The first generation to enjoy Harry Potter’s world of wizadry now may have outgrown the fantasy tales but the global phenomenon that is Harry Potter just keeps getting bigger.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando Florida is adding a new Diagon Alley and London site on the Universal Studios lot adjacent to the adventure park where Hogwarts and Hogsmeade now stand. Visitors will be able to travel between the two aboard a new Hogwarts Express when the new site opens in 2014.
If you’re not into roller-coasters or merchandise, then the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is going to be a bit of a rough ride. On the other hand, if you relish the thrill of feeling your stomach tied in knots and you crave a taste of Butterbeer, then you might find it brilliant. And if you just plain love the Harry Potter books and films, as millions do, then you will just have to see for yourself, as millions already have since the themed adventure opened three years ago.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is in the far end of the Islands of Adventure theme park and you can see the towering spires and turrets of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry from many vantage points. From the entrance, the first view is a doozy.
There are four main activities, including two roller-coasters: the smaller Flight of the Hippogriff (a creature that has the head and claws of an eagle and the back end of a horse) suitable for younger children; and the Dragon Challenge, a looping coaster which has some cool touches at the entry, such as the Triwizard Tournament.
There’s the find-a-wand experience at Olivander’s and the main event, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a dizzying ride that combines virtual reality and practical effects.
From the start, my husband Phil and I determined to do everything except the two coasters. Starting near the entry, we took a walk through Zonko’s Joke Shop (a favourite of Fred and George Weasley in the books and films) and Honeydukes (Bertie Botts’ Every Flavour Beans and Chocolate Frogs were in abundance), and then passed the long line at Olivander’s wand shop and headed straight to Hogwarts castle for the Forbidden Journey.
The interior walk-through had some talking portraits and a greeting from a 3D hologram of headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Further along, Hogwarts students Harry, Hermione and Ron (also seen as holograms) invite you to follow them on a forbidden journey. The ride follows Harry & Co on their broomstick ride through the castle grounds and the Quidditch pitch, past a steam-breathing dragon and through Hogwarts’ Great Hall. It takes about four minutes but feels twice that, even though it is non-stop, without a moment to catch your breath. When we passed soul-sucking Dementors, I screamed “expecto patronum” just before Harry did.
Dodging the dragon is scary-cool, I have to admit, though just as hard on the stomach as the moments flying behind Harry’s broomstick in the midst of a Quidditch match. When we were told we’d be going through the Great Hall, I was hoping for a final few seconds to hover, relax and get a good view, but it didn’t happen.
On a stage between Hogwarts and the shops a live show was just beginning with ribbon-dancing girls from the Beauxbatons Academy and the martial-arts experts of Durmstrang, Hogwarts’ rivals in the Triwizard Tournament.
Next we headed to Olivander’s, which allows only 40 people inside at a time. It’s cramped floor-to-very-high-ceiling with wands, just as you might imagine from the books. Behind a small counter “Mr Olivander” picked out six-year-old Max from the crowd and fitted him for a wand in a scene very similar to Harry getting his wand. Then we were ushered into the Olivander’s and Owl Post shops where wands in cases were for sale for almost $30 alongside other merchandise.
Finally, as we walked the length of the park one more time and past a window near The Three Broomsticks restaurant, we heard a whiny cry. A Mandrake Root was peeking out of a pot and giving passers-by an earful. Details like that will bring a smile to the face of hard-core fans even if, unlike Harry, they are not naturals when it comes to riding a broomstick.