I’ve read all the books. I've seen all the movies. (And yes, you might have seen me at a number of midnight showings.) I've also been known to spend time with equally fanatic friends debating whether butterbeer actually has alcohol in it and trying to remember the name of Ginny’s Weasley's Pygmy Puff. (It’s Arnold). So it’s probably a given that I’d be predisposed to love the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park.
But guess what – I'm just back from a four-day trip to Orlando and I have to tell you that it's even better than I thought.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened as part of the Islands of Adventure theme park located at Universal Studios Florida. First opening its Hogsmeade gates in 2010, it’s been mostly well-received by travel writers and Potter fans alike. A California equivalent, located at Universal Studios Hollywood, is scheduled to open sometime between 2014 and 2016.
The park itself is created to look like the village of Hogsmeade, a small area located near Harry’s school, Hogwarts, where magic students can go on the weekends to shop and socialize once they’ve reached their third year. Some of the most memorable scenes in the village take place during the winter, and this Florida version of Hogsmeade is built as if you stumbled upon it in January, with snow-covered roofs that glisten in the sunlight and smoke streaming from chimneys as if the building’s inhabitants were huddled around a fire.
Visitors to the Wizarding World walk through tall gray gates to enter the village of Hogsmeade and are greeted by the Hogwarts Express, the red train students use to get to school. To the left, there's a row of shops. Memorable locations from the books include Zonko’s Joke Shop and Honeydukes, a candy shop, with products fans will recognize from the books, items like Fanged Frisbees. (These were forbidden to Hogwarts students, of course, by crotchety caretaker Argus Filch).
Other Hogsmeade stores include Gladrags Wizardwear and Dervish and Banges, which, among other things, sells Quidditch equipment. The window shops are all enticing. In one, a replica of Hermione’s beautiful dress that she wears to the school formal, the Yule Ball, is on display. Another features a shrieking mandrake, a plant that resembles a crying baby that Harry and his friends are forced to tend in Harry Potter Book No. 2. There are also portraits of Gilderoy Lockhart (as he is in the second movie, played by Kenneth Branagh) in another window, looking self-satisfied as always.
A welcome open area on the right is shaded by a large overhang and supplied with benches so younger kids, the elderly or anyone who just needs a break from the Florida heat can take a seat for a breather. While sitting, you can admire the Owl Post area, where you can actually send letters if you want to gloat to friends back home. If you stand outside, you can hear angry parents berating their children, including a dad who’s angry about a low grade on an exam, in a nod to the Howler letters Hogwarts children receive in the books when a parent is especially angry. The bright red envelopes, when opened, release the loud voice of a parent shouting at a child, loud enough for the entire school to hear.
Before long, you’re bound to notice two lines. The one stretching down the middle of the Hogsmeade avenue, leading towards a small wooden cart, is for butterbeer, the Potter drink described in the books as indescribably delicious. The park equivalent comes in two varieties, regular, which is likened by those in the know to cream soda, and frozen. However, if you head over to the Three Broomsticks restaurant, the main eating establishment in the Potter park, you can get both butterbeer and pumpkin juice, another popular beverage with visitors.
For me, the line was a little long for the butterbeer and timing didn’t work out for a meal at the Three Broomsticks, but the restaurant has traditional British fare in keeping with Harry Potter’s origins. Some may love it, while others may be a little leery. However, one of my favorite landmarks was located right near the restaurant – an animated "Have you seen this wizard?" poster, which was hung in Hogsmeade in Harry Potter Book No. 3. Like the fictional version, the Universal poster features then-fugitive criminal Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) laughing maniacally just above instructions to notify Ministry of Magic officials if you happen to spot him.
The other line – besides the one for butterbeer – is people waiting for the privilege of entering Ollivanders Wand Shop, and unless the line is prohibitively long and you really can’t take the time, it’s worth the wait. (Yes, die-hards, in the books, Ollivanders isn’t located in Hogsmeade. According to park lore, this is a separate shop, a spin-off within the Ollivanders franchise.) The line moves slowly because inside the shop, which sells wands to Hogwarts students, a wandkeeper performs a show for 20 visitors at a time, picking a lucky visitor to try out wands just as Harry does during his visit. While I can’t speak for any substitutes, the wandkeeper I saw was phenomenal, with dramatic pauses and a kindly smile that invited the rest of the audience to share in the magic.
Are you a ride daredevil? Then you have three to choose from within the Wizarding World, the tamest of which is Flight of the Hippogriff, a smaller roller coaster based on a winged creature that Harry rides during the course of the novels. A plus with this one is that you get to see the cabin that serves as the home of Hagrid, the school’s gamekeeper. Flight of the Hippogriff is the tamest of the Potter attractions, but it does take some dips so beware if you really can’t stand any sort of roller coaster motions.
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).
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.