Underrated Universal: Dragon Challenge
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.
They also had a very new family coaster called the Flying Unicorn right next to it.
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?
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.
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,…
…and the Triwizard cup itself! Be careful not to touch the thing. You oughta know why.
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!
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?
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.
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.
Posted on April 7, 2016, in theme parks, travel, Under-rated Orlando, Universal Studios and tagged Dragon Challenge, Harry Potter, Hogsmeade, hulk, Islands of Adventure, Rollercoaster. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.