Earlier this month, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood launched its third limited-run light show, dubbed “Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle.” The West Coast land — inspired by the works of J.K. Rowling — is smaller than its Orlando-based cousin, lacking the Hogwarts Express, Diagon Alley, and the Escape from Gringotts ride. The park relies on light shows and custom events to differentiate it, giving hardcore fans reasons to visit both coasts.
Now, if you’re like me, a new “light show” is not the most appealing pitch. I hear the words “light show” and imagine field trips to the local museum or a down-on-its-luck symphony enticing a younger audience with a trippy performance of The Dark Side of the Moon. The words “light show” carry a certain desperation.
Perhaps “Dark Arts” should be described as something else entirely. Calling the performance a light show is like calling a banana split a “small fruit platter.” “Dark Arts” is big and decadent, loud and spectacular, full of expensive visual tricks that I haven’t seen outside of tech convention demonstrations. The show aggressively flexes modern technology, combining drones and advanced projection mapping on a grand scale.
Projection mapping turns irregular surfaces into screens. Engineers and designers use special tools to collect the specific dimensions of a structure — in this case, the giant recreation of Hogwarts looming over the park — then design video sequences that can be projected perfectly onto its surface.
At night, an unlit Hogwarts blends in with the sky like a huge black canvas. With the projections on, the building comes alive, glowing like a cartoon dropped into the real world. Warm candlelight appears to come through its windows; moody light bounces off its craggy foundation.
Since the show focuses on the darker magic and villains of Harry Potter, the castle is under siege by trolls, dementors, and of course Voldemort — all projected on its surface in real time. Parts of Hogwarts appear to be struck by fire and lightning, the stonework crumbling down the cliffside, revealing the castle’s scorched interiors.
Toward the end of the show, as the forces of good inevitably counter on this surge of evil, Harry Potter’s patronus fills the night sky in the form of dozens of glowing drones. We saw something similar with Lady Gaga’s performance at Super Bowl LI, but the flying stag is more elaborate, rising to nearly the height of Hogwarts.
The visuals pair with a musical arrangement by William Ross that builds upon the original Harry Potter score composed by John Williams. It’s a bit moodier and nastier, the sort of music I hope Universal pipes through the parks during Halloween.
I hadn’t visited any of the Wizarding World parks (the third one is part of Universal Studios Japan) before seeing “Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle.” As part of a preview event, I had a couple of hours to walk the streets of Hogsmeade, get pitched a custom wand, and ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a dark ride that blends huge sets with footage projected onto screens. It’s all quite impressive, particularly the attention to detail in each of the many shops. But at the end of the day, the reason I’d revisit the park — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — is the light show. It’s that good.
“Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle” took two years to develop and produce, and the results look as if they warranted that investment. This isn’t a gimmick. It’s magic.