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Friday, February 4, 2011

My Take: Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Well it's time I ventured off Disney property (shocking, I know!) and gave my thoughts about the other major new attraction to come to Orlando -- the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Located at Universal's Islands of Adventure, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened about six months ago with tremendous fanfare and acclaim.

I figured I'd give the new land a little time to shake the bugs out before I ventured into the land of wizardry. Now, I'm a huge Harry Potter fan. I love the books and enjoy the movies as well. Next to Disney, Harry Potter and Star Wars are my other two subjects I tend to geek-out about.

So you could say I had very high expectations as I first crossed into the Wizarding World, especially after hearing everyone rave about how wonderful this new addition was.

With all the backstory done, let's get to my thoughts about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The exterior theming is, in a word, outstanding. Universal nailed this aspect. I really felt like I had walked into the village of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts castle. For the most part, everything I had expected to see was there and many windows had little animated elements or other tidbits to further enhance the overall theme. As you walk down the main avenue of Hogsmeade, you will likely have difficulty bringing it all in. I'd recommend just standing and looking at everything.

The huge Hogwarts Express greets you as you enter the main entrance to the Wizarding World. I understand this is a great photo opportunity, though Universal was shooting a show or commercial and had the area roped off for film crews when I was there in late January, so we didn't get the opportunity to experience the train set.

Just past the Hogwarts Express on the right is the entrance to Dragon Challenge, one of two existing attractions that was re-themed for the Wizarding World. The queue is fantastic, as you walk through the story of the first task of the Triwizard Tournament (if you don't know what I'm talking about, read or see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). The queue was very long and it took quite a while to walk to the loading area. The day I was there, it was a walk-on, but it still took at least five minutes to walk to the loading area. The queue also is a bit tight and much of it is in "underground" tunnels with not a lot of moving air. I imagine this queue can get very stuffy in the summer, especially after a rain shower, when the air is muggy.

I'll talk about the attraction itself a little later. Time to go to in some shops.

The theming inside is equally as excellent as outside. Again, the designers did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of each store. Unfortunately they didn't capture the essence of how a crowd moves through stores. In every shop we went to (Honeydukes, Zonko's, Olivander's and Dervish and Banges), aisles were way too narrow. To be honest, I have no idea how a handicapped person would be able to move around in these stores. No kidding -- the aisles have to be only about three feet wide (if that). We were at WWOHP during a non-peak time of year and it was very difficult to move around -- I can't imagine what it would be like when the crowds are heavier.

Beyond the size of the aisles -- the stores themselves are simply too small. They should have been twice their size. There was plenty of interesting merchandise for sale, you just couldn't get to it because there wasn't enough room.

Speaking of too small, one of the key stores, Olivander's, offers a special wand-selection presentation. Unofrtunately only about 20 people can be in the store at a time and then there's a huge crush to move into the next (too small) room to select wands. Frankly, I wasn't impressed with the wands - they're plastic. I've found better wands elsewhere.

OK, enough ranting about the stores, let's head back outside and walk up to Hogwarts.

Uhh, we would, if we could ever get there. I'm standing in the line to enter Hogwarts and you can see how long the line is behind me. Yikes.

Turns out, I was standing in the line to get to the lockers to put all my stuff in because you can't take backpacks, purses, etc. inside Hogwarts (well, not on the ride) because it will get lost and there's no way to secure it.

TIP: If you can, leave all that stuff with a non-rider and head straight to the entrance and go into the non-locker line. This will save you and hour or more.

Time to start talking about the attractions, of which there are only three. The big kahuna is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This takes place inside Hogwars Castle. The tour through Hogwarts becomes the preshow as Muggles (that's you) have been invited on a special tour of the castle.

I have to admit the preshow queue here is one of the best I've seen ever - Disney could learn a thing or two here. The tour through Hogwarts was an oustanding mix of animatronics, carefully placed video screen and set pieces. Yeah - it's THAT good. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me (remember that bit about leaving backpacks with family members) to take pictures. It's kind of dark inside the castle, so photography can be tricky.

Unfortunately I wish the ride itself was as good. Put simply, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a body jerking attraction. You will be slug left and right, up, down and around. It's pretty rough and I wouldn't recommend it for anyone under the age of 10. My 13-year old went with me and thought it was pretty rough. Also, there's absolutely no air in the attraction, so I found myself wanting some fresh air afterward.

This is a common problem with many simulators (Sum of All Thrills has this same problem) where there's no moving air. Mission Space, on the other hand, has a fan that blows air right into your face. I have no problem with Mission Space at all and really like that attraction -- it's all about the air.

The other problem with Forbidden Journey is that it's too fast. I'm not saying the attraction isn't long enough, rather the story moves too quickly. I found it difficult to keep up with what was happening.

Forbidden Journey mixes animatronic scenes and film-based simulations very well. It really is the next level in attractions - they just need to smooth it out and slow it down some. Oh, and be prepared to have water sprayed in your face a few times.

There are two other attractions at WWOHP, the Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge. I briefly touched on Dragon Challenge a little while ago, so I won't discuss the queue. The ride itself is a standard roller coaster, well coasterS. There are two tracks - blue and red. You get to choose which you ride. There are plenty of loops, rolls and other maneuvers as you make your way around the track.

The Flight of the Hippogriff is a coaster designed for kids and features a queue going by Hagrid's hut. The ride looked like it was a lot of fun, though the line was far too long for us to try it out.

Food (this part is brought to you by Lou Mongello)
I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the food. The main dining establishment is the Three Broomsticks, which comes right out of the books and movies. Again, the theming is outstanding. The Three Broomsticks offers rotisserie chicken, ribs, turkey legs, fish and chips, and various side items. For kids, there's chicken fingers, mac and cheese, turkey leg and fish and chips. The food at the Three Broomsticks is pretty good, though you'll probably go through a lot of napkins - dishes can get messy. The interior theming is outstanding, though the restaurant is small with not a lot of seating. If you do plan to dine at the Three Broomsticks, you'll want to eat early or late in the day -- avoid lunchtime. Oh, and don't expect to find soft drinks. You can get apple juice, pumpkin juice or butterbeer.

Speaking of Butterbeer...

There are lots of places to get the signature drink that was created exclusively for the Wizarding World. There are two version of Butterbeer -- frozen and non-frozen. Personally, I'd recommend the frozen. We got the non-frozen type and it's very sweet. I mean really sweet. The "foam" that's on top (which really is more like a cream that added on top) adds even more sweet flavor to the drink. This being said, Butterbeer is very good. I wouldn't try to drink it too fast, though. I think it's meant to be sipped.

My Take
Overall, my main comment about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is this: Awesome theme, but it's too small.

If this new land is to succeed, it has got to be bigger. As stated earlier, the stores are very small and way too tight. There aren't enough attractions, especially for younger guests. The special shows, like Olivanders, can't accomodate enough guests at once. It's almost as if all the attention was spent on the theme and not enough on the functionality.

Moreover, it's all concrete and stone. I'll bet this area is roasting the hot summer months, so you'll want to take that into consideration if you plan a visit to The Wizarding World.

Will I go back? Oh sure, but it won't be during the summer. Now I know what to expect (and not to expect), so I think I'll be better prepared.

So that's my take. What's yours? Think I'm crazy? Think I've hit the nail on on the head? Post a comment!


mickeymd said...

My take, from a Harry Potter fan, but a Disney fan first and foremost, is that I went to Universal in the late 90s for the first time and I won't be back. I spent the whole day thinking, "this park is dirtier than Disney," "how come these people aren't as nice as Disney people?"...Universal had a chance with me back in the 90s, but no longer. I think I'll stick to the Harry Potter books and movies and save the bulk of my recreation money for Disney.

Scott said...

I think I liked the ride more than you, but I agree with everything else you said. The queue was fantastic. We didn't ride the Dragon Challenge, but my kids rode the Hippogriff ride. They said it was okay but way too short. I blogged a little bit about it here at my blog in a couple of posts. We were there over Thanksgiving, and went on a Monday and a Tuesday. Crowds were unbelievable. But the theming and the "feel" of the land was incredible.

Anonymous said...

@mickeymd - I partially agree. Universal tends to be behind in keeping up with things, this you can see in the offseason with things such as paint. They also close down shops and restaurants far before the park which is something Disney doesn't really do (but they do in some places).

But as a former Disney cast member, just keep this in mind - many Universal employees have worked at Disney World. I wouldn't agree that they are less nice at all. These days Disney really has a tough time forcing their "cast" to put on a smile when in costume (even if on the way to work and gassing up your vehicle - seriously they tell you to remain 'in character' which honestly is asking a lot, they can go eff themselves if I'm off the clock just like any other job in this country) but at minimum wage you can only expect so much... Mainly those who genuinely enjoy being nice and keeping that whole "Disney" thing alive and there are not very many of them. Otherwise you'll find that the two are actually quite similar in that regard.

Regarding WWOHP, 100% agreed it's extremely small. I get claustrophobic easily and did not enjoy any of the shops at all. I watched a woman with a stroller stand completely immobile the entire 10 minutes I was in honeydukes. Were the designers limited by space, budget, or both? I don't feel that it does HP justice, it's got the theme and it has a heart for sure but the scale is much smaller than you would expect. If you're a fan outside the US (especially if overseas) do NOT let this dictate your vacation or you'll be very disappointed. If you're inside the US, definitely don't let it be the reason for visiting. The HP ride is nice, it's fast and it uses new 'arm' based tech but the movie scenes are blurry and it's hard to follow. Definitely save the butter beer until after you ride.

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