’re literally days away from having Butterbeer everything here on the West Coast!
Across from the Shrek attraction on the outer edge of Universal Plaza, a bank of kiosks stands ready, although covered and barricaded off from public access. It is believed these are timed entry/crowd management kiosks much like Disney’s Fastpass machines found at its theme parks, and that guests coming to Universal Studios Hollywood will need to swipe their tickets/annual passes to get a printed ticket telling them what time they can come back to experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. No one knows yet how long Universal will need to utilize such a system; at the same time, it stands to reason that Potter is going to be busy enough for a long enough time to justify the implementation of such a system and hardware for it.
The temporary Harry Potter store inside the park on the Upper Lot has a lot of Potter merchandise already, and new items are beginning to arrive as the real shops inside Hogsmeade are stocked. There’s a buzz in the air among fans and Team Members alike – everyone is patiently waiting to have all of the same cool merch here at Universal Studios Hollywood that they have in Orlando. As soon as the gates to Hogsmeade open, the land will become an instant cash printing press for Universal; we’ll be right there in line with everyone else buying souvenirs and enchanting mementos.
And that’s it! We don’t anticipate any more Wizarding World updates until the land soft opens; when that occurs, we will be there right away to tweet and Periscope to fans around the world; it’s a moment we’re truly looking forward to!
We’re excited by all of these changes at Universal Studios Hollywood and cannot wait to see everything roll out over the next several months – it’s going to be amazing, for sure. At the rate Comcast (Universal’s parent company) is going, this appears to be just the beginning of a very aggressive growth plan for the Los Angeles park.
What a magical ride it’s going to be!
– Rick West
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