Mark Woodbury Highlights Universal’s Creative Side

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Mark Woodbury Highlights Universal’s Creative Side
By Simon & Susan Veness
When Universal Orlando opened last summer’s blockbuster attraction TRANSFORMERS: 3D – The Ride, and quickly followed it up with the new Springfield area at Universal Studios, we were fortunate enough to grab a rare interview with Mark Woodbury.
Now, for those in the know, Mark is either president of Universal Creative for all their parks and resorts or, more simply, the theme park world’s answer to Steven Spielberg, depending on who you talk to. 
 
We’ve talked to plenty of people on this subject and Woodbury is most definitely someone who lives up to his title AND his reputation.
 
And we thought it was worth looking at our conversation with him as Universal get set to open The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley this summer (no confirmed date as yet, but it’s looking increasingly like late June).
 
In a wonderfully imaginative – not to mention tantalising – series of ‘sneak previews,’ Universal have released ever-greater details of this extensive new part of their original park (which replaces the old Jaws attraction).
 
It has ratcheted up the anticipation of Harry Potter 2.0, which, of course, follows in the footsteps of the wildly successful Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade in the Islands of Adventure park.
 
islands of Adventure
Just to back-track slightly – and underline Woodbury’s credentials – Islands of Adventure was the development that put him (and Universal Orlando) firmly on the map of great theme park creations in 1999. It was, at the time, the most complete and all-encompassing theme park we had ever seen. It broke new ground for both innovative rides and the kind of extensive, detail-orientated approach we usually associated only with Disney.
Hogsmeade arch
Over the years, Universal resisted the temptation to mess with the IoA formula – until JK Rowling threw her hat into the theme park ring. And then things moved into a whole new dimension.
 
With the addition of Warner Bros. films’ creative design people, the end result was nothing short of stunning and raised the bar for theme park entertainment several notches. It also boosted Universal’s attendance by roughly 30 per cent, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.
 
Which brings us back to the new Diagon Alley expansion, and our conversation with Woodbury, looking ahead to the continuing development of new experiences and new thrills in theme parks in general and Universal Studios in particular.
 
Put simply, Universal intend to raise the bar yet again, and not in any small way. Theme park attractions have entered a new era, and Woodbury’s team is at the forefront of making things more dramatic, more exciting – and more immersive.
 
Indeed, ‘immersive’ is now the key word in the attraction designers’ lexicon as they look to take films like the Harry Potter franchise and put guests right in the heart of the action in new and ever more creative ways.
 
But let us allow Mark himself to tell that part of the story. He explained:  “We are doing a tremendous amount of really important work, not just for our company but for the industry, pushing the envelope in every way we can imagine, especially for the depth of story-telling and the breadth of the experience.
 
“We continue to strive to break new ground with everything we do, which is a great environment to work in if you are a technical person, and that goes for all the different disciplines that make up the creative side. We are continually challenging ourselves, and the level you are doing it at becomes more and more challenging each time.”
 
It is clear Universal’s designers have risen to the challenge in recent years, especially with the likes of the new Transformers ride, where every aspect of the attraction –from the moment you enter the cavernous building to the finale of the ride itself – gives the impression of stepping through the cinema screen.
 
And it is that immersive nature which has really given Woodbury and his team – who include Warner Bros. Production Designer Stuart Craig and Art Director Alan Gilmore – the chance to expand what they do and introduce this new cinematic dimension to theme park attractions.
 
The collaboration with JK Rowling and Warner Brothers proved immensely fertile with the original Wizarding World, as everything was examined and re-examined both from perspective of both the books and the films. 
 
And Woodbury revealed: “Harry Potter was the ideal story for us to do that with. JK Rowling created these wonderful places for us to work with, and they are all places with a great visual frame of reference.
 
“And it was also one of the great things about the Transformers attractions. It is exactly the same thing, with the same sense of story and great places. We also got to work with Michael Bay, which is another good creative experience for our team.
 
“What it all really comes down to is that the motion picture business creates a very rich experience for visual stimuli. It gives us an opportunity for true immersion in the medium. Steven Spielberg himself was the master of that creative process and, in many ways, he pointed the way for us to go.
 
“To my mind, the screen ‘boundary’ was broken when Jurassic Park came along. Steven created that amazing picture and now we continue to try to meet and beat those experiences.”
 
In our opinion, Universal have more than equalled the film-makers’ arts since Islands of Adventure set the scene, if you like. And they certainly surpassed their own high standards with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
 
potter dragon
 
escape from gringotts
 
Now they are ready to unveil the Wizarding World Part Two, and, for the moment, we can only anticipate the delights in store. We know there will be two headline rides – Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and The Hogwarts Express – but much of the detail has been kept well hidden, apart from the occasional teasing video. 
 
It has been a masterful exercise in creating excitement and building the expectations. And, with Woodbury and his team pulling the strings, we think we can expect something even more extraordinary when the curtain finally goes up on this new theme park experience.
 
Although Universal Orlando are yet to announce the official date they'll be unveiling this new Wizarding experience to the world, it won't be much longer. So, if you're headed to Orlando this summer don't hesitate to purchase your Universal tickets.
 
Attraction Tickets Direct have a whole range of Orlando theme park tickets and experiences available to enhance your holiday in the Sunshine State, so be sure to take a look before you travel!  
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