They may not have the red carpet and celebrities in designer outfits, but each year the theme park industry gives out its version of the Oscars. The recipients of the Themed Entertainment Award (or Thea Awards) are announced at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) convention. With Universal Orlando’s opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, it should come as no surprise that the latest Harry Potter themed land was the recipient of a number of awards. Diagon Alley had big shoes to fill as Universal Orlando’s original Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in Islands of Adventure were also Thea Award winners in 2011 as well as The Making of Harry Potter tour of the Warner Brothers Studios sets in London, England (Thea Award 2013).
From the Themed Entertainment Association’s Press Release
When The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade opened in 2010 at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the superlatives that were bestowed upon that amazing project – retail, and food & beverage experiences, attraction and technology – were legion. Nothing like it had been seen before and no one could imagine that it could be topped. Four years later, Universal Studios Florida opened the audacious and incredible Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley. Not only was it more but it was also better. Better because the environments were richer, the experiences even more immersive and the world building more total than its predecessor.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Florida – Award for Outstanding Achievement (AOA), Paragon Award
“…in the themed entertainment industry, the yardstick by which all will now be measured”
- Diagon Alley
- Hogwarts Express
- Diagon Alley Retail/Dining
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley does something that no other theme park in the world has managed to do (with the exception of Universal’s own Hogsmeade): It has created a completely seamless storytelling experience without parallel that is unmistakably superior to anything. Thanks to the creativity, storytelling and technical prowess of Universal Creative, the brilliant production design of Stuart Craig and the strong collaboration with Warner Bros., Diagon Alley is bigger, richer and more detailed than what that same team created at Hogsmeade. From the Muggle world environs of London and King’s Cross all the way to the day-for-night environments of Knockturn Alley, the craftsmanship, attention to detail, delights and surprises that amaze around every corner are just… better.
The dining, food & beverage and retail experiences are richer, more varied and more immersive here, too – as a result of collaboration between Universal Creative and their colleagues in Food & Beverage and merchandise. Muggles can visit the Leaky Cauldron, taste Earl Grey and lavender or (of course!) Butterbeer ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour. The world is so complete that even the mundane task of getting water from what would typically be a street cart or vending machine has been turned into a storytelling opportunity. Ollivanders wand shop has been expanded here and there are new retail environments to discover, including the dark Borgin and Burkes for all your Death Eater outfitting needs. Even transactions have been transformed for the experience as guests can trade their Muggle money into Gringott’s bank notes, while interacting with an animatronic goblin teller.
Audaciousness and innovation truly come into play when considering the Hogwarts Express. What could have been a mere transportation mechanism to commute visitors from one park to the next within the two worlds of Harry Potter, the Hogwarts Express is a near-perfect recreation of the experience Harry, Ron and Hermione have while riding from Platform Nine and Three Quarters at Kings Cross to Hogsmeade Station (and back again). This experience delivers on the uncanny sense that guests have traveled somewhere else… and, of course, you have. Recreating the stations, engine, train cars, compartments – even the views out the window to an all-media countryside and cityscape full of magic, creatures and surprises – not to mention more nuanced surprises along the way, turn transportation into yet again another innovation in seamless storytelling.
The Thea Committee created a new award category – the Paragon Award – for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley for the entire land, integrated retail and food & beverage in addition to the Hogwarts Express.
Harry Potter & The Escape from Gringotts, Universal Studios Florida – AOA, Attraction
The excellence of guest experience and placemaking in Universal Studios Florida’s new Harry Potter built environments continues with the innovative Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. It begins with a highly elaborate, deeply immersive queue experience featuring a visit to the Gringotts Bank where animatronic goblin tellers appear to work in an incredibly imposing space and even interact with guests. An elevator ride (that could, in other circumstances, stand as an attraction in its own right) and filmed characters integrated into dimensional settings have been taken to a new level of believability in the lead-up to this incredible ride.
The ride system is outstanding in its ability to confuse the rider with its capabilities, performing as a coaster at one moment, an omnimover the next and then as a simulator with complex motion control. All of this is synchronized to the action in the show with media so well integrated into dimensional sets that removing the 3D glasses is the only way to tell for sure what is or is not constructed. Using what must be the largest screen images ever employed in a ride-through attraction, combined with extremely sharp-filmed imagery, delivers the convincing illusion of absolute reality.
The story is engagingly understated: We are merely here at the same time as Harry and friends were in the vaults during the last film – so the perspective is familiar to fans and also understandable even to those not conversant with the Potter ouevre. Music is a key part of making this adventure emotionally engaging as well. The final notes as the ride concludes are strong enough to get some riders welled-up with emotions – having just experienced something extraordinary. In the themed entertainment industry this attraction seems clearly to be the new yardstick by which all will be measured.
Interactive Wands – Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Florida – AOA, Technical Excellence
Within the land is a surprising array of innovative, interactive wand experiences that allow guests to say a spell, gesture their wand a specific way to accompany that spell and watch – if they get it right! – as the results of their magic are seen in display windows, on the streets of Diagon Alley, in magical illusions and more throughout the environment. The uniquely devised and ingeniously applied, proprietary wand technology is the key. The end result is an “invisible” technology that engages guests and activates the land in a whole new way. The Thea Nominating Committee found this to be an impressive technology, impressively used.