Harry Potter - the Wizarding World
Foaming mugs of butterbeer, chocolate frogs at Honeydukes, fire-breathing dragons and broomsticks. Muggles, rejoice. It's all here at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The new amusement park, part of the larger Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Fla., drew plenty of hoopla when it opened last summer -- and it's no wonder. Potter fans can't help but be transcended by the iconic turrets of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that tower over the charming, snow-topped village of Hogsmeade.
With the last of the Harry Potter movies headed for the big screen in July, the world is likely to become even more focused on this magical corner of the theme park world. But if you go, be prepared: As awesome as this Wizarding World is, size-wise it's like one of the lands -- Tomorrowland, for example, or Fantasyland -- that comprise Disney's Magic Kingdom, but with fewer rides.
Somehow, we Hogwarts fanatics were under the impression that what opened last summer was just the beginning of what would ultimately become a sprawling, magical landscape, something that would keep us firmly planted in Harry-heaven -- riding rides and spending money profligately -- for days on end.
On the latter, two dragon coasters take off simultaneously, then whip, swerve, twist and bend in a mad race, at one point coming within 18 inches of each other. To fully appreciate the ride, you need to go around twice, once on the blue dragon (a Hungarian Horntail) and once on the red (a Chinese Fireball). We do not recommend accomplishing this feat back-to-back.
After the first round, one of us had to go sit down in a quiet, dark place until she could remember her own name -- and the locker number where she'd stashed our purses. The other, more intrepid reporter gleefully boarded the dragon for a second go-round -- then spent a few minutes in Moaning Myrtle's bathroom trying to stop the world from spinning.
But it's the Forbidden Journey ride that makes the Wizarding World of Harry Potter worth the price of admission. And judging by the crowds elbowing their way through Hogsmeade to Hogwarts' castle, it appears to be the attraction that is keeping Universal, with its dated attractions -- including salutes to "Jaws" and "Men in Black" -- swimming in sickles, galleons and Muggle dollars.
The ride is pitch-perfect on every level, from its welcoming greeting from a Professor Dumbledore projection, to the talking portraits and familiar bickering between Ron and Hermione. When Harry offers to sneak you into a Quidditch match, the ride's creators have ensured that there's no problem with the whole suspension-of-reality thing. It all feels absolutely real, from the smell of wood smoke to encounters with Dementors, the Whomping Willow and, thanks to Hagrid, a fire-breathing dragon. Riders are turned upside down, spun around and left absolutely dazzled at every turn.
Afterward, you are left to wander Hogsmeade with little else to do but wait for your brain to stop spinning -- so you can ride again.
Universal's amusement parks have never quite lived up to the pristine, almost-militaristic precision that is Disneyland. But they've come close with Harry Potter. In Hogsmeade, the shops remind us of all the things we love about J.K. Rowling's series.
A mandrake wails in a shop window, owls hoot and turn in the rafters outside the Owl Post Office, and even the ATM gives a nod to magic as a branch of Gringott's, the wizarding bank. Myrtle's disembodied voice floats out of the stalls in the girls' restroom -- maybe the boys' too, we didn't check that one out.
And you can buy amazingly delicious butterbeer at the Hog's Head as well as from street vendors. (Butterbeer is a nonalcoholic drink. If you're looking for something stronger, the kilt-wearing bartender has a number of dusty bottles of fire whiskey that may do the trick.)
So it's no surprise that long lines loop through Hogsmeade as families wait 45 minutes or more, even during the offseason, for the chance to visit Ollivander's and have a wand "choose" you.
It's billed as the amusement park's fourth attraction but really, it's 20 people at a time crowding into the small, iconic shop to watch as one lucky child tests wands. Drawers bang around alarmingly, and a blast of wind makes the child's hair gently wave as wand No. 3 picks him -- low-tech special effects but cool anyway, especially if you're the kid.
(If all you really want is to buy a wand -- starting at $29.95 -- in atmospheric surroundings, enter the shopping portion of the store from the back of the building without any wait at all. If your heart is set on watching the magic, brief as it is, wait till late afternoon when Hogsmeade is in deep shade and the lines shorten dramatically.)
Express passes, which cost $29-$49, depending on the day, will shorten the wait for most rides, but not, we're sorry to say, for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Wait times here ran anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes in April.
Don't want to wait that long? Hit the ride at the end of the day, when exhausted Muggles have headed home. Or if you've already ridden the ride once, take the single-rider option. You need to experience the long lines first, otherwise you'll bypass the magic inside, which includes a visit to Defense Against the Dark Arts class, Dumbledore's office and other walk-through spectacles that we still found riveting on our second, third and fourth trips through.
By the sixth (ahem, yes, we rode it six times), we were content with rabbiting our way past the lines and becoming singletons, ready to leap into a four-seater car with someone else's group.
Less-fanatical fans may prefer interspersing an afternoon at Hogwarts with trips to Epcot and Orlando's many other attractions. But we managed to spend two and half days here, mixing visits to Universal Studios and other locales in Universal's Islands of Adventures with return treks to the Three Broomsticks for more butterbeer. And we'd go back in a heart beat.
But if Universal wants to put an extension charm on this Wizarding World and expand, we've got some ideas involving small rickety carts, goblins and Gringott's tunnels. Give us a call. Or send an owl.