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Underrated Universal: Dragon Challenge

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The Universal theme parks in Orlando are completely in thrall to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, right? Just throw something up and slap Hogwarts or Gringotts on it and people will practically throw their money at you, right? Well, not exactly. Ever hear the three most important things about real estate? Location, Location, Location.

Before Universal secured the rights to Harry Potter and company, the right rear portion of the Islands of Adventure theme park, where Hogsmeade and Hogwarts castle are now located, was part of the Lost Continent “Island” that still sits between Hogsmeade and Seuss Landing (It’s where the Sinbad show and the top end restaurant Mythos are). They weren’t quite sure what they had was going to be the kind of success it turned into, though, but they did know that they did have a very popular inverted coaster called Dueling Dragons.

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This is how the coaster looked the first time I rode it.

They also had a very new family coaster called the Flying Unicorn right next to it.

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JK Rowling had already met with the industry standard for theme parks over at Walt Disney World and the house of mouse had been trying to buy the rights to the Harry Potter intellectual property. Unfortunately, they were also envisioning something a lot smaller than what ended up going into Islands of Adventure (apparently it would have included a petting zoo for magical creatures that I kind of want to see). They weren’t even sure if they wanted Harry Potter in Fantasyland or over at Hollywood Studios. They were sure that they didn’t need Rowling sticking her nose into their creative process, though, and she left the meeting feeling like if she sold to Disney she would be signing away any control she had at all over her own characters when it came to how they would be seen in a theme park. She was probably right. Remember how things went between Disney and PL Travers?

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When Universal heard that talks had broken off with Disney, they took Rowling over to Islands of Adventure and showed off Seuss Landing to her as an indication of how painstakingly they adhere to source material. If she wasn’t impressed by just looking at the place, maybe she would be interested in talking to the widow of Dr. Seuss himself. Here’s her phone number. When Rowling talked to Audrey Geisel, she confirmed with her that the folks at Universal had indeed worked very hard with her to match her vision for what Seuss Landing should look like. She actually would go through the land in the final days before the park’s grand opening pointing out colors that weren’t right, and Universal would dutifully re-paint.

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In part, based on this recommendation, Rowling eventually signed over the theme park rights to her Harry Potter books and proceeded to be very particular about how Hogsmeade was built. When you’re in the park, take a look around, especially in the shops. Notice how tightly packed some of them are? Notice how every shirt is on a wooden hanger? How none of the product is within spitting distance of anything but particular kinds of flooring? Those are all because of the strict meddling of Rowling.

Universal was plenty pleased to be in business with wizards, but they were reluctant to close down their two relatively new coasters, especially the very popular Dueling Dragons. So instead of that, they simply re-themed them both. The Flying Unicorn was closed down first and became Flight of the Hippogriff with some relatively mild changes to the queue and the ride vehicles. Later on in the process, Universal shuttered Dueling Dragons temporarily so that some thematic touches could be added to place it in the first round of the Triwizard tournament. You know, the one with the dragons.

These included some house banners anticipating the tournament, a tent containing the Goblet of Fire,…

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…and the Triwizard cup itself! Be careful not to touch the thing. You oughta know why.

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With this new theme, and placed behind a stone gate on the right side of Hogsmeade, the already successful inverted coaster and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened to enormous fanfare. This was one of the biggest events in theme park history, and there were massive lines, not just to ride the new Forbidden Journey attraction, or to experience the Ollivander’s Wand Shop show, or even to grab a taste of Butterbeer, but just to gain entrance to Hogsmeade at all! I was pretty jazzed to see this popular new land, but the reported crowds were so extreme that I waited a while before returning to Islands of Adventure. The place was still pretty busy, but it was at least manageable. I rode the Forbidden Journey. I visited Ollivander’s. I drank Butterbeer. I rode the newly christened Dragon Challenge. It was all pretty great! In fact, that visit inspired my very first article here at LeBlog!

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Close to five years later, I was planning a trip back to see the new Diagon Alley portion of the neighboring park and to ride the Hogwart’s Express over to see Hogsmeade again. Just a couple of weeks before the trip, my brother and I sat down in front of Touringplans.com and plotted out our “all Harry Potter all the time” Saturday schedule. When we got to the part of the plan after we’d set foot back in Islands of Adventure, I was pleasantly surprised to find that we would only be in line for Dragon Challenge for 15 minutes. Touringplans sure is run by smart guys isn’t it? Look how much waiting time they were saving us on this excellent inverted coaster! I added Dragon Challenge to the schedule and moved on to trying to figure out when we wanted to watch the frog chorus.

It wasn’t until I was actually there at the park and constantly checking the posted wait times to be sure we were using our touring time wisely that I noticed that Dragon Challenge seemed to always have a pretty mild wait time…on a weekend…during spring break. Clearly something was going on here. Why had this previously popular ride apparently become an almost-ran in one of the most crowded parts of either park?

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In the middle of the afternoons of my recent trip, Hogsmeade would get uncomfortably crowded at times (again- weekend…spring break), but I don’t think I ever saw a wait time posted for Dragon Challenge of more than 20 minutes. Heck it takes a good five minutes just to walk the queue at a decent clip.

Well, apparently even though it’s located right there near those selfsame crowds, a few things have conspired to cause the dragon-themed coaster to entertain almost a third of the tourists it used to.

1) It’s a pretty exciting coaster located in what is otherwise a rather charming area aimed at a younger crowd. Yes, there are plenty of adults who love Harry Potter, but the series did start as kids literature and the rugrats do make up a good part of the guests there.

2) The rest of Hogsmeade is lovingly themed to put you in the world of Harry Potter, while the colorful steel tracks of Dragon Challenge sort of constitute a break in this great theming.

3) Forbidden Journey already asks you to put your stuff in a locker before riding it, so it’s easy to imagine that people are not in the mood to do so again so quickly for an inverted steel coaster.

4) The increased emphasis on riders not bringing a single thing onto the coaster is due to a couple of accidents back in 2011, one in which a man lost his eye because a dropped item hit him. There haven’t been any incidents with the ride since then.

5) Most importantly, it appears that the ride’s entrance is easy to miss. People seem to just walk on by the archway with the flags on their way to Forbidden Journey and the Three Broomsticks.

Well, let me tell you- those people are making a big mistake. They are consistently riding the pretty boring Flight of the Hippogriff family coaster, which currently has a thirty-five minute posted wait as compared to twenty minutes for Dragon Challenge. My family and I waited a pretty grueling forty minutes for Flight of the Hippogriff and I regretted every single minute we were in that line. At least I did once the ride was over so quickly. I didn’t remember what a short ride it was.

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Obviously, some people will not be able to handle a very tall very fast inverted steel coaster, but when I consider that the very tall and fast Rip Ride Rocket just next door currently has a 110 minute wait and that the Incredible Hulk coaster is currently down for a mild update, I’m left scratching my head. Why aren’t the coaster enthusiasts rocking out over at Universal Studios and the guests disappointed by the Hulk’s closure finding their way into Hogsmeade for Dragon Challenge?

I have to conclude that they are too dumb to read a map or use a wait times app. Dragon Challenge is awesome. Here. Enjoy video of the ride and you decide.

 

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Posted on April 7, 2016, in theme parks, travel, Under-rated Orlando, Universal Studios and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Another terrific article! We’re going to have to take up a collection to send you back so this series can continue. I want MORE!!

    The general consensus is that Disney didn’t think they needed Harry Potter and basically chased Rowling to Universal. Reportedly, they told her to go talk to Audrey Geisel. Only when they said it, they did so with a mocking tone. Ha ha ha. See what she thinks about that dump, Seuss Landing. Then Rowling spoke to Universal and they told her, go talk to Audrey Geisel. But they were serious. You already documented the results.

    Disney’s proposal included the petting zoo and a single ride. The ride was a clone of Toy Story Midway Mania in which guests would interact with the screens using wands instead of a pop gun. They balked at the idea of small, crowded shops that captured the flavor of Rowling’s world. And they positively insisted that Coke products be sold everywhere. If you’re looking for a Coke in Universal’s HP lands, you’re going to have to try something else or walk to a neighboring land.

    Disney didn’t think Universal would be able to strike a deal with the demanding author. But Rowling became a lot more reasonable after her experiences with Disney. She didn’t make a lot of compromises, but she was willing to overlook the steel coaster Universal didn’t want to tear down.

    When they found out that Universal had acquired the rights to the story of the boy wizard, Disney scoffed. They came up with a couple of plans just in case they new lands proved to be competition. They called these plans Potter Swatters. But despite the astounding success of the Harry Potter lands, Disney never did pull the trigger on them. At least not as intended. Some of the original Potter Swatters have actually come to pass in dribs and drabs. Star Tours 2.0 was one of them as was the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. But Disney never used them to combat Universal.

    Why not? Because Universal’s resurgence greatly benefitted Disney. It brought more people to Orlando. And most people, if they come to Orlando, they are going to visit the Mouse. What burned the folks at Disney up was Universal’s sales on merchandise. Butterbeer was a sensation! A sensation Disney tried to copy with their La Fou’s Brew in New Fantasyland. And expensive wands and robes were flying off the shelves! Thanks to the merch alone, Universal recouped the cost of Hogsmeade in a matter of months.

    The worst part from Disney’s perspective was that their sales were in decline. Sure, the parks were full and Disney was making more money than ever. But guests were buying their souvenirs at Universal. In the past, guests went to Disney first and then spent a day or two at Universal. Now, guests were visiting Universal first and emptying their wallets there and then spending some time with Mickey.

    As for Dragon Challenge, I rode it once before the Harry Potter change over. I was with my father-in-law who didn’t care for coasters. So I didn’t want to make him wait around while I rode a bunch of coasters by myself. Dueling Dragons, as it was called at the time, had no wait at all. It still took a good five minutes to walk the queue. But once I did so, I could board immediately.

    In fact, after I was done, they had opened a door to allow us to board again without walking all the way through the twisty queue! The coaster actually has two different ride experiences depending on what track you are on. But as it turns out, inverted coasters don’t like me much. I always end up feeling motion sick. So I decided to join my father-in-law rather than tempt fate with a second ride-through.

    I think you are largely correct about why Dragon Challenge isn’t pulling in big crowds. But I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. Thanks to your article, readers here will know where to go for inverted coaster thrills with a minimal wait time.

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    • daffystardust

      All versions of the story about Disney’s dealings with Rowling suggest that they were excessively full of themselves and she was a little high maintenance. I honestly think we fans got the best possible outcome.

      I generally have liked the inverted coasters I’ve ridden quite a bit. Alpengeist at Busch Gardens may be my favorite coaster overall. There’s something about it that just thrills me. Maybe it feels more like flying and less like riding in a car?

      All reports I’ve read suggest that Dueling Dragons was pretty popular until the transition to the Wizarding World began and the coaster just never recovered its ridership. But heck, even the most popular rides have short waits every now and again.

      I will gladly accept donations toward any future trips the LeBlog readers want to send me on. I wonder if there’s a widget on WordPress for taking contributions? We could let them choose from several destinations. It would be, you know…interactive!

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      • Inverted coasters do give more of a feeling of flight. But apparently, that sensation doesn’t agree with me. At one point, I was considering a career as a pilot. Don’t laugh! My youngest brother was getting his pilot’s license and he suggested I give it a try. I wasn’t up in the air long before I realized, this isn’t for me.

        My walk-on experience in 2008 wasn’t a reflection of the ride’s popularity. The entire park was empty. Universal Orlando was at a low point. When they opened Islands of Adventure, they were expecting a big boost in attendance. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the attendance dropped at Universal Studios. People who were inclined to go to Universal during an Orlando trip tried out the new park, but didn’t revisit the old one. If anyone benefitted, it was Disney. Which is part of the reason Disney has been so dismissive of Universal ever since.

        If Disney got overconfident as a result, Universal under its previous ownership became demoralized. After Islands of Adventure opened and they didn’t get the boost they were hoping for, they more or less gave up on their theme parks and let them get stagnant. Kind of like Disney has done in the Iger years. Attendance was in freefall. In 2008, it was known that HP was coming soon. So people were holding off planning trips to Universal. It worked out very well for me though. For $70 I was able to get a two-park/5-day ticket! We only ended up using one day though because my touring group burned out on theme parks quickly. We seriously spent more time in our vacation home watching judge shows than we did visiting the theme parks.

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  2. This is seriously interesting. Daughter read this along with me, and we are starting to look forward to this adventure.
    Donations, maybe start a GoFund me?

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    • daffystardust

      I’m mostly kidding about taking donations, but of course I’m not the kind to look a gift horse in the mouth either.

      One of the things I like about writing these articles is that it sort of extends my own vacation experience and allows others to have one of the best parts of their own vacation- Anticipation!

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      • I know that you and I feel the same way about this. A proper vacation starts with months of planning in advance. No detail is too small to research. Then you take the trip and you follow up by sharing pictures and trip reports, etc. Instead of just taking a week or weekend off, you get to savor the experience for up to a year and share it with others.

        Having moved this year, we have no travel plans. This is a staycation year while we make sure there aren’t any expensive surprises and we replenish the old savings account. So I’m living vicariously. I mean, always do to some extent, but this year it is appreciated all the more because I don’t have a trip of my own. I’m not even sure when the next one will be, so I can’t even go into planning mode. When you’re in between vacations, reading trip reports like these scratches an itch! And of course for someone like RB who is planning a trip of her own, this stuff is invaluable intel.

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        • I’m working on a possible TR for a quick trip my daughter and I just went on. It’s not your usual TR in that the entire first day was spent in an airport. I’m honestly not sure what you’ll think. I may just refer to it in various comments sections. Let me think on it.

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    • WP is really weird about money and fundraising. I have seriously considered changing the structure of the site in order to get a little more freedom.

      We’ll have to see what options we have to fund our roving travel reporter. Each of these articles has been a nugget of pure gold.

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  3. Was it intentional or a coincidence that you posted this the day Harry Potter Land officially opened at Universal Hollywood? Seems like strategic timing but not a word of UH is mentioned anywhere! Anyway, since I didn’t get a chance to go to Universal on my recent trip to Orlando I’m looking forward to checking this one out. Not sure how closely the rides compare though. There is a roller coaster, but the second ride is apparently a dark ride of some sort. The advantage here is that they were able to start completely from scratch with no previously existing rides to worry about. In fact I think a big portion of it is an expansion of the park boundary itself.

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    • daffystardust

      Completely a coincidence. Inspiration simply crept up on me Thursday night, resulting in this article.

      The footprint of Islands of Adventure was definitely expanded in order to make Hogsmeade fit. If you look at maps of the park previous to the re-theming of the coasters and addition of Hogwarts castle, you’ll see that the area past the Flying Unicorn was full of trees. That area had to be cleared in order to make way for the very large Hogwarts show building.

      Another interesting thing you may notice if you look at the progressing sequence of IoA maps is that there are now two bridges that lead from the Jurassic Park section of IoA to other areas. One appears to be the original bridge from the “Lost Continent” area which is located just a little past and across from the Dragon Challenge coaster (Dueling Dragons at the time). While this bridge was retained, in order to perform the build of Hogsmeade in the identified area, a second bridge completing the circular shape of the park had to be built connecting the Lost Continent to Jurassic Park just past the Mythos restaurant.

      The 2006 map shows the single bridge.

      At some point later, the second bridge is shown, but with no indication that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is coming on the map. But notice that Dueling Dragons is cut off from the rest of the Lost Continent and the Flying Unicorn is not noted at all. This was the map that I held in my hand when we wandered across that second bridge and found a sign announcing that WWoHP was being built and saw the back of Hogsmeade half completed. This may indicate to you how much less sophisticated my travel research was just seven years ago. I’d had no idea the project was under way and was stunned to be seeing it in person.

      This map is apparently from before the second map shown because Dueling Dragons is still connected to the Lost Continent, but it declares the intended location of Hogwarts. Universal apparently made a lot of different maps at this time.

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  4. Rumor has it that the Dragon Challenge will be closing down soon to get an update or replacement.

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    • Although I’m a fan of this coaster, there are other similar coasters in well-themed parks both in Florida and Virginia, so I wouldn’t mourn its passing too vociferously. They did a really good job in making it fit the Harry Potter theme when Hogsmeade first opened, but when compared to the level of immersive theme at Diagon Alley it is not up to snuff for the Harry Potter lands. They’ve done such a good job there that I have no doubt whatever they might replace Dragon Challenge with would be excellent.

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      • Agreed. Unlike recent Disney rumors, I have nothing but faith that this will be handled well even though there doesn’t seem to be any consensus regarding the endgame.

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