Review: At Wizarding World of Harry Potter, magic comes to life, or as close as it gets
In hero-quest terms, the recovery of the Sorcerer’s Stone was Harry Potter’s first big win, even though he didn’t get to keep it. By the time Harry woke up after his first battle with You Know Who, the stone, with all its life-extending and gold-producing properties, had, in fact, been destroyed.
Not that it matters. As it turns out, he didn’t actually need Nicolas Flamel’s famous bit of alchemy. No one has a more golden touch or a better shot at immortality than J.K. Rowling’s young wizard.
Just watch the faces of those entering Universal Studios’ new Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hollywood on a preview day, ahead of the official April 7 opening. Although Hogwarts Castle is now technically a part of the L.A. skyline, the Wizarding World is not immediately visible from the park entrance. Which makes the first sight of its gorgeously gothic arches, just past and set back a bit from Shrek 4-D, even more arresting.
As in “aresto momentum visitors.” Hogwarts Castle, home to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is possibly the best dark ride ever, beckons from the far end of the new land and quaint butterbeer carts tempt, as do the windows of the sweets shop Honeydukes and the chance to huddle, as Harry, Hermione and Ron did, over shepherd’s pie at the Three Broomsticks.
But no one is hurrying.
Even those so eager to “attend” Hogwarts that they are wearing heavy robes under a ruthless Southern California sun slow to a stop just outside the arched entrance to the re-created village of Hogsmeade. Smartphones at the ready, some take selfies, but others just stand for long minutes at a time, gazing at the fictional village’s swinging sign, the snow-capped peaked roofs, the tilted chimneys, cobbled streets and vaguely Dickensian shop windows.
Taking in the steaming locomotive of the Hogwarts Express, the carts and stores and ambient wizards, witches and villagers strolling by (some of them Wizarding World staff, others just serious Potter fans), people of every age and sort peer, as if through a magical doorway into a dream.
Which is exactly where they are. J.K. Rowling’s dream, shared first by millions of readers and then, filtered through the enormous talent of those who produced the eight-movie franchise, millions more.
Hogsmeade and Hogwarts are now iconic aspirational destinations, like Paris or Harvard. Indeed, any college with the slightest medieval flair will inevitably invoke the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in its promotional material, along with the promise of quidditch matches.
Frankly, you’d think we’d be sick of it by now, all the spells and magical creatures, the recipes for Golden Snitch cake pops on Pinterest, the Gryffindor scarves and earthworm-flavored jelly beans. The children who came of age waiting overnight at bookstores for the next installment are adults now, some with children of their own, and all manner of fictional teen heroes and heroines — “The Hunger Games,” the “Divergent” series, now SyFy’s “The Magicians” — have sprung up to compete for the next generation’s devotion.
But Harry, Hermione and Ron continue to prove irresistible, endlessly enlisting young recruits while retaining the originals. I visited in the company of a 9-year-old, a 10-year-old, a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old as well as several adults, all of whom entered and left in the same state of wide-eyed wonder.
Here it is, magic come to life, or as close as it gets, conjured into obsessively detailed, interactive splendor by many of the same designers who worked on the films. Only this time, instead of partial sets, fleshed out with camera work and green screen, they got to build real streets, actual shops and taverns, even, in the queue leading to the Forbidden Journey, the Gryffindor common room. There’s Hagrid’s hut and his famous motorbike, alongside the line for the small but zippy roller coaster, Flight of the Hippogriff.
With two rides instead of three, the Hollywood version may occupy less landscape than the original Wizarding World in Orlando, Fla., but the landscape is a better fit.
Universal’s hilltop perch makes this Hogsmeade seem even more rural and isolated, angled between the Simpsons’ Springfield and the Studio Tour. Even its most noticeable park neighbor — Water World — is tonally appropriate. The faux-rickety tower visible over the back wall, and the flames the show sends into the air could easily exist in the world of Harry Potter.
A world that remains as tantalizing as it was almost 20 years ago, when the first book was published.
Here are the chocolate frogs, the Owl Post, the bottles of Gilly Water. There’s Mr. Weasley’s car and Gladrags Wizard Wear. Myrtle playfully moans in the restrooms, the Frog Choir shows up at regular intervals, as do dancing Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students, preparing for the Triwizard Tournament.
In Hollywood, Ollivanders Wand Shop — where every few minutes a wand chooses a lucky wizard — has twice as much space as the one in Orlando. But even on a pre-official opening day, the line is just as long, and the gift shop into which you are guided is just as cramped. Like every store in the land, however, it’s something to see, with its stacks of wands for every character, many in regular and interactive varieties.
Those interactive wands, which go for $50, come with a map to certain windows at which actual spells (explained via brass plates in the cobblestones) can be used to perform “magic.” Adding to the verisimilitude, but also, potentially, child/parent frustration, many are quite difficult to do. (Fortunately, helpful staff members are on hand to help.)
The Three Broomsticks restaurant manages to seem both cozy and spacious, its high vaulted ceilings groomed to look like the two-story inn (watch for the dancing broomstick and shadow Dobby), its stone floors and huge fireplaces giving way to the Hogsmeade Pub next door, where beer of all varieties, including butter, is available. Much of the food is pub-heavy (which should make this a killer winter holiday destination), but there are fruit plates and salads, which are large enough to feed two, and the kids’ meals are a bargain, with big portions and lots of grapes.
Of course, all roads lead to Hogwarts Castle, home to possibly the most immersive, amazing and utterly convincing dark-ride/queue ever invented.
Winding through all parts of the Castle, the path to the Forbidden Journey passes all manner of narrative touchstones, beginning with the Mirror of Erised. As Harry and other main characters propel you along with the promise of seeing a quidditch match, you move through Professor Sprout’s greenhouse, past the enormous golden griffin into Dumbledore’s office, through the hall of moving portraits and into the defense against the dark arts classroom.
Then, having greeted the chatty Fat Lady and read the iconic animated newspapers (the ultimate example of digital media), you enter the Gryffindor common room before climbing into the ride that sends you sailing alongside Harry, Ron and Hermione as they fly through various adventures.
The detail at every turn is exquisite, the revelations seemingly endless — there are the earmuffs that you need to cope with mandrakes, the pensieve, the sad stained glass window, the sword of Gryffindor, all looking exactly like they did in the films (in some cases because they are actual props from the films). While the length of the queue itself can be daunting — though there was no line during an early “soft open,” two hours will not be unusual after the official opening — it is so evocative and fascinating that even those not forced to should take their time.
Or go on the ride multiple times, as we did (though folks prone to motion sickness should probably space things out). Not only is this as close as any of us will get to actually flying on a broomstick, it’s a chance to spend a little more time with your favorite young wizards, whom you didn’t realize you would miss until the books and the movies stopped appearing with reassuring regularity.
For fans like my youngest daughter, who discovered Harry and company only after the Potter universe was complete, the Forbidden Journey and the Wizarding World itself offer the same sense of boundless discovery that fueled all the late-night bookstore parties and midnight premieres.
The story isn’t over, not really, and maybe it never will be, what with the new play, and the upcoming prequel movie and the expansion of the Orlando park.
Even after all this time, even for someone who has been to the park in Florida, who has read the books with three children, sat through the films a dozen times each, and recently made 30 floating candles, three dozen chocolate frogs and a forest of Golden Snitch cake pops for her youngest Potter fan’s birthday, even for me, Rowling’s wizarding world is just as magical as it ever was.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Where: Universal Studios, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City
When: Grand opening Thursday
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