My wife and I had planned our trip to Florida (our vacanymoon to steal a term from a friend) around the biennial Joss Whedon conference Slayage. We thought we were getting incredibly lucky because Universal Orlando’s new theme park—The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, obviously—had been pushed back to a Spring 2010 opening. When we made plans for the first week of June, we saw no way the park would not be open already.
Until we saw the grand opening date on a TV commercial one night: June 18, 2010. 2 days before the technical end of Spring. Our hopes were dashed. The park opened 6 days after we planned to leave. But such is life, and we made our peace with being able to go into Universal’s Islands of Adventure and see Hogwarts but take no part.
That is, until Nikki Stafford told us at Slayage about the wonderful Twitter hashtag of #potterwatch that detailed the park’s soft opening events during the week leading up to the 18th. Then with rabid (if not morbid) curiosity, Jennifer and I began incessantly refreshing #potterwatch on our iPhones as we traversed Disney parks until we broke down and decided to make a mad dash on the first day that the Wizarding World was open to the general public.
And we’re insanely glad we did. Because The Wizarding World of Harry Potter may very well be the best designed and most immersive theme park ever created.
That First Glance of Hogwarts
Maybe it’s because I have seen Cinderella’s castle my whole life and known that there’s a life-size, stylized representation in both Anaheim and Orlando, but my first glimpses of Hogwarts rising over the lake in the middle of Islands of Adventure was far more awe-inspiring than Disney’s pièce de résistance has ever been for me. And I’m a diehard Disney fanboy.
The castle looks fantastic. It’s huge. It’s detailed. It looks exactly like it should, from the detail in the rocks it sits on to the oculus in the astronomy tower. Hogwarts was truly brought to life in Orlando, Florida.
I think that the castle was actually larger than Disney’s centerpiece, though it might just be the perspective from below combined with the rocks that serve as its foundation. Either way, the entire presentation is astounding. We found ourselves at the Magic Kingdom two days after we left the Wizarding World, and my wife and I could not help but notice how bland Cinderella’s castle looked in comparison. Again, it’s not a knock to Disney; Universal outdid themselves in rendering Hogwarts.
If there was one thing I say was wrong about Hogwarts, it would have to be that most pictures we took of the castle have palm trees in them somewhere. I know that’s the location, but it does kind of dispel the immersion when you see snow on the roofs around you and palm trees growing from the base of the gigantic castle in front of you. But that’s a minor gripe that we laughed about—this is as close to a real Hogwarts as there will ever be.
Stepping Into Hogsmeade
There are two entrances to Hogsmeade Village (the main portion of the Wizarding World). One comes through Jurassic Park and the other through The Lost Continent. My wife and I were lucky enough to enter through Jurassic Park on the soft opening day when we rode the Dragon Challenge, so we opted to enter through The Lost Continent on our extended visit.
We were immediately greeted by the Hogwarts Express and its conductor (with whom we had to have a picture made). He was perfectly jovial and in character, even referring to my wife as being half-frog and inquiring if she had a charm put on her because she was wearing a Kermit cap that day. When I got my picture made, he told me to worry about what our children would look like with her being half-frog. (It made my day.) Incidentally, he saw her hours later, said hello, and referred to her as frog-girl again, which made us incredibly happy.
Our first jaunt was into Zonko’s joke shop which connected to Honeydukes candy store. We made a cursory look through, but there were tons of people and we had things to see and do. We decided to come back later to give them the perusal they deserved. It was clear immediately, however, that the aesthetics inside were as intricate and lovingly created as they were outside.
As we exited through Honeydukes, we had to try Butterbeer. As my wife put on Facebook almost immediately, it was everything we had ever dreamed it to be. It was a rich, carbonated cream soda-type concoction that had a dollop of vanilla foam on top. We drank it greedily from our souvenir steins and loved every sip. There is also a frozen version of the drink that I had with my meal at the Three Broomsticks (more on that later) that I didn’t think was quite as tasty. They did let me have a straw for the frozen version, stating that sticking straws through normal Butterbeer makes the foam on top explode, thus hoarding them away from those with the unfrozen beverage. I was too excited and the drink was too delicious for me to experiment with and waste.
We milled around for a bit after that, enjoying our Butterbeer, taking in the themed restrooms (yes, the restrooms are themed, too!), and eventually we decided to go ahead and eat lunch at the Three Broomsticks.
Lunch at the Three Broomsticks
If there was one bad thing about our trip to Orlando this year, it has to be that we ate a quick service meal almost every time we ate. Reservations were required (even for lunch) at any of the table service restaurants in the parks, so it was menu-board decisions for us. If there was one thing that I thought would ruin the Three Broomsticks experience, it was that.
Being a quick-service restaurant is the only way that the venue could function given expected crowds, though, and the food was quite a bit different from any of the typical burger-and-fries quick service menus we had been used to.
I had the fish and chips (of course), and my wife had the roasted chicken. Mine was pretty traditional in that it was just fried fish—albeit really good fried fish—and some fries. I had a frozen Butterbeer on the side, which was refilled in my wonderful souvenir mug. Jennifer’s roasted chicken was half a bird, and her sides were roasted potatoes and an ear of corn. Like I said, not the typical burger-and-fries. She had pumpkin juice (which is actual juice by the way—apple juice mixed with pumpkin puree) with hers, which was actually kind of bad. I mean, it tasted fine, but I think it would have been a lot better hot and in the winter because it had such a strong flavor that all we could do was sip at it.
We were seated by a hostess who told us we were guaranteed a seat as long as we were customers (which is a nice change from the fighting for chairs in most of these places at theme parks), and our plates were taken care of by a bus boy who was remarkably friendly.
Lunch at the Three Broomsticks was not just a meal. It was almost like a show. The ambiance was perfect. The walls were plaster and wood, and they even had projections of owls coming in and flapping their wings shadowed on the walls. We could see luggage (it is an inn after all!) being traipsed about by house elves and hear doors shutting and people walking around upstairs. Sure, it was noisy, but what bustling, fantasy-world inn wouldn’t be?
The Forbidden Journey—Ain’t That the Truth
The main attraction at the Wizarding World is called “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” The queue takes riders through Hogwarts castle, sorts them via animatronic Sorting Hat, informs them of the story by 3D images of Dumbledore, Ron, Harry, and Hermione, and typically looks just like one would expect a real life Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to look like. Unfortunately, that’s all we could see because we were informed that the ride itself had been closed for the day right about the time we walked through the park entrance.
We were kind of bummed about this, honestly, because we had been hearing on #potterwatch about how magnificent it was and how the technology in the ride was head-and-shoulders above any other theme park ride. So to get so close to it and still not be able to ride was a little bit of a slap in the face. But the rest of the park was so wonderful, we had a great time even without going on Forbidden Journey.
Luckily though, the park did allow us to stand in line to go through Hogwarts. Yes. You read that right. We stood in line to…stand in line. When we got to the point where the ride was to load, we were turned around and directed out of the castle. They were calling these “castle tours,” and they were meant to appease the masses of crowds who wanted to get their Harry Potter on, but couldn’t.
The castle is as magnificent on the inside as it is on the outside. We saw statues of Godric Gryffindor and Salazar Slytherin, the house cup rankings, the Mirror of Erised, and the hall with what should have been moving staircases but weren’t due to the limitations of Muggle technology. All of the portraits on the walls moved, and some even spoke to us, condemning all of us Muggles for being in Hogwarts to begin with. They were obviously video screens that were framed like portraits, but they were textured to look like they were canvassed paintings. In two of the rooms, we were spoken to by Dumbledore and the three kids. The images were amazing; they were slightly see-through, but they had depth to them. I don’t know how Universal handled the projection, but holographic technology has come a long way since last I checked.
We were yelled at by the Fat Lady as we walked into the Gryffindor commons area where we saw the stairs leading into the dormitories, and we queued inside the greenhouses where mandrake roots were kept behind cages (and my wife had to take pictures of “Harry Potter rakes!”). We saw the Sorting Hat, but never got close enough to actually hear its unique Wizarding World safety rhyme. We were directed out the back at about that point.
Other Rides and Attractions
Our first day at Islands of Adventure actually got us the chance to ride the Dragon Challenge (formerly Dueling Dragons). Not a lot had changed since I had ridden it a few years ago. Riders stood in line and chose a dragon (red or blue, but now they were the Chinese Fireball or Hungarian Horntail respectively) to ride. We chose blue (who could resist the Hungarian Horntail on their first ride…really?) and the coaster looped us and spun us and brought us what seemed like a dangerously close distance to the other coaster. If anything, I think the coaster had been sped up since I last rode it.
On our actual day in the Wizarding World, we were able to ride the other rollercoaster, Flight of the Hippogryph, a starter/kiddie coaster with no real tricks, but was pretty fun to ride. The cars themselves are made to look like a wicker hippogryph. Standing in line lets riders see Hagrid’s house as well as an animatronic Buckbeak who kneels as the cars go up the initial incline.
We stood in line to enter Olivander’s Wand Shop, too. They took in 15-20 of us at a time and chose 2 children to let their wands choose them. The first girl had to accio ladder a nearby ladder, and she failed with some theatrics. The second boy had to bring a red wand box down, and he did a job of crashing the boxes and shelves, which the wandmaker had to magically repair. Afterward, he swapped their wants, and the lights and sounds that surrounded the kids were straight out of Sorcerer’s Stone. The effects were fun and made me smile (and the children were obviously very impressed by their feats of magic!), and the actor working as the shopkeeper was as believable as anyone who had been cast in the movies. Ideally, everyone would be able to have a wand choose them, but logistically, that would be a nightmare. So I’m fine with letting kids be the ones who get to experience the magic firsthand.
The giftshops were attractions in and of themselves. The wand shop attached to Dervish and Banges sold replica wands for each of the main characters as well as various wands based on birthdays and other similar criteria. I wanted one, but there were other souvenirs I wanted more. Going further through Dervish and Banges, we saw wizard robes for each of the houses for sale (only $100 each), quaffles for our Muggle games of quidditch, remembralls, and other such wonderful toys. There were also the typical mugs, glasses, and T-shirts. I kind of wanted to get a Ravenclaw tie to wear to work in the fall.
Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods was equally awesome. Being the giftshop one exits into from the Forbidden Journey, it housed the most typical souvenirs. We found plush dragons and Voldemorts. I bought my dad a T-shirt from the soft-opening. We even bought ourselves Order of the Phoenix keychains (though mine broke shortly after putting it on my keyring!). It was in Filch’s that we found our big souvenir for the trip: a framed replica of the Marauder’s Map that unfolds and we are going to hang on our wall. We got it home and immediately sat in front of it and said “I solemnly swear we are up to no good!” before we looked through it. Yes, we’re that awesome.
One corner of the street was reserved for performers. Every fifteen minutes or so, a group would come from Hogwarts and entertain the crowd. From what I gather, there are two shows: the Hogwarts Frog Choir and the Triwizards. We saw the tail end of the choir, and they were fun to listen to. Acapella singers carrying frog puppets? Yes, please. We missed the Triwizard show, but I looked it up on YouTube later. In it, boys from Durmstrang and girls from Beauxbatons did a short dance/martial arts performance for the crowd. It was neat, but I was very glad we caught the choir, and I did not feel cheated we didn’t see both.
Other storefronts were made up to look occupied, but there was no entrance. In one shop, musical instruments played by themselves occasionally. In another, a quidditch box with chained bludgers rattled. And in yet another, Gilderoy Lockhart was given a full display, complete with moving pictures promoting his books (which were nearly impossibly to photograph). Projected owl shadows carrying letters and packages populated the Owl Post. Even the ATM beside the restrooms was labeled as being from Gringott’s Bank. There was no stop left unpulled with Hogsmeade, and it showed.
I Want To Go Back!
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to spend as much time as we wanted in the Wizarding World. We never made it into the Hog’s Head Pub, nor did we get to spend any extended time in Zonko’s or Honeydukes (though we did manage to buy ourselves a giant bag of Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavored Beans and some Chocolate Frogs). We were sitting under the Owl Post—which, by the way, actually lets you send letters postmarked as Hogsmeade if you have any with you—and overheard a manager say they just got word the park was closing at 6.
I checked my watch. 5:35. We had 25 minutes to finish up our shopping (which we had decided to pace throughout the day to avoid carrying hefty packages around) and do anything else we wanted to do. The irritating part is that we asked someone in the Three Broomsticks what time they closed, and they said that they were open until the park closed at 9:00pm. Being that it was a soft opening and we got in by nearly pure luck, we can’t be too mad. But it still stinks that we were so rushed at the end that we couldn’t make it into the Hog’s Head or go back on the Dragon Challenge to ride the Chinese Fireball.
Still, the experience was the highlight of our trip, even overshadowing the fantastic Slayage conference and superbness that Disney resorts and parks exude. Just being able to walk around Hogsmeade for an afternoon was worth the price of admission—literally. And after seeing some of the reports from the grand opening on the 18th (a 4+ hour queue to get into the park, much less the Hary Potter area with over ten thousand people in line), I was quite glad that our trip landed us solidly a week ahead of time.
And while we didn’t get to partake in the main attraction of the park, we certainly got to fully experience the wonderful artistry that went to work in bringing Harry Potter’s films and books to life. We lucked out in many ways that we were informed of #potterwatch and that we were able to experience the whole park a week early without the insane crowds. We got to eat at the Three Broomsticks, drink Butterbeer in the streets of Hogsmeade, buy chocolate frogs, ride a hippogryph and a dragon, and see wands choose two aspiring young wizards.
In other words, ours was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in Hogsmeade. The atmosphere is perfect, the architecture is marvelous, and the rides and attractions round it out to be the single most immersive and enjoyable theme park experience I have ever had. I implore you, if you are ever in Orlando and even remotely care about the Harry Potter franchise, you can’t do yourself more of a favor than stopping by and experiencing it for yourself.
Note: You can see all 200 of our Wizarding World of Harry Potter photos in my public Facebook album.