Walking through The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, it’s not hard to let the experience overwhelm your common sense. In fact, if it weren’t for the roller coaster hardware, it would be easy to lose yourself and forget that you’re not walking the actual streets of Hogsmeade. Well, okay: the throngs of people and the dichotomy of the beastly hot weather of Orlando and the “snow” on the town’s roofs also help keep you grounded in reality.
I confess: I’m a bit of a Harry Potter fanboy. I ordered the first book from a store in the UK when its popularity first started to become a phenomenon, but it hadn’t yet been published on the western side of the Atlantic. Since my kids are nine and nearly-eight, that means I’ve been a Harry Potter fan for longer than I’ve been a dad. I don’t think of the seven books as great works of literature — I acknowledge the validity of many of the criticisms that have been leveled at the series — but it cannot be denied that there is something there that captivates people. The wildly successful movie series has, whatever its faults, immersed Potter fans in J.K. Rowling’s world to the point where any theme park would have to be meticulously crafted to meet their (our) expectations.
All of that, then, makes it all the more remarkable that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter pulls off the feat. Every detail is finely crafted to enhance the experience, with the unfortunate but (I suppose) necessary exception of being unable to pay for Butterbeers and souvenirs with knuts, sickles and galleons. According to my family’s tour guide, Rowling had approval over absolutely every aspect of the attraction, and it shows, perhaps most in the things visitors aren’t allowed to touch: the marvelous displays in the shop windows, the upstairs “rooms” at the Three Broomsticks and Dervish & Banges, and, of course, the rides.
Ah, yes, the rides, about which much has been written. The “family” ride, Flight of the Hippogriff, is fun enough even if very short (yet fast enough to lose me my clip-on sunglasses). The Dragon Challenge, the most thrilling of the thrill rides, is good only for those with strong constitutions — I discovered to my distress that it is certainly not for me, as I felt every one of my thirty-seven years catching up with me after finishing it (my wife didn’t want to go, and my kids were too short to go on the ride).
But of course the Hogwarts ride, called “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” is the centerpiece of the attraction, and I must say it is very well done. The story is that muggles (meaning you, of course) are being allowed into the school for the first time, and so before the ride you’re brought through several rooms in the castle, spoken about by paintings of the four founders of the school, and allowed to meet Dumbledore, Harry, Ron and Hermione, sort of. The projections of the characters are less well-done than they might be, but if you can’t suspend your disbelief a millimeter further than you already have by that point in order to invest in them, you shouldn’t go. The ride itself is a bit jerky, but is the only way to see into parts of Hogwarts (and its grounds) you otherwise can’t. Not far from Hogwarts is a sort of stage area where a chorus of “students” and large “frogs” sing the Macbeth-derived song from the Prisoner of Azkaban movie and various a cappella tunes, and actors dressed exactly as the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons students from Goblet of Fire perform acrobatics.
Ah, you may say, but what about the wand ceremony at Ollivander’s? Now, I must tell you that my family was treated to a V.I.P. tour by the folks at Universal, which means that we were able to bypass lines all over. It also means they arranged for a special private wand ceremony for my kids, with the “wand keeper” knowing their names and everything. I won’t spoil the experience for you by describing its details, but suffice it to say that I, a devout skeptic and realist, was so taken by my kids’ experience unfolding in front of me that I completely forgot to record it on my iPhone. My wife had actual tears in her eyes at at the end of it, and I do believe my kids for a moment believed that something genuinely magical had happened. We bought the wands that had “chosen” them, of course — despite the $30 price on each, it seemed almost impossible not to after that.
The merchandise is wonderful if (of course) expensive. Items for sale there include quaffles and bludgers, chocolate frogs, remembralls, sneakoscopes and shirts with all manner of designs — and that’s just scratching the surface. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to buy a whole lot more than your budget will allow. The Three Broomsticks’ food is good, and not nearly as overpriced as I expected. And the famous Butterbeers are quite tasty if very sweet (they seem to be nothing more than cream soda with a bit of butter added), and I can say unequivocally that the frozen version is very refreshing on a hot, humid Florida day.
I can’t promise that every Harry Potter fan will enjoy going, of course: the lines were very, very long, and Florida weather can be a bit temperamental. But it is as magical an experience as I’ve had in longer than I can recall: I really felt like I was in the world of the books and movies, and I know my kids would gladly have spent our entire vacation there.
My advice: Go. Go early in the day, or during the school year on a weekday, to try to avoid long lines. Make sure you go back at night, because the beautiful buildings are yet more beautiful lit up in the dark. And if you can in any way afford a V.I.P. tour, get one, and not just for the Potter attraction (ask if Katrina is available: she’s great!). I wouldn’t take a kid younger than six, just because of the waiting (and likely inability to go on most of the rides).
My only criticism is that it’s too small. You can visit Hogsmeade and parts of Hogwarts, but what about Diagon Alley? The Burrow? And the rest of Hogwarts? I’d like to see an entire park devoted to the world of Harry Potter — one where I didn’t have to walk through Jurassic Park or Seuss Landing (which is also awesome in its own way, but of course vastly different) to get there or leave.
See all of the pictures my family took at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (all photos by Matt or Jen Blum). And check back next week for my review of the rest of Universal’s Islands of Adventure.