Friday, August 6, 2010

Welcome to Happy Potter World.....

Publishers Weekly, Aug 6. 2010

A sign welcoming visitors to Disney World in Orlando claims it’s the place “where dreams come true.” Not so for Harry Potter fans: their dreams are coming true a few miles away, at a new theme park adjoining Universal Orlando Resort’s Islands of Adventure theme park. The brand-new Wizarding World of Harry Potter brings to life the magical world created by J.K. Rowling in her seven novels, and in the six films (to date) released by Universal Studios.

Being the intrepid PW reporter that I am, and living with a 12-year-old uber-fan who literally grew up with Harry Potter (starting with my reading her Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when she was a toddler), my family and I braved the sweltering heat and humidity of a Florida summer and visited WWoHP just six weeks after the park’s June 18 grand opening. Let me just say, I’ve never seen my daughter move so fast—from getting into a cab to take us to the airport, to getting off the plane in Orlando, to walking along the moving sidewalks leading to the park’s entrance, and finally straining to catch her first glimpse of WWoHP.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is, to use a terribly overused expression, awesome. For anyone’s who read and loved Rowling’s books, words can’t adequately convey the thrilling reality of being there. Chase, 10, and Austin, 12, two visitors from Tampa I spoke with as we waited in line for the centerpiece of the theme park—the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride in Hogwarts Castle—said it best when they described WWoHP as being exactly how they imagined Hogsmeade to look and feel. “Being here is like stepping into the book or the movies,” Chase said.

The attraction here isn’t the usual theme park fare of rides, rides, and more rides. Rather, WWoHP is all about the sensory experience of entering Harry Potter’s world at Hogwarts and immersing oneself in it: drinking butterbeer (cream soda with a touch of butterscotch) or pumpkin juice (chilled mulled apple cider); encountering Moaning Myrtle in the girls’ bathroom; hanging out at the Three Broomsticks or the Hog’s Head; bonding with the Hogwarts Express train conductor; and exploring Hogwarts.

As we entered Hogsmeade for the first time, passing beneath an archway inscribed, “Please Respect the Spell Limits,” we felt as if we were entering Shangri-La: the turrets of Hogwarts soared above a street of snow-covered, medieval-looking buildings, which looked a little incongruous in the Florida heat. The throngs of Muggles crowding the village could enter some of the shops, but others were merely store facades, their windows filled with authentic artifacts mentioned in the books. For instance, the Gladrags wizarding-wear store facade displayed an exact replica of the ball gown Hermione Granger wore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the Tomes & Scrolls bookstore façade displayed Professor Gilderoy Lockhart’s books, complete with constantly changing jackets that feature him striking different poses.

Lines of people stood outside some of the stores, waiting their turn to enter. While the lines for Honeydukes (candy, including giant chocolate frogs, cauldron cakes, and Bertie Botts All-Flavour Jellybeans) and Zonko’s (toys and gag gifts) were short and moved quickly, the line for Ollivander’s (wands) was huge, and moved at a glacial pace because it’s a very cool interactive experience that visitors don’t want to miss. Approximately 25 people are allowed into Ollivander’s at a time to witness one lucky child experience having a wand “choose” him or her—just like Harry Potter’s own experience at Ollivander’s.

As our group stood in a half-circle inside the shop, a man dressed in wizard’s robes introduced himself as the Wandmaster and proclaimed, “I feel a lot of energy in the room,” approached my daughter Rachel, and said, “And it’s coming from Rachel.” (It wasn’t quite as surprising as it sounds: the gatekeeper at the shop door had asked me our names as we waited our turn to enter the premises (and Rachel has come to expect wonderful things to happen whenever she accompanies me on assignment for PW).

Handing Rachel a wand, the Wandmaster asked her to wave it. She did, and a pile of boxes high above us threatened to topple onto our heads. Handing Rachel another wand, the wizard suggested she ring a bell three times. Waving the wand, Rachel caused the bell to ring about half a dozen times. The wizard then handed her a third wand. As Rachel took it from him, a spotlight shone upon her, a rush of wind blew through the store, and the same soundtrack music from that scene in the first Harry Potter movie filled the shop.

For those Harry Potter fanatics who question why Ollivander’s, which, in the novels, is located in London’s Diagon Alley, had relocated to Hogsmeade, the Universal Studios representative who guided us about Hogsmeade for two hours before leaving us to our own devices had an answer ready even before we could think to ask the question: J.K. Rowling herself approved the concept of Ollivander’s having a franchise in Hogsmeade. In fact, judging from the authenticity of Hogsmeade—Rachel, who has read and re-read the novels every year since she was seven, couldn’t find anything out of place, and repeatedly pointed out little details that her parents—who’ve read each novel only once—had overlooked.

While the books and the movies provide the foundation for WWoHP, neither product was in much evidence there—but then, who’s going to buy a book at a theme park, right? And an unscientific, informal survey of a small sampling of park visitors revealed that half the children there had read the books already (though not all of their parents had), and 100% of both children and adults had seen the movies.

Throughout our visit we kept an eye out for copies of J.K. Rowling’s novels, and did locate a small display in Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods (the gift shop). Five copies each of the first three novels and two copies each of the last four novels were set out on a table in a corner—next to the entrance into the store, where waves of people who had just completed the Forbidden Journey were pouring into Filch’s. During the three or four separate occasions I monitored activity at the table, I saw only three adults in total flip through the books, despite the rest of the store being jammed with eager shoppers snapping up Harry Potter souvenirs of all kinds: robes, t-shirts, mugs, ties, Quidditch balls, goblets of fire that light up, keyrings, and many more one-of-a-kind items.

Although the emphasis in WWoHP is on stepping into Harry Potter’s world, it’s still a theme park, and that means rides—of which there are three. Each tells a story while providing thrills. The most popular ride, which is one of the most exciting theme park rides I’ve ever taken, is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey—which we were fortunate enough to ride twice, once during our guided tour when we were ushered by a Universal representative past the line of waiting riders, and once on our own, after a wait of about an hour. Standing in line with other Harry Potter fans, including a few dressed in costume (mostly robes with house insignia) in itself provided enough diversion, and the ride is absolutely spectacular.

It begins as soon as one enters Hogwarts, a huge neo-Gothic castle that looks exactly like it does in the movies. Though of course it was built recently, it seemed and felt ancient, with its weathered stone walls, long corridors, and cathedral ceiling.

Paintings of Hogwarts notables lined the passageways, and there was a constant cacophony of sound, as the characters in the paintings, like Hogwarts co-founders Salazar Slytherin and Rowena Ravenclaw, spoke to each other and to us: Ravenclaw welcoming us into the castle, Slytherin complaining about there being so many Muggles around. As we proceeded through the castle on the way to the ride, Professor Dumbledore welcomed us and invited us to a lecture on the history of Hogwarts. If I hadn’t been informed that Dumbledore was merely a video image, I would have sworn it was yet another character actor, the figure was so lifelike.

A few minutes later, Harry, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley appeared before us in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, larger than life, and about as realistic as Dumbledore, suggesting we skip class and go on a ride instead.

The ride itself was five minutes of Harry Potter heaven, in full-color 3-D: we swooped around and in between the castle’s turrets and walls and over mountains and lakes on a flight simulator, encountering terrifying characters we’d already encountered in the books and movies, like dragons, giant spiders, the Whomping Willow, Dementors, and, of course, Lord Voldemort, before finding ourselves in the middle of a Quidditch game. It felt so real, at times I feared we’d crash into something. As the ride glided to an end, Harry, his schoolmates, and his Quidditch teammates congratulated us on a job well done, and Dumbledore, flanked by his teaching staff, told us we can return to Hogwarts anytime.

The Flight of the Hippogriff was more of a traditional roller coaster ride, and, after learning from Hagrid how to approach a Hippogriff, we rode in a wicker Hippogriff car three times, passing the Hippogriff in his nest each time, as well as Hagrid’s hut, before ending back where we started, with the ride operators congratulating us on a job well done.

The TriWizard Challenge was also a roller coaster ride, which, of the three of us, I was the only one brave enough to try. Like the Forbidden Journey, the wait in line is an integral part of the experience, as we passed through dark corridors, tunnels, and caves, filled with props from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The TriWizard Challenge is actually two roller coasters—The Hungarian Horntail and the Chinese Fireball—that at one point appear to almost collide with each other. Riders hurtle about the tracks forward, sideways, and upside down, before being deposited back where we started. I’m sure the ride operators congratulated us afterwards, as with the other two rides, but I was much too shaken and stirred to notice. I’m glad I took the TriWizard Challenge so I can say I did it, but it’s not a ride I would repeat any time soon.

Although my daughter would be happy living on treats from Zonko’s (including the gigantic chocolate frog and the cauldron cake she consumed), we needed sustenance after a day of standing in lines and going on rides. We stopped in for dinner at the Three Broomsticks, where traditional British cuisine—Cornish pasties, shepherd’s pie, roasted chicken, etc.—is served cafeteria-style, in cozy surroundings. The magic extended even to the food, which was delicious, much better than the meals I ate when I once spent a semester at a British university. The mid-20s couple at the next table, self-professed “Harry Potter junkies,” struck up a conversation with us, showing off their wands and postcards with Hogsmeade stamps and postmarks from the Owl Post. It was pretty cool to visit a theme park where everybody there has something in common: an abiding love for Harry Potter and his world.

And, of course, no visit to Hogsmeade would be complete without a pit stop at the Hog’s Head with my mates, to hoist a few pints of butterbeer in an ancient pub that one could believe has been operating since the Middle Ages. There are also more potent beverages there for the adults, such as a British-style pale ale brewed specially for WWoHP. As we drank our beverages, we could hear the sounds of elves washing dishes in the kitchens located behind the bar, as well as snarling from the boar’s head mounted on the wall. No detail, no matter how small, has been overlooked at WWoHP. It’s a brilliant mingling of details in the books and sounds and scenes in the movies that will please even the most nitpicky Harry Potter fan.

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