When The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was officially announced in 2007, it sent shockwaves of giddiness through theme park enthusiast circles, J.K. Rowling admirers, and fantasy movie fans. Here was a remarkable opportunity to live the Harry Potter life, not just sit passively while pages turned or images swung across the big screen. The barriers were finally being kicked down, as Universal Orlando proclaimed to the world they were going to build their very own Hogwarts right in the middle of Central Florida.
When was it going to open? What was it going to look like? How big was it going to be? Wizarding World answers were in short supply for three years, with the project pulled behind a curtain of secrecy to protect the surprises of the park and to keep the public off Universal’s back in case they made any serious blunders during construction. Prying eyes weren’t welcome, leaving the construction area within the Islands of Adventure (Wizarding World’s true home) sealed off with fences and tarps for two years, leaving enterprising fans and admirers to create their own photo opportunities to help keep excitement levels in the red.
Since September 2008, I’ve covered the construction of the Wizarding World park through monthly photo updates, spaced out intentionally to provide a sense of growth to the site, not just minor developments submitted every day. The exhilaration of any theme park addition is precious to me, and I wanted to pass that feeling of progress to those who needed the reassurance. The fact that this was the “Harry Potter” franchise created an even greater sense of photographic duty, since the fine folks at Universal haven’t shown much interest in a movie-themed addition in a long time, and I know there’s a horde of fans out there who wanted to keep tabs on this project.
And now The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is finally open.
Undergoing a series of soft opens over the past few weeks (most contained to those who coughed up the big buckeroos to secure hotel package privileges), the Wizarding World has gone from the sealed off rumor magnet to blooming reality, welcoming visitors to the film-based world of the boy wizard, fitting a sizable amount of whimsy into a tiny corner of the IOA property. However, what the Wizarding World lacks in size, it makes up for in execution. Glorious execution.
In short, the Wizarding World is a triumph. Considering that I, the casual fan who really digs the feature films but has never touched the books, was floored by the nuance and makeover of the area, I can only imagine how the fanatics are going to feel when the gates open for good. It’s a slap of hands-clenched, pants-wetting euphoria that’ll be as much fun to observe as any extravagantly mounted detail found in the park.
There will be muggle messes everywhere, guaranteed.
The adventure begins in Hogsmeade, the village for magical beings that’s home to shops and eateries, a few of which have been erected to create a sense of community to the Wizarding World. While there are two entrances to the park (technically an “island” within a park, but let’s ignore corporate hogwash), the flow of guests should rightfully funnel through the main entryway, located under a huge arch that welcomes muggles to the area, introduced to the enormity of the property with a peek at the Hogwarts Express train, docked permanently to provide parkgoers with a feeling of arrival, greeted by spurts of steam, the occasional whistle, and a chipper train conductor. Make sure you grab a picture with this guy, he loves the attention.
Once inside, Hogsmeade is a free-for-all of wily architectural design and outstanding texture, providing a playground for fans to run around in, with at least a good half-day needed to drink in every last corner of the village. We’re talking shops, exceptionally themed store windows, water fountains, locker rooms, ATMs, benches, carts, and even the bathrooms, which feature cooing audio of Moaning Myrtle fluttering about (making the game of public bodily fluid evacuation even more awkward). Considerable time and effort has been spent to manufacture a circular feel to the entire park, but Hogsmeade is the first impression, and it’s a doozy.
A few of the stops…Butterbeer
Butterbeer is the signature drink of the Wizarding World, sold at various locations inside the park, but primarily offered on the streets in Hogsmeade, “drained” from a huge barrel to sate eager guests. It’s sold in both “cold” and frozen states, and is basically a soda concoction coated with a layer of cream to act as “foam.” Early reports have branded the taste as shortbread cookie meets butterscotch, but I don’t agree. Think cream soda. And no worries moms and dads, this beer is non-alcoholic. It’s also quite delicious (order it frozen and thank me later), sold in a plastic cup or a refillable mug for a considerably larger price. Butterbeer sets the mood of the park brilliantly, so make some time for it. There are plenty of spots in Hogsmeade to sit down and enjoy a glass of the brown stuff without being hustled along by the huge crowds.
Pumpkin Juice is also for sale within the Wizarding World, but that’s a drink I would suggest a purchase only for novelty reasons. It’s not a vile beverage, but it’s strong stuff, especially over the course of an entire bottle. Think liquid pumpkin pie. Sips rock, gulps disgust.Honeydukes Sweetshop and Zonko’s Joke Shop
Two connected shops, Honeydukes and Zonko’s are located near the entrance of Hogsmeade, and will likely remain the most popular of the Wizarding World stores due to their vibrant colors and the caloric highlights contained within. Honeydukes is the official candy shop, compacting a considerable amount of treat selection into a tight building, highlighting everything from Chocolate Frogs to Acid Pops, along with a wall of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans. Candy is king here, with items tastefully themed to the Wizarding World, further cementing the thrilling immersive hold. There’s a bakery of sorts as well, selling goods such as Cauldron Cakes and Pumpkin Tarts, tempting parkgoers with a wide range of sweets to help make the day all the more brighter…and thirstier.
Zonko’s is smaller in scale, but just as crammed with items for sale, including an array of small toys and pink Pygmy Puffs, where the buyer is greeted with a clang of a bell and a cheer when one is “adopted.” Wackiness is encouraged here, with staff members ordered to interact weirdly with guests. There’s a massive amount of merchandise for sale inside of the park, most of it exclusive to the Wizarding World. Zonko’s has the strangest stuff, if your taste in mementos borders on the bizarre or grotesque.
Ollivander’s Wand Shop
Ollivander’s is something of a semi-attraction for the Wizarding World, ushering park guests in 25 at a time to witness one lucky soul gifted their ideal wand. It’s a mixture of lighting and practical effects, and some thespian commitment, as the whole experience is guided by an employee of the branch, who walks the chosen one through a series of brief wand maneuvers to find the perfect companion. It’s an entertaining aside to Hogsmeade, but not something that demands hours in line, especially when there’s no actual queue to the building (as of this writing, there’s little in the way of crowd control). Those waiting for more than 20 minutes to see the “wand show” might be slightly disappointed in the brevity of the experience. Pottermaniacs, especially anyone selected to be the focal point of the event, might require smelling salts afterward to revive them from the stimulation -- the prized opportunity to experience a wand “choosing” them.
The first of three new attractions for the Wizarding World isn’t actually new at all. A slight retheming of the IOA roller coaster standard Dueling Dragons, Dragon Challenge is the exact same thrill ride experience. To help “Potterize” the grounds, the designers have reworked the queue to reflect participation in the Triwizard Tournament, creating a long march of fan signs found in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which cheer on the Champions as they prepare to face the dreaded onslaught of dragons. A cameo by the flying Ford Anglia is plopped into the path, while the medieval castle once home to Merlin’s mischief for Dueling Dragons has been flipped to reflect a Triwizard Tournament mood, with the queue winding across the Goblet of Fire, the Triwizard Cup, and three Golden Eggs. After an extended time walking along a dark, blessedly cool indoor path, the Dragon Challenge coasters are revealed for the picking: Hungarian Horntail or Chinese Fireball. The loading area has been adorned rather creatively with a giant screen of sorts, reflecting a shadowy dragon attack, but the ride remains the same. A disappointment? Of course, but Universal was looking to transform this former chunk of the Lost Continent into the Wizarding World, not start from scratch. Out of the three main attractions for the park, two of them are intricate overlays. However, whatever Dragon Challenge lacks in fresh construction, it makes up for in thoughtful reinvention. It actually provides a feeling for Triwizard competition, which I found convincingly epic and exciting.