Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a Small, Small World

Yes, today I will be discussing my recent trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Are the names of theme parks italicized? I don't know. If not, don't consider my italics an error. Consider me being so excited that I had to emphasize the name of the park. Or maybe it was sarcastic emphasis. I'm not really sure.) I'll have to split up my analysis of the park into different segments so that I can figure out for myself how I really feel.

First: the ambience. This may truly be the best part. As you approach from the distance, a perfect replica of Hogwarts sits high upon a hill. But to get there, you must first pass through or by (depending on which entrance you take) Hogsmeade. Hagrid's hut completes the triangle. It's all very cool, but the fake snow on the rooftops in Hogsmeade isn't too convincing in the smoldering summer heat of Florida. If only it was real snow, walking around might not have been as insufferable. There are many fake shops, many of which are not actually from Hogsmeade, but Diagon Alley. To me, Diagon Alley is one of the coolest parts of the Harry Potter world, so I find myself disappointed that it wasn't included properly. Then again, it adds to the illusion of being at Hogwarts that Hagrid's hut and Hogsmeade are the only things close. Also, a healthy amount of alliteration never hurt anyone.

Everyone knows that you don't go to theme parks for the atmosphere, though. You go for the rides. I am so torn about whether or not to be pleased about them. Here's the thing: there are only three rides in the park (keep in mind that it is a subset of Universal Studios, not a complete park unto itself). Universal is pushing Harry Potter Land hard as the reason to come to their park, but with only three rides, it's somewhat disappointing.

One is basically meant for children: Flight of the Hippogriff (if italicizing park names is questionable, how about ride names?) is a standard roller coaster that moves at a decent speed, but is incredibly short and features nothing more than basic turns. The line takes you past Hagrid's hut and Buckbeak, but nothing is really special about the scenery. As a completionist, there was no way I was going to ignore a ride, but I will only ever ride this again if there is literally no wait.

The first thing we did upon arriving at the park was get in line at Hogwarts, or more specifically, get in line for Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey. The sign said the wait would be 60 minutes, but it only took 45. Before you can get in line, they make you put all of your things in a locker (thankfully, it's free while you ride). The beginning of the line takes you through some lower parts of the castle, where you pass a creepy statue (possibly Salazar Slytherin?), a door labeled "Potions Classroom," and the Mirror of Erised (far too small, and so murky that nothing is reflected). Next the line goes outside, passes a drink cart where you can buy beer and lemonade, and goes through the Herbology greenhouse. This part could have been much cooler, as there were basically just plants hung in the ceiling (I was very glad that the greenhouse ceiling was opaque, because making us wait in an actual greenhouse could accurately be considered torture). This is probably the longest part of the line.

Finally, you come to the back door of the castle. (I'm going to try to put it all together from memory, so please bear with me.) Once inside, you are introduced to moving and talking paintings. They're pretty realistic looking, although, funnily enough, when you take pictures of them the contents of the paintings are not visible. The house jewels (which I don't think are shown in the movies, but are mentioned in the books) are the first thing you see in the castle. There are also many statues, but none are labeled so it's impossible to know who they are meant to depict, if anyone specific. I don't remember the order, but the queue takes you through Dumbledore's office, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and the Gryffindor common room. You also walk through one room that has hundreds of floating candlesticks in the ceiling as the only decoration. Truly, this may be the most entertaining line in which I ever had to wait. Finally, just before you turn the final corner to the front of the line, the Sorting Hat wishes you luck while giving you warnings and instructions.

Just a brief aside before I get to the ride itself. Getting on the ride is much like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. There is a continuously moving conveyor belt, so the line is constantly moving. It seems a shame that the coolest environments in the entire park are placed in a line where you are constantly moving. Don't get me wrong: it's very nice not to be standing still. But there were moments when I wanted to check out some of the rooms in the castle, and in many cases take pictures, but the staff yelled at me and people behind me in line guffawed over holding it up. I'm sorry, but it's a long wait and if I'm not right behind the person in front of me in line, it's not going to increase the waiting time for anyone. It reminds me of the type of drivers that are upset if you're tailing the car in front of you at 50 feet rather than 20.

Okay, the ride. (Again, I'm going from memory. I may leave things out or take them out of order.) You and three companions are strapped into an "enchanted bench." Hermione throws some floo powder, and you're off. The ride alternates between a video screen and live action. At first, Harry and Ron lead you around the castle grounds on their brooms. Soon, Hagrid pops out with a chain and asks if you've seen his dragon. Before you know it, a dragon appears and you are flying recklessly to get away from it. Even though up to this point you've only been watching a screen, you really feel like you're moving. The benches themselves swoop around and go on their backs, but never flip over completely. You are drawn away from a screen and an animatronic dragon is right in front of you. It blows a red mist in your face, and you legitimately feel the heat. You fly around a bit more, and then you're at a quidditch match between Gryffindor and Slytherin (we're back to a video screen now). Harry leads you around, and Malfoy rams him. Suddenly, dementors attack! Taken away from the screen, animatronic dementors chase you. A very cool moment of the ride is when a dementor gets right in your face, and a light comes from its mouth that really gives the impression it's trying to suck out your soul. You avoid the dementors and fly past the Whomping Willow, which tries hard to crush you. Then you're in the Forbidden Forest, where Aragog spits (presumably poison) on you. Somehow you find yourself in the Chamber of Secrets and see the skeleton of the long-dead Basilisk (all of this is live action). Finally, video Harry finds you and leads you out of the Chamber, which is beginning to collapse. After some evasive maneuvers to avoid flying rocks, you are free. The Gryffindors commend you for your successful journey, and then you are brought to Dumbledore's office where Hermione and many other familiar faces wave and welcome you to come back at any time. With that, the ride concludes.

This is a fantastic ride. I've read that it lasts for four minutes, but it feels like twice that. You come off feeling a little dizzy from the changes in depth perceptions (it can be somewhat jarring going from a screen to live action), but it captures the awesomeness of the Harry Potter world very well. I couldn't ask for anything more out of a themed ride.

The third and final ride is the Dragon Challenge. This is a Triwizard-Tournament-themed ride, and is a legitimately awesome roller coaster. Delightfully, the wait sign indicated only 20 minutes and I don't think we had to wait that long. The outdoor section of the queue features flags supporting the four champions. When you walk inside (and it's a long walk once you get in there), you see the Triwizard Cup. A cupboard holding the golden dragon eggs (the ones that have the clue for the second task) can also be found. That's pretty much it for scenery before you get to the front of the line. Once there, you choose to go left for the Chinese Fireball or right for the Hungarian Horntail. Once in the final section, you look up and see what appears to be the top of a tent, and silhouettes of roaring dragons flying above. It creates the illusion that you are a champion awaiting your turn to battle a dragon while the other champions take their turns. Finally, you get on whichever dragon you selected.

Both "dragons" are slightly different rides, so you need to ride this one twice to get the full experience. Your feet dangle below while the roller coaster flips, twists, rolls, and bends. At least twice, you feel sure that you are going to collide with the group on the other "dragon," but you careen out of the way just in time. You definitely get off this ride feeling dizzy and a bit queasy, but it's worth it. Like I said, this is a legitimately awesome roller coaster.

So essentially, the park features a ride for adults, a ride for kids, and a ride for both (although I wouldn't take younger kids on The Forbidden Journey, as there's some scary imagery). While two of the three rides are incredible and there's nothing really wrong with the third ride, it's somewhat disappointing to complete them all in the first couple of hours at the park (even on the most crowded of days, it shouldn't take more than three hours).

That's not all there is to do, though! There are three "shows," as well. I use the scare quotes because the shows are absolutely minimal. Two take place in a tiny nook between Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, and people either must stand to watch or sit on the concrete. The first we saw was the dance from the fourth movie when the Bulgarian boys and French girls enter. We actually missed the Bulgarian portion, but I've seen the movie enough to know that they just pound their sticks into the ground in rhythm. The French girls do a little ribbon dance. The whole thing was very underwhelming, but they had a young woman as host who had a nice British accent (I couldn't tell if it was fake) and played the crowd well.

The other show in this nook was the frog choir. It's never mentioned in the books, but in the third movie there is a choir when Harry first gets to school, and half of them are holding gigantic frogs. It was a quartet (SATB), and they weren't half bad. The frogs appeared to be responsible for the accompaniment, although we were far enough away that it was hard to tell what exactly they were doing. The quartet sang four or five songs, and had pleasant voices. Their collars were four different colors, representing each of the four houses. I found myself a little jealous that I didn't have the job. They also had a fifth girl "conducting" that was clearly not really doing anything. At least she knew the conducting patterns…

The third show was the longest line of the day. Basically, you stood in line outside of Ollivander's wand shop for an hour to see him pick a kid out of the crowd and put on a little show of trying to decide what wand is right for her. It was a cute demonstration, and I have to admit that the actor who played Ollivander was very good. He was subtle, comical, and convincing. I'm glad we did it, but it certainly was not worth the wait.

Besides the small quantity of rides, the shops were the biggest disappointment. Dervish and Banges actually had a line to get into the shop. We waited for ten to fifteen minutes, and the inside was incredibly underwhelming. They had cheap plastic brooms, cheap plastic golden snitches, cheap plastic sneakoscopes, cheap plastic everything. As I made clear with my very first post on this blog, I am a true Harry Potter fan. I realize that these are toys made for kids, but if I want a true collectible, I want something made out of quality metal and glass, not gold and clear plastics in a shiny, colorful box. Generally, the only souvenirs we buy are magnets, but the only magnets in the store were ugly rubber magnets with one of the four houses on them. The Hogwarts Crest would have been fantastic, but I don't feel a particular draw to any one house. I expect if I went to Hogwarts I would be a Ravenclaw, but they make you feel like Gryffindor are the only good guys. And despite the graduate school I attended, I don't like the Gryffindor house colors! They had some cool key chains, but they were all very huge—far too huge for my pocket. I was very disappointed with the merchandise in this store, particularly because I had to wait in line for the disappointment. The exit of the Ollivander demonstration led into the other portion of this store, which was his wand shop. The wands were cool and came in nice collectible boxes, but were $30. My uncle said he would make us a pair, so there was no real temptation there.

Zonko's Joke Shop was arguably more disappointing. It was filled with generic junk: whoopee cushions, Jacob's ladders, trick hair brushes, "eyeballs" in bags, etc. Very few things were related to Harry Potter at all. It was a relatively large shop, but the same eight to ten items were just randomly placed on the shelves over and over again. I expected the shop to be cool, but it was horrendous. It sold things you can get outside the park (the same brands, even!), for a 200% markup.

Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods was the best shop, but I give that title only because the other two were so horrid. Many of the items were the same as found in Dervish and Banges, but there were some unique things. The dark arts items (Sirius Black and Voldemort-themed things) were found here, in addition to more cheap plastic junk. There were more magnet choices, but they were the unattractive rubber kind. We finally settled on one that was a replica of one of Umbridge's decrees, which said "No music is to be played during study hours." My wife and I both have music degrees, so we thought it was kind of ironic. Still: cheap rubber. Also, I expect to be overcharged for magnets in the $4-6 range, but this one cost $8. However, the most egregious crime against sane pricing was the $50 Marauder's Map. You read that correctly. Fifty. Five zero. For a piece of paper that folds in many fun ways. Oh boy. We were prepared to spend some relatively serious money on souvenirs, but only bothered with the magnet. Everything else was either stupid, made of cheap material, or so overpriced that there was no way we could justify it. The shops need some serious improvement in stock and pricing (and I'm comparing prices to other theme parks, not to Wal-Mart and the like).

On to the final item of business: food and drinks. My wife and I were most excited about the butterbeer and pumpkin juice. However, we were distressed to see that a 16 oz. bottle of pumpkin juice was $6 and a butterbeer in a small, plastic collectible mug was $11. After a few hours, we gratefully realized that one is simply paying for the bottle or cup (we had not purchased any to this point). You could get a plain plastic cup of either for $3, or a frozen butterbeer (like a slushy) for $4. Honestly, these are downright reasonable prices for a themed drink in a theme park. The butterbeer tasted like a very sweet cream soda to which they applied a buttery foam to the top (to make it more beer-like, I'm sure). It was good, but the sugar made me tired. The pumpkin juice was actually mostly apple juice with pumpkin flavoring and spices. I'm not a huge fan of pumpkin, but it was very good and 81% juice, which is not bad for something they could have just made a sugar water. The frozen butterbeer gave me the worst brain freeze I've had in years, but it was tasty all the same.

There is only one place to eat a meal in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: The Three Broomsticks. I was hoping for more Harry-themed meals—not things like "dragon legs" or "wizard potatoes," but things that Harry ate in the books. The restaurant itself seemed much bigger than described in the books, but, of course, this was out of necessity to feed the thousands of guests passing through each day. The restaurant's menu consisted of standard ribs, chicken, and salads. The British dishes were fish and chips, shepherd's pie, and Cornish pasties. The latter two were eaten in the books, and were also the cheapest things on the menu ($10 and $8 respectively) so we got those. Both came with your standard iceberg lettuce salad and packaged dressing. There were three pasties, which were very small (about as long as my thumb and twice as thick). They tasted good, but it was practically no food so we won't get those again. The shepherd's pie was fairly priced and more filling. It was layer of ground beef and veggies (they say, but you can't really see them) covered in a layer of mashed potatoes. It tasted good, but wasn't amazing. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by the restaurant's prices. I would have liked more food, but I was expecting to pay a lot more at a theme park. For dessert, we had a chocolate trifle with strawberries that the man at the ticket booth recommended. It was small, but tasty. If you go in the back door of The Three Broomsticks, you will find the Hog's Head, which is a bar.

Connected to Zonko's was Honeydukes Sweetshop, which was basically satisfying, but can never live up to its description in the books. There were plenty of hard candies and chocolates (sugar quills, peppermint imps, chocolate frogs, Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, etc.), but we were much more interested in the pastries. Only a few from the books could be found. Others were themed items that were kind of lame; lightning-bolt-shaped rice crispy treats, for example. They sold all kinds of fudge and caramel apples, but those are not from Harry Potter so I tried my best to ignore their existence. The four pastries I remember being directly from the books were rock cakes (scones), treacle fudge, pumpkin tarts (which should really be called pumpkin pasties, but I let it slide), and cauldron cakes. We opted for a pumpkin tart and a cauldron cake.

We grabbed a butterbeer and pumpkin juice from The Hog's Head (the bearded bartender complimented my beard!) and went to enjoy our treats. Again, I'm not crazy about pumpkins, but the tart was okay. It was essentially a tiny pumpkin pie with whipped cream, pecans, and a chocolate wedge. The cauldron cake was awesome, though. Picture, if you will, a chocolate cupcake with the middle dug out. Chocolate whipped cream fills the cupcake, and the edges are frosted with chocolate icing. The bottom of the cupcake is covered in a hard chocolate shell, and a chocolate handle stretches from one side to the other. The chocolate goodness was almost too much to handle. I ate and drank more sugar in one day than I usually do in two weeks.

Overall, I'm glad I went to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I feel like the advertising made me think it would be much more extensive than it is, but after typing up this report, I realize that there was a lot to do. Two or three more rides and better merchandising would make it amazing, but as it is now, it is merely very good. It was a major coup for Universal Studios to get the rights to build this park, and I commend them for treating the fans with respect and not making it incredibly tacky. I would recommend a visit, preferably on a cool day when fewer people are visiting. Maybe I'll see you there!


  1. they had rides? not what I had in mind. I was hoping for pure ambience and photo ops. maybe i won't go now. unless they sell cheap plastic veela's. you didn't mention that, so I am thinking no...

  2. Enjoyed your report. Would like to go someday. I was out working on a wand for Sophie this morning. How were the wands they were selling? Quality? - BRen

  3. The wands were pretty nice. They had some serious weight to them--I'm thinking they were wood with metal cores, but I didn't really inspect them too closely. Some had skulls or snakes on the end and those ones were lame, I thought.