The Wizarding World Where the Magic Is Real
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God, I love butterbeer. I could drink that sweet (really sweet) golden nectar all day, every day -- in its regular or frozen form. Fortunately for my health and my teeth, the only places in the United States that serve it are the two Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions at the Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando, Florida, and Los Angeles, California. Actually, make that three: Wizarding World opened in Orlando in two phases, thus allowing the park’s imagineers to top themselves twice.
“Live the movies” has been a catchphrase for Universal’s parks as well as their competitors, but it has never felt as true as when making your way through Wizarding World. Film-inspired theme park experiences tend to be rides or shows with finite running times, but from the beginning, the Universal team sought to bring Harry Potter to life in such a way that you could wander through it at your leisure, taking in the sights and sounds (and tastes!) of the universe J.K. Rowling created on the page and that was brought to life on screen by countless cinematic wizards.
Phase one opened in June 2010 at Islands of Adventure, which shares the Orlando park with Universal Studios Florida. Constructed on what had been the Lost Continent section, it is accessed via a wooden bridge leading to an archway where a hanging sign welcomes you to Hogsmeade…and then you’re walking past shops and restaurants bearing more familiar names, most notably The Three Broomsticks, which serves a wide variety of Potter-based food and drink. It’s a sign of the immersiveness suffusing the entire attraction that the echoes of the books and movies don’t end with the eatery’s moniker or menu. Keep an eye on the rafters; someone or something might be watching you.
This section is dominated by a replica of Hogwarts Castle, which contains Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, perhaps the most thrilling ride on the lot (for a few years, anyway…). This one whisks you on a flying chase around, over and through the castle via vertigo-inducing video screens, though there are also a number of physical props involved, like giant spiders and a dragon head that spews real steam at you, to make the experience all the more visceral. Here’s a tip: Take the Single Rider line, which gets you on board a lot faster; since you’re seated in what’s essentially a solo-occupancy booth allowing no contact with your fellow riders, you won’t be missing a potential shared experience with your friends or significant other.
The Universal team also adapted a pair of existing rollercoasters on the premises. The double suspension coaster known as Dueling Dragons was given a makeover and rechristened Dragon Challenge, with the pair of tracks-and-trains now known as Chinese Fireball and Hungarian Horntail, after species from Goblet of Fire. (Also, the coasters no longer “duel”; since 2011, when a pair of riders were struck and injured by flying objects in separate incidents, the ride was reconfigured so that the two don’t travel directly past each other.) Younger riders and those who aren’t up for the more serious thrills of the Dragon ride can try out Flight of the Hippogriff, formerly the Flying Unicorn, a steel coaster with less intense twists and turns.
Wizarding World gave Islands of Adventure a big boost in popularity, and this half of the park began notching attendance records as a result. Rumors concerning an expansion into Universal Studios Florida began trickling out in 2011, and seemed to be confirmed that December when it was reported that the Jaws ride would be closing down to free up space for a new attraction. That news was rather dismaying for this writer, and surprising; a boat trip interrupted by attacks from a mechanical shark that also made a stop in a boathouse that caught fire, it was one of the park’s most impressive features, and always the most crowded one on the three occasions I attended while it was open.
Nonetheless, Jaws was deep-sixed by the beginning of 2012, to make way for the enlargement of Wizarding World. The work was hidden by high walls that at some points bordered the Universal walkways, tantalizing passersby as to what might be sprouting up behind them. There was a way to get a better view, though: riders of the Dragon Challenge, from the coasters’ airborne vantage point, could catch glimpses of a very impressive-looking structure going up. But it’s unlikely any fan was prepared for the experience that was unveiled for the public in July 2014.
I can still recall my first impression upon entering this new portion of the Harry Potter world, modeled after Diagon Alley: When J.K. Rowling first set foot within it, she must have wept tears of joy for seeing her creations brought to such remarkable physical life. Unlike the Islands portion, where you can see other parts of the park from certain spots, Diagon Alley surrounds you with multistory structures that completely enclose and enfold you within Harry’s universe. And if you look up as you approach Gringotts Bank, you’ll spot one of the coolest features: a dragon perched atop the building that roars and spits real fire at random intervals.
Everywhere you look, in fact, there’s some sort of active representation of Rowling’s mythology going on. The last time I visited, puppet performers in the open area were enacting a portion of “The Fountain of Fair Fortune” from The Tales of Beedle the Bard, in which the characters encounter a “white worm” (though Amanda Donohoe and Hugh Grant were nowhere in sight). Nearby, patrons were using their interactive wands to make the Mermaid Fountain squirt streams of water into the air -- sometimes landing on people standing behind them. (As you pass by, watch for the wet spots on the cobblestones to avoid being on that receiving end.) And yes, the wands are functional in this part of the park: If you buy a special kind, you can wave it over medallions at various points around Diagon Alley, and through the magic of sensor technology, it will “cast spells” that animate window displays, reveal hidden messages and more.
Yes, there’s lots of stuff to buy around the Wizarding World, but even the commercial side of the attraction has been given personal, one-on-one touches. Head into Ollivander’s Wand Shop, and you’re taken in groups of 20 to a room where the keeper selects one young patron and tests a series of wands to determine which one is perfect for him or her. Near Gringotts Bank is a Money Exchange shop where Wizarding Bank Notes (good in both the two Potter realms and elsewhere in the parks) can be purchased, with a goblin (who can have a cranky side) handling the transaction. And this area doesn’t just replicate what we’ve read in the books and seen in the movies, but adds a bit of world-building as well. In addition to Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley, it features a couple of new streets to stroll down: Horizont Alley and Carkitt Market (both names courtesy of Rowling).
Then there are the two latest rides. Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts goes The Forbidden Journey one better, as it does the Amazing Spider-Man and Transformers rides elsewhere on the Universal property. The latter two send 3D-glasses-wearing patrons in multipassenger cars through environments where three-dimensional screens plunge them into the action; Escape from Gringotts incorporates these with steel coaster tracks and hills for a combined visual/physical effect that truly makes you feel like you’re hurtling through the vaults and confronting/evading villains, including Voldemort himself. Needless to say, this one is not for very young or impressionable riders.
Much gentler but no less enveloping is the Hogwarts Express, which takes visitors from Hogsmeade at Islands to an expansive King’s Cross Station adjacent to Diagon Alley on the Universal Studios side. Once you board your carriage, the door is closed and the journey begins, thanks to video screens, the view out the windows reveals both attractive and ominous scenery as you travel from London to Hogwarts or vice versa. But don’t ignore the other side of the coach; on the translucent door, the silhouettes of Harry and his friends can be seen passing by, stopping to talk and accidentally letting loose small critters that crawl across the glass. As with other parts of the Wizarding World, it can be hard to know which way to look at times during the Express trek.
One thing Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure have always excelled at is giving patrons things to watch and examine while waiting to board the rides or enter the environments, and the Wizarding World is no exception. As you wend your way toward the Hogwarts Express on the Universal side, for example, you pass by a pile of Harry’s luggage topped by a birdcage containing Hedwig the owl. There’s also a point where, watching through a special screen, you can see those ahead of you walk through a wall to enter platform 9 3/4.
If there’s any downside at all to the wealth of adventures the Wizarding World offers, it’s that you can easily spend an entire day solely on its grounds, and not have time for everything else the two parks have to offer. For Potter devotees, though, that would be a day extremely well spent. And even for those who, like this writer, are fans of many of the properties repped by the assorted attractions, this venture into Potter country is an undeniable game-changer where living the movies is concerned. Just speaking personally, it’s impressive enough for me to forgive them for taking away the Jaws ride.