So last weekend, on June 26th, I journeyed to the “actual” land of Potter: Universal’s “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” right here in Orlando, Florida. As a loyal die-hard lover of the Potterverse, I walked away with a mixed bag of feelings: impressed in some areas, wholly disappointed in some, and unknown in many. The most notable thing about the new theme park is that it’s so cramjammed with other Potter nerds, you can’t even access half of what the park has to offer!
Spoilers — well, if you haven’t read all of the books, I may discuss some plot details, just as I describe different facets of the park. But I’m not here to talk about the plot specifically, so mentions will only be in passing. And if you haven’t read all seven books by now, you probably won’t have much appreciation for my take on the theme park anyways!
I am a die-hard Potter fan. I even write fanfic, I’m that dorky. Years ago, as soon as I heard that a very tangible Harry Potter land was springing up in my own Floridian backyard, the excitement began to form. So maybe a credit to my overall disappointment is that the build-up was so epic. I mean, I’ve been dreaming of this place for years, I thought the streets would be made of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, and that I’d be able to actually play Quidditch on some kind of broomstick ride.
You can in fact purchase Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans inside the candy store, Honeydukes, but they hardly line the street. The store is located in a Potterverse village mash-up: a windy street with hobbly European storefronts is a combo of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Ollivander’s, Honeydukes, Dervish & Banges, and Zonko’s are all on the same street, along with an Owl Post shop, and Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods (this is the store that the Hogwarts ride lets out into).
Each of these stores has its own line — or queue, if you’re feeling theme-y. The Park claims that this is for crowd control. The reality is that, unless you have several days available to spend waiting in lines under the sweltering Florida summer sun, you won’t get into any of these stores. The only one I made it into was Filch’s, and that’s just because the ride dumps you out into it at the end.
I did make it into The Hog’s Head pub for a glass of Butterbeer. There is a giant keg-on-wheels that’s located in the middle of the village street that sells Butterbeer too, but that line ranged from 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half every time we checked. We snuck into the back of the Hogshead and only had to wait twenty minutes to get our hands on the magical beverage.
This was a big moment for me. I even told the bartender I’ve spent years turning the pages and imagining this magical, frothy, buttery concoction that will be sweet on my lips and warm on the inside. After I agreed to purchase my non-alcoholic treat in the Souvenir Glass, we went to the table to imbibe.
Yeah. It’s butterscotch-flavored soda. And there’s a weird frothy foam topping they squirt out on top, that is buttery and yet plasticky. The beverage tastes a bit like candy, a bit like cough syrup, and nothing like what I imagined. Oh, and it’s served cold. Which, given the heat index of 110° that day, I’m willing to compromise on.
You can eat a meal at The Three Broomsticks, but again, the wait was too long for us. The menu did look good, and talk around town was that the food was tasty, particularly the fish and chips.
All in all, the LOOK of the Wizarding World is great: the architecture, the castle looming up, larger than life, the snow drifts and icicles hanging on buildings (the village is set in winter). It’s pretty visually stunning, and it’s a very cool sight to take in. The tease of the fake snow does sting a bit when it’s so incredibly hot outside, and the crowds of sweaty tourists lined up to see every nook and cranny also tend to kill the magic.
Let’s talk about the rides. The Dueling Dragons has been a staple of Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and now they’ve just renamed it to be “Dragon Challenge.” It’s two awesome rollercoasters, really great fun, and the theme is the Triwizard Tournament. This was the first thing we walked on to, and with a five minute wait, our spirits were still high!
Next we headed to “Flight of the Hippogriff.” This is marketed as a family rollercoaster, and supposedly a bit more tame than the dragons. The scenery on line for the Hippogriff is great! You see Hagrid’s hut, and the blue Ford Anglia the boys flew to school in one year (all crashed into the Whomping Willow). The ride is super fun, and was much faster and twistier than we thought given all the “family friendly” signs. The ride takes you through the school’s pumpkin patch, and overall, it’s just adorable.
The big, highly-anticipated ride is “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” It’s part real motion, part simulator, and the website explains, “this amazing new attraction uses groundbreaking, state-of-the-art technology (and a little magic) to create a one of a kind ride experience.” The line weaves you through school grounds and you see the greenhouses and the backs of hundreds of sweating tourists. When you finally get into the castle, it’s pretty awesome. The portraits all talk! You get to see some classrooms, and you meet Dumbledore, Harry, Ron and Hermione. All in projection form, in short films that loop. The films are projected into the sets though, so it’s as if you’re in Dumbledore’s office and he’s talking to you. It’s a pretty cool effect.
The ride itself is physically intense. You’re spinning, swirling, hanging, and dropping in some very unexpected ways. I thought the ride would be like a more traditional simulator: hydraulics in combination with a screen that simulates movement that you feel. While part of the ride is looking at a big movie screen, there is a lot of actual coaster-like movement. It’s just pretty intense.
I guess because of the intensity, the seats you are strapped into are made with maximum safety in mind. One feature that’s not so fun for park-goers, and has been getting a lot of media attention, is the “three clicks rule.” If the shoulder harness cannot click down at three times over you, you’re too big to ride and you aren’t allowed on. This is one of the strictest and most discriminatory rides out there. Guests were getting turned away constantly. And after waiting in the two-and-a-half hour line, to get turned away from the ride for being too big is hardly part of a fun adventure. I personally made it on, and enjoyed myself. But not everyone in my party did, and this was a real bummer. It was handled very unprofessionally and it really put a damper on our happy-go-lucky mood.
The cast of employees is worth mentioning. And it’s not because how awesome they are. At other theme parks (okay, so I’m comparing Universal to Disney), the employees in a specific area of the park are very knowledgeable in their world. They are playing a part, and they do so to the Nth degree. At Harry Potter world, no one working has a British accent, or even fake one. No one “acts” like they’re part of this magical, precious world. They seem like a group of high schoolers with summer jobs and overworked managers who don’t know or care about the Potterverse at all. Yeah, that was an unexpected let-down.
If you have any interest in going, my best advice is to wait it out a few months. Let the crowds calm down, and head back when it’s comfortable to be outside and you can actually see and do everything that the park maps claim you can. I think if we’d have been able to more fully experience the “world,” we would have had a better day and a better impression of the park entirely. But most of my take-aways involve snotty employees (we had a near-skirmish in the Hog’s Head with some staff, and the whole Forbidden Journey episode was awful), long lines, overcrowded streets, and a limited recreation of a world I love so very much.
Oh, and one more nitpicky thing: I could not for the life of me figure out “when” this park takes place! Dumbledore is alive and well in this world. The attitude is cheerful. Since one of the rides is themed after the Triwizard Tournament, we were thinking that the timeframe is somewhere around Book Four. There’s no mention of Sirius Black, though. And the streets aren’t covered in wanted signs, and no Death Eaters patrol the storefronts. So maybe the time frame is also a bit of a mashup, just kind of picking the best features from each year (book) and incorporating them into a park.
All in all, we had a fun day and I’m glad I was able to see the place for myself before I move (I’m leaving the great state of Florida in two weeks). But for those who have access, or are planning a trip: wait it out, I think it’ll just get better with some time.