Harry Potter for Disney Lovers

by Seth Kubersky

(Crossposted from

(Seth Kubersky is the co-author of Universal Orlando: The Ultimate Guide To The Ultimate Theme Park Adventure. He attended the gala opening ceremonies for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Here is his report.)

Why so morose, Mickey?  If you’ve noticed the Mouse looking a little down in the mouth lately, it’s probably because of the upstart up the interstate muscling in on his magical territory.  During last night’s celebrity-studded private red-carpet event, Daniel Radcliffe led a bus-load of movie stars and an army of wand-wielding onlookers in inaugurating Universal Orlando’s “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” (wwohp)with a dazzling display of “lumos maxima” (i.e. fireworks and projections), while John Williams conducted the Orlando Philharmonic through the famous film score.

Now, don’t dismiss this new expansion inside Universal’s Islands of Adventure park just because it wasn’t done by Disney.  As a WDW annual passholder for over a decade and a half, I can decisively say that this attraction is as detailed, immersive, and downright amazing as anything Disney has done in that time.  More than any other attraction in Orlando, the Wizarding World welcomes you into a complete experience in which every element – sights, sounds, smells, and tastes – conspires to convince you that you’ve been transported into an alternate universe. 

Even if you aren’t a Potter-head, you should appreciate the dense theming that decorates every inch of these 20-odd acres.  And if, like me, you’ve read the books and seen the movies once or thrice, you’ll geek out over the grandeur of the place.

I’ll cut to the chase:, because what everyone really wants to know is if “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey”, the secretive new ride housed inside Hogwarts Castle, is worth the wait.  In a word: YEEEEEESSSSSS!!!  Step aside “Spiderman”, you’ve just been bumped to the second-best dark ride in the world.  After exploring the corridors and classrooms of the queue (an epic adventure in of itself) you’ll experience 4 minutes of sheer chaos, during which you soar above the castle, get chased by a dragon, escape spitting spiders and the Whomping Willow, play  a match of Quidditch – and all that’s in just the first half!

“Forbidden Journey” takes “Spidey’s” blend of real sets and video, adds domed simulator screens ala “Simpsons” and “Soarin’”, and stirs in spook-house animatronics similar to “Indiana Jones” or “Haunted Mansion”.  What makes “FJ” more than the sum of it’s attraction ancestors is the KUKA Robocoaster, the amazing new ride technology that makes your “magic bench” vehicle feel like it’s actually flying.   The result isn’t quite a roller-coaster (you are moving on a flat track at a fixed speed), nor is it simply a simulator (the motion and enviornments are light-years beyond “Star Tours”).  It’s simply the next greatest thing in theme parks.

So, should you ride it?  Of course!  “Can you ride it” is a trickier question.  While designer Thierry Coup tells me that the overhead restraints are no more restrictive than those on similar rides, many larger guests have reported being denied boarding.  (Universal says formal guidelines will be published soon).  And while the ride is very smooth and never goes upside-down, you spend time on your back and side, so delicate souls should decline.  Finally, those frightened of spiders and skeletons should be forewarned.

You’ll want to get to the park extra-early and do a swift walk through Seuss Landing as soon as the rope drops to see Hogwarts this summer without a multi-hour wait.  But do yourself a favor and make time to return and explore Hogsmeade Village, where Potter and palls snack and shop between semesters.  The area is small, but stuffed with the the kind of clever small details that will delight observant fans.  Here’s a brief guide to the “Hidden Wonders” of the Wizarding World:

Window Wizardry:

Not all the storefronts you see are actual shops you can enter, but you should still inspect all of them carefully for an array of amusing mystical effects.  Keep an eye out for the following: screaming Mandrakes, self-stirring pots, eyeball gumballs, a charmed cello, an escaped snitch, and a jumping chocolate frog.

Watch Your Wallet

Inside said shops, you can easily drop a bundle on magic wands ($30), Marauder Maps ($60), school robes ($100) and broomsticks ($300).  But whether you want to buy or not, don’t miss a trip through Olivander’s wand shop, where one lucky kid in each group gets to be chosen by a wand with some spiffy special-effects.

Tip the Hog:

The best place to escape the heat with a frosty ale or Butterbeer (a delicious non-alcoholic mix of cream soda and butterscotch foam) is the Hogs Head pub, attached to the Three Broomsticks restaurant.  And remember to slide the barkeep a “thank you”; it may inspire the establishment’s namesake trophy to come to life!

Amazing Employees:

What makes the Wizarding World so special is the “always in character” attitude among the employees, from the train conductor greeting arriving Muggles in front of the Hogswart Express, to the chefs and shopkeepers.  Take the time to talk to them as you savor the magic spell that Universal, Warner Brothers, and J.K. Rowling hath wrought.  We won’t see it’s like again… at least until Disney’s new Fantasyland debuts in 2012.

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