Muggles can't replicate Potter magic
Published: Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Updated: Friday, June 15, 2012 23:06
There I was, standing underneath the archway to Hogsmeade, the Hogwarts Express stationary on my right. But I didn't travel to the wizarding marketplace by train or floo powder or any other magical means; I trekked through packs of tourists at Universal's Islands of Adventure to get there — the first of many reminders that I was a muggle, a person without magic.
Like many other 20-somethings who grew up reading the Harry Potter series, I had constructed my own version of the wizarding world in my head. That world was intangible, yet perfect. There, Mad-Eye Moody's replacement eye whirred with a life of its own, unlike the plastic strap-on eye that he wears in the Harry Potter movies.
When the books were brought to life on the big screen, my own images of the characters and Hogwarts were infiltrated by the movie sets and actors. I was upset at first but learned to accept it. So when I went to Orlando for a free press trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I tried to go in without any grand illusions of what the magical world would look like.
At a glance, Universal's Harry Potter world looks just as it should. Old-looking, snow-capped buildings line the cobblestone streets of Hogsmeade, which includes some misplaced stores from Diagon Alley, such as Ollivanders Wand Shop. The storefront windows are full of props, including moving Gilderoy Lockhart books and screeching mandrakes. Moaning Myrtle's voice echoes outside of the women's restroom near The Three Broomsticks. It looks like a perfect movie set, something that Universal Studios has a knack for recreating.
But when I started to walk around, I realized that it wasn't much more than a movie set.
Most of the storefronts are just for show, and those that are actual stores were jam-packed with people buying chocolate frogs and remembralls, which are much less exciting when they can't actually light up if their holder has forgotten something.
The wait was 45 minutes just to get into Dervish and Banges, a store that sells broomsticks, sneakoscopes and replicas of the Monster Book of Monsters; my tour guide said in the summer the wait nears three hours. The Owl Post's window displays stuffed animal owls that I could find at any children's store. And the labyrinth of Gringotts Wizarding Bank is reduced to a single ATM — Griphook and the other goblins would feel insulted.
I was disappointed, but understood. Magic isn't real, so trying to make it so is underwhelming. I just wish I actually felt immersed in the wizarding world, not just like a muggle buying non-magical souvenirs and watching as others bought sticks that posed as wands. I even wish I hadn't tried the butterbeer, which tasted much better in my head than in real life. It tastes like liquid butterscotch, a bit too sweet for me to stomach, but a friend assured me that the frozen butterbeer was worth a taste.
Where the park succeeds is in its thrill rides, particularly Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is located inside Hogwarts Castle. The ride uses an HD screen the entire time to make the riders actually feel like they're flying. It's thrilling, and a bit dizzying, all the way through. The wait for the ride queues through the castle, which features talking portraits and a look into Dumbledore's headmaster's office. This is also the only place to get a glimpse of Harry, Hermione and Ron, in a video recording before you get on the ride. If you're looking for character pictures (like those you might get with Donald Duck at Disney World), you won't get them at Harry Potter world, where you won't run into any characters or magical creatures on the streets — just vacationers and workers in funny hats.
There are only two other rides in the Harry Potter portion of Islands of Adventure: Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff. The latter is a tame "family" coaster that won't scare the kids or thrill anyone over the age of 12, but Dragon Challenge is a big-kid ride, where two dragon coasters (a Chinese Fireball and a Hungarian Horntail, for those who speak Harry Potter) race each other for the TriWizard Tournament. Some will recognize it as the Dueling Dragons coaster, which was already at the park but re-themed for Harry Potter.
As a self-proclaimed Harry Potter freak, I was disappointed with my experience — and my trip was not only completely paid for by Universal, but also equipped me with a VIP pass onto all of the rides. It was fun, but I couldn't help wondering the entire time if Disney could have done it better, partly because it has more property to build on and partly because I believe Disney World is actually the happiest place on the earth.
My advice to Harry Potter lovers: Visit the theme park if you have the money to spare (it's $82 for one-day access to one Universal park), but for the real wizarding world experience, just re-read the books and imagine it yourself.