And now here’s the big kahuna, the main attraction, the place to be for any visitor to the Wizarding World: Hogwarts. For many Pottermaniacs, the opportunity to enter The School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a dream come true. It’s LARP with a blockbuster budget. With grand detail, striking construction, and a miracle use of forced perspective, Hogwarts comes to life in Orlando, towering over park guests in a manner sure to stun the crowds in a profound way. And what’s this? You can walk through it too? By Scabbers, I think Universal’s got it.
Standing at the gates of Hogwarts is a special vision unmatched in the area -- now Disney has the second best castle in Florida. It’s a stupendous anchor for the Wizarding World, offering the park a widescreen weight to climax the Hogsmeade experience. Here’s another area where it’s amusing to stand aside and observe the unprepared approach the school, growing more euphoric and frantic with every incoming step. The place casts a certain spell over people.
The glorious reality here is that Hogwarts is home to a ride, an original titled “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” The castle acts as the queue for the attraction, but this is no mundane maze of metal and concrete, it’s an elaborate “tour” of Hogwarts that builds a story while the masses march along and wait. It’s a colossal leap forward in line-waiting ritual, removing the need for cell phone games and iPods to pass the time, offering the crowds an actual narrative to follow, explored through staggering technology that takes guests into the realm of magic, populated by a few familiar faces.
Entering through the dungeon area, it seems Hogwarts has opened its doors to muggles everywhere, encouraging a peek around the hallowed grounds. The queue twists through the blackness of the basement into the greenhouse area, where a majority of the wait time is found (fortunately, it’s the only outdoor segment). After reentering Hogwarts, crowds pass by talking paintings (not interactive, but outstanding in their realism), copies of the Daily Prophet, and various iconic statues and locations within the castle. The queue eventually ends up in Dumbledore’s office, where the great wizard (played by Michael Gambon) welcomes us all to Hogwarts, a feat achieved through a convincing projection trick similar to the one that brings Christopher Walken to life in the Disaster! ride. Dumbledore has a few warnings and wishes he passes on to the guests before it’s time to meet Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom.
Again brought to life through ingenious visual trickery, the trio of teen wizards (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) have arrived to steal us away from a horrible multi-hour lecture from Professor Binns that’s about to commence, suggesting a better time is to be found on the Quidditch pitch, where a big match between Gryffindor and Slytherin is ready to rock. Promising a spell from Hermione will help us get where we need to go (of course, the teen wizards also make it snow inside the classroom, so don’t get comfortable just yet), the queue soon exits the room, leading to a few more choice Hogwarts locales, and then off to the boarding area, overseen by the Sorting Hat, who passes along a few last-minute bits of safety information.
It’s important to note that the Hogwarts queue is mightily impressive, but perhaps not as immersive as many guests might be expecting. For a theme park queue experience, it’s second to none, delivering stupefying details and majestic mood to help pass the considerable amount of time it takes to get to the ride. However, there’s only a certain portion of Hogwarts rendered here, absent moving staircases and innumerable magical happenings. Not a criticism, but I’m assuming when fanatical guests stand outside of Hogwarts for the first time, a promise of endless castle delights will melt plenty of minds. Hogwarts is an outstanding achievement, but it’s far from a house of endless possibilities. At the end of the day, it’s an attraction queue, and a superlative one at that.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the “Forbidden Journey” event, but it’s safe to write the ride consists of flying “benches” that seat guests four at a time. Connected to a robotic KUKA arm that allows unreal liquid movement without the burden of a track above or below the rider, the bench is loaded hurriedly by Hogwarts staff, and soon, with help from Hermione, we’re flying alongside Harry and Ron on their broomsticks, escaping the bowels of the castle to catch some Quidditch.
Of course, as tradition dictates, the truant afternoon eventually goes horribly wrong.
I would best describe “Forbidden Journey” as a cross between IOA’s 3-D “Spider-Man” attraction and Disney’s “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” dark ride. It’s a technologically advanced experience that blends projected content of the actors flying around with cleverly imagined, expansive sets, populated with a series of large-scale animatronic creatures such as dragons, spiders, and Dementors. The KUKA arm creates smoothness to the magical bench “flight” that swings riders all over the various locations without any jerkiness, pushing muggles up against the dark side of the Potterverse to survey all the gruesome details. “Forbidden Journey” is a touch on the intense side (fair warning to parents of easily spooked little ones), but the effect is truly exhilarating. The attraction is amazingly transportive, wonderfully hair-raising, and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: to make the world of Harry Potter and all of its threat a squirting, swooping, soaring, and scary reality. Voldemort would be proud.
Located at the exit of the Forbidden Journey ride, Filch’s Emporium is a place to buy, buy, buy. Home (and a dark, dank one at that) to perhaps the most useful garments and accessories, this shop is notable for being both stocked to the low ceiling with marvelous items and completely unavoidable -- a theme park tradition. Ride photos may be purchased here, but who needs a picture of pure fear when there are Potter jerseys, Marauder’s Maps, and plush Crookshanks for sale!
What Universal has here with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a direct invitation to impress the world and win over a whole new audience normally disinterested in such theme park shenanigans. It’s not a colossal investment of acreage (hopefully expansion is in the planning stages), but the divine sights, sounds, and spells corralled here are simply outstanding, generating a must-do visit to Florida not only for Harry Potter admirers, but for anyone who longs to get lost in an elaborately ornamented land of mysterious and whimsical magic…and scrumptious beverages.
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