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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: dispatches from a diehard fan

The Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, Fla., more than lived up to its hype for this fan.

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If you’re ready for a step up, the big roller coaster on the premises is the Dragon Challenge, modeled after a challenge Harry and other students must complete in Book No. 4, when they each have to retrieve an egg from beneath a very protective mother dragon. The ride consists of two coasters named after two of the dragons in the book, the Chinese Fireball and the Hungarian Horntail, and the path leading up to the coasters sports cool details like signs with slogans supporting Harry and his fellow contestants. Near the end, coaster riders actually walk through a tent designed to look like the one in which Harry and the other three participants wait before facing their dragon. The Chinese Fireball and the Hungarian Horntail are both good, but for my money, if you only have time for one, go for the Horntail – it has more twists and upside-down loops (if you like that sort of thing).

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The flagship attraction is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, located inside Hogwarts Castle – and yes, you get to go in. Hogwarts looms above Hogsmeade as you walk through the village towards the school, and the line for the Forbidden Journey ride begins outside the school gates, winding through a separate queue area before going through the gates, up through greenhouses (used in the books for Herbology classes), and finally into the castle. The wait for this ride can stretch to hours, but if you’re a Potter fan, you’re apt to forget it once you’re inside the castle.

The line takes you through rooms such as a hallway where talking portraits of the four Hogwarts founders debate recent events; Harry’s dorm, Gryffindor Tower, complete with the talking portrait that lets students inside; and Dumbledore’s office, where the head wizard himself (played by Michael Gambon) has a message for you. A highlight is the History of Magic classroom, where the heroes Harry, Ron, and Hermione arrive to bust you out of a boring lesson. Try not to catch your breath when Ron, who sometimes has trouble with spells, accidentally makes it snow and flakes appear in front of you.

The premise of the Forbidden Journey ride is that you, a very special group of Muggles (non-magic users), have been invited into the castle to experience Hogwarts life firsthand, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione are determined to show you a good time. But the usual menaces lurk, including Dementors, ghostly hooded apparitions who menace Harry and feed on bad memories, and a dragon which Hagrid seems to have misplaced.

The ride is spectacular, using a combination of screens and actual props to convey the feeling to riders that what they’re experiencing is completely real – you’d swear your feet are about to skim the surface of the lake over which you’re flying. In the ride, you sit four to a vehicle in chairs facing forward that swing wildly in various directions to take you in and out of scenes and convey you through adventures, from the fun – flying with Harry through a Quidditch game – to the scary. I mentioned those Dementors, right?

Riders must be 48 inches tall, and maybe I’m just a wimp about this kind of thing, but if you’re a parent, check the ride out before going on with your child. I saw kids who just made the four-foot cut who loved the ride and appeared completely unfazed, but a scary section in the middle of the ride takes you from a face-to-face encounter with the dragon – who’s big and breathes fire at you – to a trip into the lair of the giant spiders from “Chamber of Secrets” to an up-close meeting with those dementors, who breathe creepily and appear determined to make you their latest victim – until Harry arrives, of course.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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