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Putting together an expansive museum exhibition in the midst of a global health crisis takes a lot of planning, hours full of hard work, and perhaps just the tiniest swig of Felix Felicis (AKA liquid luck). If you can actually pull it off, one might swear you were gifted with magical abilities. At least that's how Philadelphia's Franklin Institute must feel as the nearly 200-year-old gallery prepares for the grand opening of a brand-new Harry Potter experience this weekend.
"COVID-19, supply chain issues, transportation issues — these are huge issues," Franklin Institute President and CEO Larry Dubinski told SYFY WIRE during a special media preview this week. "And candidly, this team did an amazing job in overcoming all those issues to have this product ready to open this weekend, and at the quality they’ve been able to do it [at]."
After two years of social distancing and staying at home, Dubinski is excited for a museum renaissance.
"People are ready to get out," he added. "People love being able to come to experiences like this, at an institution like ours, where you can have fun, you can be curious, [and] you can learn. Education and entertainment come together and I think people have missed this over the last two years ... What a better way as we come out of this pandemic for families to come together, when school groups start visiting again?"
The immersive exhibit begins with a specialized wristband at a recreation of King's Cross station (the London-based train station from which the Hogwarts Express departs for the school of witchcraft and wizardry).
Incoming visitors are asked to input a small amount of personal information and preferences into a kiosk that allows them to choose a Hogwarts house, wand type, and Patronus. This Wizarding World profile (based in RFID technology) allows the wristband-wearer to activate a number of interactive digital installations scattered throughout the tour.
That includes everything from getting your name on the Marauder's Map, to casting a specific spell, to brewing a potion in Snape's dungeon, to facing off against a wardrobe-dwelling Boggart in Professor Lupin's Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. Meanwhile, some of the most recognizable soundtrack cues composed by John Williams and Patrick Doyle play overhead, completing the illusion.
There are also a number of physical spaces: You can explore Harry's cupboard under the stairs at Number 4 Privet Drive, sit in Hagrid's oversized cabin, re-pot mandrakes in the Herbology greenhouse, peruse the Black family tree, step into Dolores Umbridge's neon pink office, stroll through Newt Scamander's workshop, partake in a Skee-Ball-inspired exercise where attempt to toss squishy Quaffles through Quidditch hoops, and so much more.
"Things that you can’t do anywhere else in the world," said Tom Zaller, President and CEO of Imagine Exhibitions, which led the creative charge on this endeavour alongside Warner Bros. "You can’t do that except [for] here. And then as you do it, your RFID keeps [track] and you get house points. At the end, there’s a leader board for what house is winning."
"People really want to play Quidditch, see an actual costume," explained Peter van Roden, SVP of Warner Bros. Themed Entertainment. "The physical side of things is equally as important to people. So what we’ve tried to do is [find] a nice balance between the physical and the actual costume, props, and trying to mix in some interactive media elements."
As Dubinski put it, "Whether you’re a Harry Potter fan or not, you’re gonna walk through here and say, ‘God, this is a phenomenal exhibition.’"
However, it should be noted that you can only scan your wristband once at each installation, so as not to create a logjam. Zaller, however, sees this as an opportunity for patrons to come back on multiple occasions in order to explore "different gameplays."
The exhibit covers a lot of territory, including props, costumes, and locations from all eight Harry Potter films, the Cursed Child stage play, and the current Fantastic Beasts series.
"It’s a ratio of actual costumes and props. Whatever was manufactured, was done by the team that actually built it for the films. It’s authentic through-and-through," van Roden said. "We used an actual production designer to consult on almost everything in here, so it’s a big team effort."
With Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore slated to hit theaters on April 15, the WB executive promises that items from the new movie will eventually make their way to The Franklin Institute. When we asked if he can tease anything about the film itself, he laughed and answered: "I’ve seen a rough cut, and it’s fantastic. It’s gonna be great. I think you’ll like it."
If you consider yourself a die-hard Potterhead, prepare to fall in love with the franchise all over again; there are plenty of surprises for those with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Wizarding World. In fact, we ended up backtracking when Zaller, briefly catching up with SYFY WIRE in the gift shop, made mention of a little visual gag in the Deathly Hallows section we didn't pick up on the first time around.
"We’ve left some Easter eggs for the fans," he remarked. "Our experts know all of it, so we put little nuggets here and there for you to find, and that’s gonna be different for every person too. Hopefully, we’ve satisfied everybody's knowledge base ... These movies started 20 years ago so, we’re trying to remind people of these magical moments. I’m really super proud of it."
"You have to go look in Newt’s suitcase room, and look up into the tree, and you might see something very special up in there," hinted van Roden. "And there’s something perhaps crawling out of his suitcase as well, so you never know…We looked for iconic moments. People who are coming through a Harry Potter exhibit wanna see Quidditch, they wanna see Voldemort — they wanna see some of the most iconic moments. So we try and grab that and at the same time, try and put little Easter eggs around the place for the fans."
Harry Potter: The Exhibition joins Universal Orlando and Leavesden Studios (just outside of London) as one of several Wizarding World experiences available throughout the world. But where Universal and Leavseden are permanent institutions, the Philly-based collection is mobile.
"We’re gonna have four of these running around the world, so we can get to people’s cities and we want be able to bring it to people who can’t necessarily make the destination trip," van Roden explained. "This is different from the Leavesden experience and it’s certainly different from Universal. But the traveling element is so important. To be able to get to cities and people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to get to London or Orlando."
"All of our stuff comes from Warner Bros. archives," Zaller continued. "We didn’t take anything from Leavesden and they aren’t taking anything from us…knock on wood. That’s its own experience, too. Those sets are the sets [used for the movies]. And so, we sort of recreated different sets using the same drawings. It’s its own thing like Universal is its own thing. I think we have a lot to offer and I think we’re a little different. You can go to Orlando and have that great experience and then you ride Hagrid’s [Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure] and it’s amazing. You ride the train between the two parks and it’s so cool and you can go to the New York store and you can go to The Cursed Child. I think we’re our own thing. I think you have to do it all."
Warner Bros. celebrated the 20th anniversary of Sorcerer's Stone in 2021 and while the IP is almost old enough to legally purchase alcohol, it doesn't show many signs of age.
"People still want to live it and they still want to be reminded of what it means to them," van Roden concluded. "Now you’ve got whole generations coming up from those of us who grew up on the books or the movies ... We’re in that second, third generation of people going through and that’s the thing: you want to keep on making it new and fresh as the new generations come up."
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