With everyone else looking forward to tomorrow's grand opening of
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, it might seem
kind of strange that Tom Williams -- the Chairman and CEO of Universal Parks
& Resorts -- is using this exact same moment to look backwards.
"But you have to understand that I was part of the
opening team for Universal Studios Florida. I was here back in 1987 when this
was all still snake-filled marshland. And to see what it's become -- Central
Florida's newest destination resort -- is just kind of
mind-blowing," Williams reflected during a recent interview.
Tom Williams, Chairman & CEO of Universal Parks& Resorts. Copyright Universal Orlando.All rights reserved
Mind you, Tom didn't transform this 840 acre parcel all on
his own. Williams had lots of help when it came to the design, development
& construction of two world-class theme parks, four all-inclusive resort
hotels and a popular retail, entertainment & dining district.
Tom was quick to credit everyone from the Universal Creative
team to the marketing team to the operations team -- as well as a few more
"Take -- for example -- Steven Spielberg. He was the
creative consultant on our first theme park, Universal Studios Florida. Steve
was the guy who came up with that park's core concept, that we were going to
put our Guests in their favorite scene from their favorite film. Ride the
Movies, if you will," Tom said.
Universal's Islands of Adventure. Copyright UniversalOrlando. All rights reserved
"And Universal Studios Florida & its attractions
proved to be so popular with Central Florida
visitors that -- by the mid-1990s -- we were committed to building a second
gate," Williams continued. "And when Islands of Adventure came online
in May of 1999, that's when we also opened CityWalk and our first on-site
resort, the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. After that came the Hard Rock Hotel & the
Loews Royal Pacific Resort. And just this past Spring, we opened the Cabana Bay Beach
Resort. Which now brings us up to 4200 rooms on property."
And Universal Orlando certainly hasn't had any problem filling
up those hotel rooms ever since a certain boy wizard set up shop in Central
Florida back in June of 2010.
"The Wizarding World of Harry Potter certainly was a
game changer for Universal Orlando. But you want to know what else made a big
difference here? When Comcast came onboard as the new owner of NBCUniversal in
September of that same year," Tom stated. "With that acquisition, we
got Steve Burke, who's now the CEO of NBCUniversal and Executive Vice President
of Comcast Corporation. And Steve had a previous life in the theme park
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade at Universal's Islands of Adventure.Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved
And soon as Burke came onboard at NBCUniversal, he met with
Williams and assured him that he was a big fan of what had been going on with
the theme parks. More to the point, that Steve wanted to keep Universal Orlando's
post-Potter momentum going.
So that's exactly what Tom and the Universal Orlando team
did. In just four short years, they added Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and
Transformers: The Ride 3D to Universal Studios Florida. Not to mention turning
The Simpsons Ride into its very own "land" -- Springfield
adding Kang and Kodos' Twirl 'n' Hurl and Fast Food Boulevard.
USF also got a brand-new daytime street pageant -- Universal's Superstar Parade -- as well as a
new nighttime extravaganza -- Universal's Cinematic Spectacular. Not to mention
a refreshed assortment of clubs & restaurants out in Universal CityWalk as
well as the resort's very own miniature golf course, Hollywood Drive-in Golf.
But like I said at the top of this article, what people are most
interested in these days is Diagon Alley. And even though Tom had been
intimately involved in the design & development of what he likes to call
"Harry Potter Phase Two" and knew exactly what was being built on top
of Universal Studios' old "Jaws" ride, Williams kept coming up with excuses
to go down and walk that construction site.
A fire-breathing dragon lights up The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley atUniversal Studios Florida. Copyright Universal Orlando. All rights reserved
"I'm so excited about Potter, I can't see
straight," Tom admitted. "I was out there this morning. I'm out there
every day. I'm going to be out there later today. It's just a delight to all
your senses in every single respect."
That said, other theme park professionals might not have
gone as far as Universal Creative did when it came to turning Diagon Alley into
this hyper-themed, fully immersive environment.
"Take -- for example -- Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. Just
this morning, I went into this shop to see the animation that's been installed up
in the skylight of this store. Now keep in mind that you first have to know to
look up at the ceiling in order to see this piece of animation. And even when
you do look up, you really have to crane your neck in order to see this
animation because there are all these stairways & catwalks blocking your
line of sight," Williams explained.
Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes' hidden fireworks display. Photo by Nancy Stadler
"Now I'm sure that other people in the themed entertainment
business would have said 'Why did you spend money on that?' Because an almost
hidden piece of animation like that
doesn't really have a direct & obvious payoff for the
consumer," Tom continued. "But that's not really what we're looking
to do with Diagon Alley. We want our Guests to discover all of the details that
we've hidden here. To accidentally look up and suddenly realize that there's
this perpetual fireworks display going on up in that skylight. All because Fred
& George Weasley probably thought that this might be a fun spell to
And while work is finally winding down on the Diagon Alley
project, Williams and his Universal Parks & Resort team aren't exactly
resting on their laurels. In addition to the new Fast & Furious-themed finale
for the tram tour that will be coming online at Universal Studios Hollywood in the
Summer of 2015 as well as the west coast version of The Wizarding World (which
is supposed to open in the Spring of 2016 with its very own Hogsmeade Village
& Hogwarts castle as well as a few surprises), Tom has a full slate of
projects scheduled for Universal Orlando Resort.
"We've already got the next five years planned out. We
already know what we're going to do after Diagon Alley. Plus 2015 will be the
25th anniversary of the opening of Universal Orlando. So we've got something
special in the works for that as well," Williams said.
Poolside at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Copyright Universal Orlando.All rights reserved
"But we're not going to stop there. We're going to keep
going with new hotels & new attractions and give people from around the
world lots of great reasons to come visit this destination. Experience the sort
of authenticity & the immersion that only Universal can do and then go away
delighted, come back again and tell a friend," Tom concluded.
Only don't tell your friends too much. Leave them a few
surprises for them to discover all on their own while they're visiting
Universal Orlando Resort. Like -- say -- that never-ending fireworks display
hidden up in the skylight at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes.
This story originally appeared on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on July 7, 2014