Once upon a time there was an amusement park called Universal Orlando. This park was divided into two parts: Universal Studios (where it based rides and shows on popular TV shows and movies such as The Simpsons, Jaws, Men In Black, Shrek, etc.), and Islands of Adventure (where the rides were divided into themed sections such as Marvel comics, Dr. Seuss, Jurassic Park, Cartoons, etc.). On June 18th, 2010 the park added a new themed section to Islands of Adventure… The Wizarding world of Harry Potter (WWHP).
Now in order to do this post justice, I must start from the beginning, and I am therefore going to take you with me on a journey back in time to when I was in 8th grade. Author J. K. Rowling had just published the third book of the seven book series and I was just as adamant as ever against reading it. It was, after all, just going to be another silly fad, right? Wrong, but I didn’t know that then. A girl in my class did a book report (remember those?) on the third Harry Potter book (yes, in 8th grade) that she presented to the entire class and got me thinking about maybe trying out the series. It was settled when my aunt and uncle bought me a paperback copy of the first book for a Chanukah present later that year. Since I couldn’t ignore it anymore, I read it…
And thus began the great adventure.
I became so addicted to the books that I read and reread all of them each year, waiting for the next one in the series to be released. Even once I had other books to keep me occupied, Harry Potter was always my “sick book” of choice (you know when you’re sick and your brain is so groggy that you can’t comprehend anything too intricate). By the time the seventh and last book came out I was already an adult and I was still mesmerized. In high school I had my own page on a Harry Potter fan-site (I honestly don’t remember which or I’d redirect you there) where I wrote about the many allusions to various mythologies in the books (Remus Lupin, Sirius, etc.), mistakes in the books, and predictions for the remaining books (most of which came true, thank you). I spent one summer ruining my dad’s vacation by reading all the books out loud in a (horrible) fake British accent with a good friend of mine. I was (am?) a Harry Potter fanatic.
And then the movies came out.
I hate them. And yes, “hate” is a strong word. The first one came out in 2001 – the same year that the first Lord of the Rings movie came out. If you haven’t gathered yet from my earlier post, I love Lord of the Rings – both the books and the films. Why then do I sooooo dislike one film adaptation while I can’t get enough of the other? After all, both are adapting a fantasy classic, and in doing so take away a large element of our creativity by telling us how characters and settings appear. I, personally, am a big fan of my imagination (in case you haven’t realized that yet) and I don’t like it being squelched. Fortunately, Peter Jackson’s vision for Lord of the Rings came very very close to my own, and being able to see those breathtaking shots (elsewhere than in my imagination) gave LOTR extra bonus points. Harry Potter did not fare so well. The CGI just didn’t reach a believable level. Quiddich, which should have been the most exhilarating spectator sport ever, looked like an old video game. And Hagrid… really? He’s supposed to seem horrifyingly gigantic at first, not like a large oaf. Anyway, I refused to watch the Harry Potter films on the grounds that they’d spoil my imagination for the books. Unfortunately the commercial advertisements on TV took care of that for me, but on principle I still refused to watch the films. Years later, at my husband’s urging, I caved in an watched a few of the films (including the most recent one in theaters – a mistake I do not plan to repeat). My biggest problem with the Harry Potter films is no longer its fantastic ability to crush beautiful imaginations, but rather its inability to do justice to the story. You see, Peter Jackson realized that in converting Tolkien’s epic into a film, he’d either have to either make a reaaaally long film (yes, longer than 3 segments of 3 hours each that exist today) or he’d have to cut out elements of the story. Goodbye Tom Bombadil, et al. You were loved in the books, but alas, there was no room for you on film. Oh well, at least the story told on film was seamless without those elements. The Harry Potter films, on the other hand, try to incorporate everything, and therefore come out with very little that actually makes sense.
Anyway, enough ranting about the Harry Potter films. This post is already as long as some of my others and I haven’t even gotten to the essence of what this post is about yet… The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
One thing I must point out is that the amusement park is based on the HP films and not the books. (This is, after all, Universal Studios.) All the same, I had an absolutely great time there. I see I must elaborate. Here’s what the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is like:
As you approach the walls that surround WWHP, you are greeted by a sign reading “Welcome to Hogsmeade.” On the other side of the wall is the Hogwarts Express train, stationed at Hogsmeade Station. You are standing in the middle of the wizarding village of Hogsmeade, neighbor to the Hogwarts castle. In order to get to Hogwarts, you must pass through the streets of this wizarding town. Surrounding you are snow-covered English rooftops with crooked chimneys that are so stylishly Harry Potter (and I say this based on the font used on the books’ cover jackets, not based on the film sets).
And that’s when it starts… The Harry Potter theme music. No, they don’t have giant speakers blasting it throughout the park. It’s in your head. And you look around and you realize that you are in your own movie, complete with its own set and soundtrack.
Well, if you just entered the world of Harry Potter, what’s the very first thing you’d want to do? Fly, duh. So we headed straight over to the main attraction: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. In the queuing area you wind your way through Hogwarts, making many twists and turns. Just inside, one of the first things you pass is the hourglass keeping score of the house points. Needless to say, Gryffindor had quite a lead. The lights are all dim, so one room seems to turn into the next. Since we went on an “off” day, the lines were non-existent. As such, we walked rather quickly through all the rooms, not taking our time in the queue area. I am therefore positive that I missed a lot of awesome features. Oh well. Next time. Anyway, we passed through the greenhouses and through many other dark rooms. In one room, supposedly the Headmaster’s office, a projection of Dumbledore (quite a realistic projection, actually) greeted us, and in another classroom, another excellent projection of Harry, Ron and Hermione appears from underneath the invisibility cloak and tells us to meet them somewhere so they can sneak us down to the Quiddich match. We passed by the Sorting Hat, which spoke to us quite animatedly, issuing warnings about the danger of what we were about to do (as well as listing the safety regulations of the ride), and passed through some rooms of talking portraits issuing similar warnings. The rooms with the animated portraits were quite remarkable. Not all of the portraits seem animated at first – only a few act lively, talking animatedly to us – and then you catch a blink or a sigh from one of the seemingly stationary portraits. Covering the portraits is an effect layer making the portraits, no matter how they move, seem cracked like real oil paintings do.
As if the queue area weren’t enough, the ride was even more exciting! You sit on a bench that Hermione enchants, and then you take off, flying as if on broomsticks! The story itself is a little vague, but the excellent blend of live sets with incredible animatronics and wrap-around projection screens makes it feel so real that you don’t even bother questioning why Hagrid’s runaway pet dragon is ferocious and evil. Yes, that’s right, you get chased by a dragon who breathes hot fire (steam) at you, chased by Aragog (remember the gigantic spider from book 2?) who spits venom (or water) at you, chased by dementors who try to suck out your soul, beaten silly by the Whomping Willow, and you somehow end up in the Chamber of Secrets, and then out in the Quiddich pitch in the middle of a match, which, according to what Harry says at the end of the ride, you helped him win. Like I said, unclear story, awesomely realistic ride.
Aside from The Forbidden Journey, there are only two other rides in WWHP: Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge. Flight of the Hippogriff is your classic “family roller coaster” (meaning it moves at medium speed and is entirely non-thrilling). The only reason whatsoever to go on that ride is to see Hagrid’s hut and an animatronic hippogriff (and to say that you went on all the rides in WWHP, which is why we went on it). Dragon Challenge, on the other hand, is your classic kind of thrilling roller coaster. The roller coaster existed prior to the opening of WWHP as Dueling Dragons. The change of the name to what it is now is to pay homage to the first task of the Triwizard Tournament (book 4), which has nothing to do with flying a dragon, so once again the premise of the ride makes no sense. All the same, it’s a worthwhile ride. The queuing area displays both the Goblet of Fire and the Triwizard Cup (oh, and the Weasley’s crashed flying Ford Anglia on the way up). The coaster itself features two tracks that supposedly race each other: the red track (Chinese Fireball) and the green track (Hungarian Horntail). The first time we rode the ride we went on the Chinese Fireball. I don’t remember the 2 dragons taking off at the same time, but there were a few places where the cork-screws of both tracks intertwine, giving the illusion that you’re about to crash into the car on the other track. It was quite exciting. Later in the day when we rode the Hungarian Horntail, both cars left at the same time, but we didn’t pass the other car at all during any point of the ride – highly disappointing. Bottom line: red track was better for us, but it’s all about the timing.
Counter to everything you’ve ever known about amusement parks, the longest lines in WWHP are not for the featured ride, rather for entrance into Ollivanders (not to be confused with Ollivander’s wand shop in Diagon Alley, this is meant to be a smaller Hogsmeade branch – never mentioned in the books – and as such, you are not meeting Ollivander inside, rather Ollivander’s assistant). (Inside Ollivanders, there’s a short demonstration of “the wand choosing the wizard” almost word for word as it happens in book 1, accompanied by some “magical” effects, after which you can purchase silly plastic souvenir wands.) We waited a good half hour to enter Ollivanders (remember, we had no wait for the other rides, it being an off week and all), but the wait was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of our time spent in WWHP. You see, on the line we began talking to a “Hogwarts student” (term for the WWHP staff) named Bonnie. We asked her tons of questions about the production of WWHP. She told us that in order to be accepted to work in that part of the park when it opened, you had to go through a difficult process where you had to first answer 4 difficult questions about Harry Potter, and after passing that you then had to sit through a 6 hour NEWT exam (the exams that 7th year Hogwarts students must pass before “graduating.” Upon our request she gave us a bunch of sample questions from these exams, which between us we were able to answer all of them (Bonnie was quite impressed – said she never met any visitors before us to be able to answer them all. I don’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed). We also got the insider’s scoop on WWHP. Here’s a little known fact that we learned: Universal Orlando began building WWHP before many of the films were out. By the time the 3rd film went into production, WWHP had already built The Three Broomsticks, a part of the film set that is not seen until the third movie. So what did they do? The film crew asked Universal for the blueprints of their Three Broomsticks since it was already built and would save time on the film trying to design their own. Another little known fact… much of the set used in the films is presently in storage at Universal… in the next few years they are hoping to build a Diagon Alley extension to WWHP. All in all, the wait for Ollivanders was quite enjoyable (Bonnie – wherever you are – you deserve a raise).
The rest of Hogsmeade didn’t let down either. Both The Three Broomstick and The Hog’s Head serve food and drink, including such Harry Potter classics as Pumpkin Juice and (of course) Butterbeer (which supposedly tastes nasty, but isn’t Kosher at any rate). There’s even an Owl Post post office in which you can write and send postcards with an authentic Hogsmeade postmark. The store Dervish and Banges sells a lot of Harry Potter merchandise, but to me was most notable for its caged copy of The Monster Book of Monsters which snores, snarls, and occasionally wakes up and goes crazy snapping as onlookers. The real treats in Hogsmeade, however, are Zonko’s joke shop and Honeydukes sweets shop. Zonko’s sells both joke and prank supplies from Harry Potter (such as extendable ears, screaming yo-yos, sneakoscopes and pygmy puffs) as well as your practical joke supplies from the outside (Muggle) world. Honeydukes is everything you’d expect it to be… and entirely non-Kosher. They sell everything: Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (with only 3 normal jelly bean flavors, the rest are disgusting sounding), Canary Creams, Acid Pops, Sugar Quills, Chocolate Frogs, Pepper Imps, Peppermint Toads, Fizzing Whizzbees, Candy Floss, Ton-Tongue Toffees, and there’s a special baked goods section that sells Cauldron Cakes and Hagrid’s Rock Cakes as well as other more common pastries.
My only real problem with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the premise. I was expecting to enter WWHP and suddenly have magical powers (not real magical powers – I’m not delusional, but I expected to be made to feel like a witch or wizard). After all, one of the reasons why Harry Potter has become such a fad is that people like to pretend that they are like Harry. That’s why kids buy magic wands. That’s why college students “play” Quiddich. Instead, WWHP chose to insult us: all tourists are visiting Muggles, and all Universal employees are Hogwarts students. That’s right. Rather than aim for a temporary suspension of disbelief, they chose to take the cheaper, less imaginative route. I entered WWHP with my own dreams of having magical powers, and instead I just had insults thrown at me. One “student” while ushering us onto a ride shouted, “All Muggles, this way!” I gave him a passing glare and responded in my best hefty African-American woman’s voice, “Who you callin’ ‘Muggle,’ Muggle?” (Honestly, all I was missing was the finger snapping to emphasize the attitude.) I think they’d have had an easier time making me feel like a witch, but hey… If they want to sacrifice the story, it’s not my fault.
Why is it sacrificing the story, you ask? Well, you see, in reality Muggles can’t actually see Hogwarts. The books describe that there’s a spell cast over the castle to make all non-magic passerby see a pile of old ruins. Also, Muggles can’t perform magic, so the whole wand selection ceremony that they have in Olivander’s wand shop, as described before, makes no sense. Not to mention that they’d all get into serious trouble with the Ministry of Magic for breaking about a thousand rules pertaining to Muggle secrecy. Muggles aren’t supposed to know that there’s magic at work in the world, you see. Maybe that’s why the main ride is called “The Forbidden Journey”… and we’re supposed to believe that goody-two-shoes Hermione would take part in such a forbidden crime? As I said before, I believe they’d have had an easier time convincing tourists/visitors that they are witches and wizards instead of the opposite, not to mention making much happier children (and therefore happier adults). Too bad they didn’t consult me beforehand. I’ve got plenty of great ideas…