What You Can Learn About Storytelling from Harry Potter World (and Universal Studios)
Hey, if you’re in Florida (like I am right now), and you’re a parent (like me), you have a choice to make.
Go to Disney World
Go to Universal Studios
Go to Legoland (kidding! We’ve already been there!)
My daughters are 7 and 9, so they’re in between. Things could go either way.
You can tell by the headline what we chose.
I’m assuming you know who and/or what Harry Potter is, but trust me I’m your worst guide for this.
I’ve never read the books or seen the movies. I’m not a big fantasy personbut I was game to go because…family.
Specifically because of the storytelling aspects. Pretty sure Universal recruited some of the Disney masters over for this one, because it was amazing to see.
Here are a few things I learned about storytelling that you can also apply to your other creative projects:
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1. Be familiar
The Hogwarts Express.
Vendors with butter beer!
Everyone wanted to see their favorite spot that they knew from the books or the movies. These are beloved set pieces that come to life.
And without having any context, everyone around me seemed really impressed (I’m assuming they had read the books and seen the movies).
People were gasping in Diagon Alley, which really was hidden and had no signage in the little corner of London that they carved out for this (RIP the Jaws Ride). They snapped pictures at Gringott’s and at the Hogwart’s replica.
The lesson is be familiar. Give the people what they want. They came to see the places they know, love and imagined from the books, and quite frankly, Universal delivered.
It was immersive.
I’ll contrast this with a very classic Universal Studios ride — E.T.
This was one of the first rides at Universal and now it’s a relic from a movie that is still important but has lost some cultural cache. I went on this along time ago, but I had forgotten how weird and *unfamiliar* it is.
Spoiler alert: The ride starts off in the woods, you sail past the moon like the iconic scene from the posters, and then you go to E.T’s home planet? And it’s kind of psychedelic?
Even though I haven’t seen the movie in awhile, this wasn’t what I wanted. I’d rather eat Reese’s Pieces and see E.T. dressed up as a ghost.
Obviously, the E.T. Cinematic Universe isn’t as rich as Harry Potter (8 movies! 7 books!), but even the one ride leaves out a lot of possibilities.
2. But add a new twist…
All the Harry Potter rides add a story for you to be part of: whether it's a Quidditch match with HP or escaping the dragon in Gringott's.
You know these settings. But then the rides provide a slightly new experience within the familiar setting — which is what E.T. doesn’t do.
You can race around with Harry Potter and get zapped by Voldemort (I think that’s what happened?) and escape the dragon in the bottom of the bank.
You can use an interactive wand and do your own magic.
This isn’t exactly what happened in the books, but it’s close, and then the internal set pieces in the waiting areas and sideshow performers provide enough intrigue to keep us sharp.
3. Make everyone into a hero
The reader, the viewer, the participant, the user can all be heroes.
At least that what we want to believe about ourselves and what experiences like this encourage us to think.
In every ride, they need our help to achieve some goal or to bring us behind the scenes.
It’s all about us.
This doesn’t quite work for every form of storytelling, but we at least want the story to be relatable. That’s classic Joseph Campbell stuff.
In marketing, it’s about positioning your product about what how the user or consumer will succeed.
“You will experience this…”
“You will be better at this…”
In online writing, it’s usually about the advice and tips.
“What You Can Learn About Storytelling from Harry Potter World…”
“How To Make $8 Million in Only 3 Hours”
In fiction, it’s relatable…
Harry faces obstacles (just like us!)
Harry has to go to school (just like we did!)
Harry has family problems (my family is messed up!)
Harry has friends (we want friends for life, too!)
Harry has super-magical-powers (yes, I want to be special!)
Harry beats the bad guy (I don’t like bad guys either! I’m fighting for justice!)
There’s obviously a lot more there and multiple angles, but you get the idea.
More Random Thoughts from Universal Studios
They don’t have the storytelling or wordbuilding down perfect! There’s now a Jurassic Park section (love it) with an amazing roller coaster (loved it, too!) but I really wanted an immersive 3-D ride like they have for Harry Potter
The Simpsons ride does this! But the whole world feels more disjointed over there. They tried to rebuild Krustyland. There’s a Moe’s and a Krustyburger, but where’s The Simpsons house? Bart’s skateboard? There could be some issue with rights over this now that Disney owns it, but still.
My 9 yo daughter’s favorite thing (beyond Harry Potter stuff) was The Bourne Identity Stunt Spectacular. She didn’t know anything about those movies but was astounded.
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There was also a Fast and The Furious ride that was about family. At least some of the movies I’ve seen mentioned that a lot and so did a keychain in the gift shop. But my wife said no to Fast and The Furious so I didn’t get to go on it. Family!