Wizarding World of Harry Potter stupefies
What rises beneath the picturesque iron signs, just past the steaming engine of the now iconic Hogwarts Express, is not so much a theme park as an eye-widening, heart-lifting testament to the unassailable power of imagination in the 21st century.
A story conjured in the head of a young woman 20 years ago as she rode on a train from Manchester to London has become not just a book franchise, not just a film series, but an actual place: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort’s Islands of Adventure. There it is, right in front of you, the magic that united nations and generations, boosted the publishing industry and American literacy, made knitted scarves and rugby shirts chic again and it looks Just Like You Thought It Would.
Which explains why, during the opening days, thousands of people spent hours waiting in the humid Florida sunshine to enter Wizarding World, where they then spent hours more waiting to experience its attractions. And they all seemed quite happy to do it — wherever you looked people were hot, people were tired, but people were smiling. And pointing, and taking pictures and drinking butterbeer.
If God is in the details, then Wizarding World is the holiest place on Earth.
From the high-pitched, snow-covered rooflines and tall, crooked chimneys to the Gillyweed seed packets, from Mr. Weasley’s magical car crashed just outside the Dragon Challenge roller coaster to the dusty stacks of narrow boxes in Ollivander’s Wand Shop, Wizarding World is a 20-acre sonnet to the epic saga of J.K. Rowling with nary a discordant note. Even the lure of massive register ring-ups was sacrificed on the altar of authenticity — shops like Dervish and Banges are so intimate that strollers can’t be maneuvered through the aisles.
Overlooking it all is the silhouette that launched the film franchise, those eerie, stately turrets of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, home here to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a marvel of old and new technology that may be the best theme park ride ever.
Undoubtedly, Wizarding World sets new standards for attractions in almost every arena: Cost (an estimated $230 million), merchandise (from Slytherin luggage tags at $7.95 to a Nimbus 2000 broomstick for $300), even the culinary arts (the menu at the Three Broomsticks is very English pub, and don’t get me started about the butterbeer, available there or drawn from a keg in the middle of “town”).
How many calories in butterbeer, available in frozen and non, is one detail ominously absent. Depending on whom you ask, the base could be cream soda or white birch beer with a dash of butterscotch syrup, but the topping bears a disturbing resemblance to melted and very buttery vanilla ice cream, so it’s probably better not to think about it.
Actually, in theme-park terms, the Wizarding World is a bastion of health food. No smell of popcorn or churro breaks the third wall here, only the Renaissance festival perfume of roasted turkey leg emanating from the high-raftered Three Broomsticks.
And lest all this high-falutin’ talk of literary detail and the creative process raises a red flag among less-than-zealous or even (gasp) non-Potter fans, the rides are super-fun too. There are but three, but they’re mighty good.
Two are preexisting roller coasters tricked out to fit into the Potter narrative. The Flight of the Hippogriff is small but fast and offers great views of Hogwarts and the entire Islands of Adventure park, particularly at night. Dragon Challenge pays homage to the Triwizard Cup with a pair of racing coasters that takes riders upside down and sideways and puts to rest any idea that the Wizarding World is for arm-chair adventurers only. Indeed, some moms of my acquaintance, who had previously taken blood oaths to never venture on a ride that flipped them upside down, found themselves wheedled into riding because “it’s Harry Potter.”
But the centerpiece is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which takes you on a flying, frightening trip through castle and storyline. (If you have a fear of giant spiders, consider yourself warned.) Yes, wait times went into the triple digits, as in 120 minutes during early days, but eventually there will be an Express lane, as there is at Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge and other rides in the park, for those who pay extra or stay at one of the resort hotels.
The line itself is part of the adventure, winding through Professor Sprout’s greenhouse, then deep into the castle, where the paintings talk (and Potter fans get their first glimpse of Hogwarts founders Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin as arguing portraits) and Professor Dumbledore offers a greeting and a warning. Further on, Harry, Ron and Hermione coax visitors to skip a boring lecture on the history of Hogwarts and come with them to a Quidditch match. (Stars of the movie franchise, including Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Gambon, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, shot 20 minutes of original film for the ride.)
Visitors are then strapped into a four-person car and carried off on an amazing flying journey that combines digital and robotic technology with good old-fashioned haunted house fun (look out, it’s a dementor!). Forbidden Journey leaves one breathless and dizzy and demanding an instant repeat.
This being a theme park, one exits through a gift shop. But if the merchandise here isn’t quite as boutique as at Dervish and Banges, it’s still pretty high-end — if you’re looking for your refrigerator magnets, your Quidditch pajama bottoms, you’ll just have to keep looking.
Likewise, Honeydukes sweet emporium and even Zonkos Joke Shop have a surprisingly select assortment of merchandise — the chocolate frogs are a must, even at $9 a box, but the Every Flavor Beans present the ultimate tourist/fan quandary: Will you pay $9 for a small box of jelly beans when you know some of them will taste gross? We, I must confess, did not. But then we had both kinds of butterbeer and pumpkin juice, and Rowling never mentioned a spell for tightening abs. Accio six-pack!
By evening, there was no wait to enter the Wizarding World, lines were shorter, lights twinkled in mullioned windows and Hogwarts rose against the darkening sky like a child’s favorite dream. Rowling understood the power of tangible objects, that nothing is more compelling than the mundane transformed by magic. After years of living in the shadow of that other park, Universal is betting that the boy wizard will give them an edge over both the princesses and the Mouse. And you know what? They may be right.