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How Matt Kelly went from being a student in debt to designing the latest addition to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Unlike Harry Potter, Matt Kelly couldn’t open doors with the wave of a wand. He had to earn a spot on the Universal Creative team that brought Universal Studios’ newest addition to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley – to life. Kelly’s journey included six years of school to earn a Master’s of Architecture and two consecutive internships at Universal Creative.

Like most students, Kelly took on a lot of debt to complete his education and earn a chance to better his life. He ended up borrowing close to $140,000 to be able to focus on the degree and a chance to take this once in a lifetime internship. “It’s kind of comical how much money that you’re allowed to borrow while you’re getting your masters,” Kelly said. “People put themselves further into debt to make the action of going through school more easily done. I made an investment in myself.”

After starting at Santa Fe Community College, Kelly participated in a 2+2+2 program that the University of Florida, the University of Central Florida, and Velencia Community College established to make the process of getting a bachelor’s and a master’s degree more convenient to obtain. “Architecture is a tough road as far as the education component of being an architect,” Kelly said. “I chose to go to UF in Orlando because one day I might have the opportunity to work for Universal Creative. I took a gamble and it paid off.”

Kelly got the opportunity to take an internship at Univeral Creative, which was developing the second phase of its widely successful The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at Universal Studios Orlando. Kelly took the job and boarded the Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley. While he completed his education at UF in Orlando, Kelly got hands on experience in how to build a theme park by doing anything that was needed of him like working on construction documents and assisting project managers. He got a second consecutive internship while realizing this the place that he wanted to work. That dream came true when he was awarded a contract as a Creative Consultant.

Diagon Alley was in full swing by this point. Kelly got to work with Alan Gilmore, the Art Director on the Harry Potter films and Hogsmeade phase of the project, on a daily basis. Kelly said, “It was a fantastic experience to be able to work that closely with someone that has that much experience in that industry.” The Sorting Hat put Kelly into a lot of different categories like graphic design, architectural design, drawings, documentation and other elements of the project. He loved every minute of it.

“Universal Creative hires the best,” Kelly said. “A lot is expected of us but it’s a really good environment for a young designer to be in because you get to collaborate and interact with people that you normally wouldn’t be able to and learn so much from them at such an early stage in your career. Universal puts hundreds of millions into this and to have a hand in that is great.”

The attention to detail is what makes Universal Studios Orlando one of the elite theme parks in the world. Harry Potter fans have visited the first phase of the project, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Hogsmeade, by the millions since its opening in 2010. This new phase could be even bigger. Detail is the key to making visitors feel like they are in the world of Harry Potter. Kelly’s contribution to that detail came in things like signs and album covers in the store fronts on the London facade that stands as the entrance to the attraction. “Everything needed to look authentic. I had to collaborate with the AD to make it look real, yet vague enough to not infringe on copyright,” he said. Kelly also had a hand in designing curtains and other details themed to Wizarding ways.

He said that now that Diagon Alley is completed, he’s had a lot of time to walk through and examine the detail. “The level of detail that universal and WB have put into this is really amazing,” he said. “I got to put my little mark on some of it. It’s nice to be able to have that creative freedom.”

Kelly was a fan of Harry Potter before he got the job. He has seen all the movies and went back after to read the books. Working on Diagon Alley has made him even more of a fan.

“Once I started on the project I got immersed,” he said. “You have to fall in love with what you’re doing. That’s what it takes to make it real. Universal Creative are the masters of environment creation. We take a story and make it a place that you can be inside of.”

Kelly could not be any happier with how it all turned out. He hopes to continue his tenure with Universal Creative.

“Now that I’ve gotten a taste of the way that Universal Creative operates in the theme park architectural realm, I’m addicted, I’m hooked.” He could barely keep his excitement held back when talking about the magic of the attraction after their soft opening in June.

“Harry Potter is a phenomenon. Not only do I get to create these environments for people to enjoy, but I become more of a fan every day.”

Diagon Alley opens to the general public July 8.

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