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The world's best theme park dark ride just got better

The world's best theme park dark ride just got better
Hogwarts Castle in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood is set to open April 7 with rides and attractions bringing J.K. Rowling's boy wizard to life. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Theme park fans are in for a treat when Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey officially opens on Thursday inside Hogwarts Castle at Universal Studios Hollywood.

For those who have never been on the world's best dark ride, Forbidden Journey literally turns the traditional dark ride experience on its head by placing riders on the end of a unique robotic arm as they travel past domed projection screens and animatronic characters.

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For those who have visited Universal's Islands of Adventure, the West Coast version of Forbidden Journey adds 3-D imagery to the domed screen segments that were only 2-D when the ride debuted in 2010 at the Florida theme park.

Candlesticks float above riders aboard Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride at the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Candlesticks float above riders aboard Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride at the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

I rode the new Forbidden Journey three times during technical rehearsals at Universal Studios Hollywood and found that the 3-D enhancements added depth and detail to the already spectacular visuals. The 3-D imagery was first introduced when the ride opened at Universal Studios Japan in 2014.

What sets Forbidden Journey apart from other dark rides are the seats, which are attached to a multi-articulated arm that is similar to an auto assembly plant robot. Sitting four abreast on an enchanted bench, riders follow Harry Potter and Ron Weasley as they fly on broomsticks from Hogwarts Castle to a Quidditch match. Along the way, riders encounter giant Aragog spiders, a massive Basilisk snake, a horde of Dementor phantoms, an angry Whomping Willow tree and a fire-breathing Hungarian Horntail dragon.

The extensive ride queue that winds through Hogwarts Castle is an attraction in itself. Visitors pass through Professor Dumbledore's office, the Gryffindor common room and the Defense of the Dark Arts classroom, where Harry, Ron and Hermione Granger give riders instructions on how to survive the Forbidden Journey. Throughout the queue, visitors encounter the mysterious Mirror of Erised, the talking headmaster portraits and the sorting hat. The experience changes if you choose the single rider or Gate A skip-the-line queues.

Details are everywhere in the corridors of Hogwarts Castle, easily viewed while visitors stand in line for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Details are everywhere in the corridors of Hogwarts Castle, easily viewed while visitors stand in line for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The combination of the stunningly detailed queue and the state-of-the-art ride make Forbidden Journey the best dark ride in the world. The addition of the 3-D overlay only makes it better.

I compiled my top 25 dark rides in October and Forbidden Journey came out on top, just ahead of Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure and Universal's Transformers: The Ride 3-D. Roller coasters and water rides were not included in the list. For me, Forbidden Journey's robotic arm takes the motion-based simulator dark ride concept to the next level with a wider range of motion that swings riders upside-down and side to side.

Some people have complained that the 3-D version of Forbidden Journey causes motion sickness. Universal officials contend that any ride, including Forbidden Journey, can cause dizziness in some riders. During test-and-adjust technical rehearsals, I found the spinning vortex scenes at the beginning and end of the ride to be the most nausea-inducing. My advice: Close your eyes for a few seconds when Hermione douses riders with Floo Powder and you'll be just fine.

The other key complaint has come from big and tall people who don't fit in the relatively compact Forbidden Journey seats. After waiting in the long queue, some people who have never been turned away from any ride are surprised when they aren't permitted to board Forbidden Journey. There's a tester seat in front of the castle for those concerned they might be too large.

Of course, the real problem won't be the people that can't ride Forbidden Journey, but rather all the people who will want to climb aboard -- over and over again. Expect massive lines for the first few months. The single-rider line will probably be your best option on crowded days.

If Wizarding World proves popular, and all indications are it will, Southern California theme park fans could be in for an even bigger treat. A Diagon Alley expansion of Wizarding World is reportedly envisioned for the Waterworld stunt show arena location, complete with the Harry Potter and the Escape Gringotts indoor roller coaster, widely considered to be the best ride in the world.

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