Universal’s “Wizarding World of Harry Potter”, one of the “Islands of Adventure,” in Orlando, Florida, has some impressive features, but felt like a teaser to me. It must also be an impressive money maker for them, with the plethora of goods for sale at every corner you turn. After a quick tour, I was dismayed the whole place could be covered in a few hours, if you don’t count time waiting in line for attractions. I was surprised there were only three rides, probably because my family and I had been imaging all the possible ones there could be. There was the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster, a basic one not too scary for most, a leg-dangling dragon chase loop-the-loop coaster that was quite exciting, and the main 3D attraction in the castle, moving cars in sync with video so you felt like you were really there. We had imagined also, a spinning ride that dangled us from broomsticks, just behind bludgers, a large ride with carousel-like up and down and around motion with whomping willow branches weaving in and out around us, a carousel with elaborately painted hippogriff, dragons, brooms, thestrals, and a few stationary horseless carriages … We could imagine an interactive museum atmosphere to the place, with buttons to push, clothes to try on, a buffet set up like the Hogwarts feast, and more. In reality, we had a lot of fun, saw beautiful things, but I was left with the feeling I’d spent money to go into a park the main purpose of which was to sell things to us in shops, not to bring us a magical experience.
When you enter the park, you can imagine you just hopped off a convincing replica of the Hogwarts train engine, steaming on a track. It would have been nicer if you could travel on it, but it was fun to see. You found yourself in Hogsmeade, but not quite a proper one. The whole of Ollivander’s shop must have been flue powdered over from Diagon Alley. Impressive height, though, to the shelves of wands, which were intricate and beautiful. After a long line, we saw a demo of a wand choosing a boy, pretty much copied from the movie as if the boy were Harry, not individualised at all. Of course then they encouraged him to follow the wand to the check-out counter!
A number of stores in “Hogsmeade,” which was basically a street, were just fronts, not open for going into. They were fun to look at, with things like a screeching, moving mandrake in the window (that no one succumbed to). Though it’s not “realistic,” it was really fun having moaning Myrtle carrying on in restrooms lined with sooty lamps and stained old stone in the Hogsmeade strip. The guys had her screeching piped in too, I assume to be fair to the men and so we wouldn’t have guys walking into the girls’ room all the time to hear her.
You could hardly move in Honeydukes candy store, or the other shops. There was a colourful and tempting array of sweets to drool over, but the crowds, lines, and huge prices discouraged us from spending much. They wanted ten dollars for one (beautifully packaged) chocolate frog with a card inside. The whole Potter park was packed, with huge lines for everything. I didn’t find the Zonko’s joke shop as fun as I could imagine it being. Mostly there seemed to be cheap plastic made-in-China versions of things like snitches and sneakoscopes, and some standards such as whoopee cushions. There was something labelled as the telescopes that punch people but we couldn’t try them out, since it was a real store instead of a museum-like place of exploration, to see what Harry and his friends could buy.
Luckily we’d forked out for special “Express” tickets, which allowed us to enterer a short line that turned a seventy-five min wait into fifteen min. We had a lot more rides and saved headaches. It couldn’t be used on the main attraction, which was in the Hogwarts castle, but our tickets let us take advantage of early admission to get into it before the main crowds arrived. The only way to tour the whole castle was while you were in line for the main ride, so you had to move with the line instead of being able to stop and admire something. You can’t just wander into the castle and have a leisurely look around, finding rooms and crevices and surprises, as with a museum, which I found disappointing, but there were elaborate and beautiful things to see. A real looking Dumbledore and the three main characters talked to us. They seemed to look right at us. There were beautifully reproduced statues, including the one that should carry one to Dumbledore’s office. The place did look like the real Hogwarts except for all the chains and posts herding us through on one path. The moving staircases were omitted. We thought there should be an on-site hotel made to look like the house dormitories though, halls we could wander into, things to find and play with.
We had a nice “feast” platter in the three broomsticks, tasty chicken, veggies and potato. Since there was a wait for tables we didn’t go back into line to get desert there. We found four pm a good time to go in for a meal with not too much wait. It was a must-do experience for us, but our only meal in the business of the Potter park. We braved a vendor line several times for pumpkin juice and butter beer. The juice had a spicy apple cider flavour to it, and was quite pleasant. The butter beer was available either frozen or cold. The frozen was similar to a slushy with butterscotch cream on top, refreshing on a hot day. The cold version instantly tasted like root beer, and the carbonation was more obvious. It was an interesting blend of the soda classic with butterscotch, with a nice layer of foamy flavour on top.
The other islands in the park weren’t nearly as packed, luckily, so we had a lot of fun in our four days. Perhaps they didn’t anticipate the popularity of the Potter area, it really didn’t seem built for the numbers. What was there was really good, but we could imagine so much more.
I was dismayed that our castle guides thought we were muggles, not new magic students. Still, we wouldn’t have missed the chance to have a face to face with Harry as he led us on a flying broom chase above the castle, and see dementors and skeletons, pop up before our eyes. It was possible for a few moments at a time to suspend our disbelief and just be in the magic.