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Details on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: What everyone wants to know

Visit the Three Broomsticks™ and the Hog’s Head pub™, ride Dragon Challenge™, enjoy Flight of the Hippogriff™, shop in magical stores like Zonko’s™, Honeydukes™ and Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods™, and, of course, experience Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™!

So says Universal Orlando, who’s just released this as one of their Islands of Adventure (beside a Dr. Seuss world, comic book world, toon world, etc.)

Now the inside scoop: I’ve just returned from Infinitus, the annual Harry Potter convention, held this year at the new theme park. The conference was held July 15-28 2010 at the Universal Orlando resort—nice, since this came with express passes for the rides and water taxis from conference to theme parks (Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure) plus waterfront shopping. Many of us saw the parks before during or after the con since the Wizarding World was a huge draw. We had more kids and teens than usual (and thousands more people!) despite the Florida weather. Some from across the world and many from Florida.

The conference featured wizard rock, papers and talks, art, costumes, and thousands of teenage fans. We had a formal ball with Coventry dancing, and welcome and leaving feasts. All were truly gigantic. There was a lot going on—some stuff like a scavenger hunt skipped me completely, and some like the wizarding fashion show happened in the same room where I happened to be signing. Hosted by two of the Wizarding World’s snappiest dressers, Lucius and Draco Malfoy, this event was clever and amusing. The Dealers’ Room was charming—we had WHimsic Alley who arrives each year with hats and robes and bumper stickers. Booksamillion. And lots of independent crafters with jewelry and accessories. There were keynotes with children’s authors and tons of podcasts. John Granger, author of many bopoks analyzing Harry Potter, spoke, as did many managers of the big websites and fan communities. Two Harry Potter parodies: one a musical, the other a movie debuted. And of course, my new Henry Potty arrived. I sold Henry Potty and the Pet Rock at the Craft Faire and finally managed to get it into the dealers room. I did a few signings after my talk on Harry and Buffy the Vampire Slayer—the room was pleasantly mobbed and everyone came up to buy my book after (My Try Wizarding tournament features Harry, Buffy, and Bella competing for the Cauldron of Hormones). Always flattering. So, yeah, a good con. But mobbed!

As for the theme park, I visited both Universal parks the day before the con and returned to the budsy Harry Potter section the next morning before the mobs arrived. The place is the Hogwarts castle (shown in all the advertisements) towering over the magical town of Hogsmede. There are three rides and a lot of shops with special foods and souvenirs created just for it. The staff (of course) wear cute wizard hats and are knowledgeable about the story and characters. The theme song plays as you walk through the gate, adding an enchantment to the air.

One ride is a pair of twining roller coasters called the Dragon Challenge. They twist and spin and look like they’ll collide as they hurtle you through Harry’s scariest Triwiazrd challenge. There’s a second, more family-friendly rollercoaster that simulates riding a hippogriff over the park. You even learn to bow to one properly (a reference to Prisoner of Azkaban). The third ride is the neat one: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This ride is inside the castle itself and touring the castle is a big lead-in. (There’s also a line up to the castle and express passes won’t help you, but moving past that…) You enter through the greenhouse, and up ramps into the castle, where you see many neat statues. The moving pictures were very well done and clever. You walk past wonderful story references like the four jars of jewels that mark the house points. Past this is Dumbledore’s office, with a hologram of him in it, and the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, where our favorite trio look down from a balcony and have a short conversation. The fat lady’s animated portrait guards the Gryffindor common room, with wonderful wall hangings and paintings, and Quiddich gear on the walls. There the Sorting Hat warns you to stow loose articles. (If you don’t want to go on the ride, you can still walk this far and see everything.) Then you hop on the ride itself. You’re strapped onto something like a bicycle seat that twists and dips, but it’s far fewer ups and downs than a roller coaster, so it’s not scary that way.

As castle walls and holograms surround you, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliff recorded these sequences specially) asks for your help—he flies off on his broom and you fly behind him. And yeah, as you twist, and ram into the castle and chase a dragon, it sure feels that way. You’re attacked by giant spiders, a whomping willow, and dementors all inside the creepy Forbidden Forest. Then you emerge onto the Quiddich field and swoop some more. Hooray! You’ve saved the school! As an immersive ride, it was pretty darn cool.

Then you emerge into the gift shop—impressive array but massively crowded. Many moments from the movies are captured there. There are Harry Potter books, robes, brooms, ties, and so on. All is Universal branded official movie/park gear, rather than the small press commentaries or anything more off the beaten path. But along with stuff labeled with the four house colors, I saw some new concepts—I got a Ministry of Magic messenger bag, myself.  There are new quaffle balls, sneakoscopes, goblet of fire statues, and clever goodies along with the usual hats, shirts, stuffed animals, and mugs.

Honeydukes and Zonko’s are fun: The stores are joined together, and at the moment quite crowded. Zonko’s has some Weasley gear like pigmy puffs and punching telescopes. And Honeydukes had stringmints and whizbees and new, gorgeously packaged chocolate frogs and every-flavor beans. They also had fresh-made fudge, in flavors from American peanut butter to exotic treacle. I bought a cauldron cake—under its pretty shape it was chocolate cake with a lovely mousse filling.

The similarly-joined Hog’s Head/Three Broomsticks offers everything from pear cider, pumpkin juice, and butterbeer to a variety of beers. There was a crowd but not much of a line, even to order dinner. Their specialty is a huge platter with $50 of ribs, chicken, sides, desserts, and more for four people. I ordered up Cornish pasties, served as they all were, with salad. They tasted like they had sloppy joe sauce inside—not bad but not especially authentic. I heard similar comments on the shepherd’s pie. My pumpkin juice tasted heavily of apricots (that and apple juice are main ingredients.) On the other hand, kids probably wouldn’t want it straight up. And it wasn’t bad either, though certainly different.

Outside the pub, stands through the Wizarding World sell the pumpkin juice in adorable pumpkin bottles (good luck with the planes!) and other beverages like juice and iced tea. Everyone selling soda refills or hotdogs seemed to be banished from the section. You can also mail postcards from Hogsmede post office and have a wand choose you at Ollivander’s (more on Ollivander’s below). The toad choir and triwizard champions stand around for pictures, as does the Hogwarts Express conductor, but they’re hardly the big draw.

The buildings may not be rides, but they’re enchanting (and enchanted!). Quills write and dresses dance in their shop windows, while tiny nooks reveal anything from a silly sign to a magical picture. The place is vast too, as I wandered all around the dragon challenge into the forests around Hagrid’s hut, and up and down hills. Fake snow on the rooftops feels a little cooling, and looks lovely in the frequent downpours. However, the long lines to enter crowded shops make those very downpours nastier than they should be.

The star event at my conference was Night of a Thousand Wizards: we planned on wearing costumes to the theme park and having it to ourselves after hours. This, as the description explained, would begin at ten p.m. with “a special, one-night-only presentation by some of the brilliant and creative minds behind The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.” Then, from about 11 p.m. until 1:30 a.m., Infinitus attendees would have The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ all to themselves! Many resolved this would be their first time at the park (I’d gone twice in the days beforehand, once at eight in the morning when it was much emptier—as I left it at ten, the line was going all around the park.) All were excited, and some unlucky few were offering up to $400 for a ticket to the sold-out event.

As advertised? Well, somewhat. First of all, it was still insanely hot. And muggy. A few goers dressed gorgeously, determined to be photographed throughout Hogsmede and Hogwarts wearing their full Snape or Umbridge costume (Ms. Umbridge had three layers of wool and a wig.) We admired their dedication. Others wore their “school uniform” ties and white shirts—a comfortable compromise. I did something similar, wearing a lightweight Indian black dress and silver gauze cape. I also wore a wide-brimmed witch hat and pink LED’s, since I love putting on a lightshow. But many of us didn’t costume, which made it look roughly the same as any other day at the park.

And then there was the presentation. The above one sounds neat, right? As it happened, the park’s PR lady shared a few photos and gossip about the Potter actors and JKR visiting the park, and then showed a VIDEO ADVERTISING the theme park, one which had ALREADY BEEN RELEASED ON POTTER FANSITES. We all felt they were wasting our time. The lights came up and the creator of the park started a Q and A. Everyone walked out in small groups because they were fed up with the movie. However, they only got as far as the courtyard with its drink sellers, as the Wizarding World was still being cleared out. The Q and A was short and unsatisfying—

Q Why don’t these rides have accommodations for larger or smaller guests?

A  They fit the largest population segment, so we decided they’re all right.

Q You should add hotel rooms.

A Maybe we will.

Q What are your future plans for the wizarding world?

A We can’t tell you.

Q Why are all the drinks full of sugar?

A JKR made us make the fatty butterbeer healthier, so we think we’re doing well. Don’t you like the sugary fruit juice? It has fruit.

Far cuter was our own pre-show entertainment. Voldemort entered in procession with Lucius Malfoy and others, and they danced and joked. So did Snape. At last, Cedric Diggory attacked Voldemort and was felled. But Harry Potter in Quiddich robes ran to Voldy, “killed” him, and stole his snake to the roar of the crowd.

After the interminable presentation, we were released at last. As I entered Hogsmede, I found a buffet of desserts—nice but I didn’t come just to eat apple pie. So I kept walking, but the way to both Olivander’s and The Forbidden Journey was plugged with people. Impassibly. So I hopped in the food line and got treacle tarts and pumpkin cake and so forth. Many people who hadn’t eaten were disappointed by the lack of “real food,” but I was okay. At the end of the line, they were scooping chocolate ice cream, as they’d run out of strawberry-peanut butter.  I didn’t bother. Nibbling, I made my way to forbidden journey. I was required to ditch my bag and hat in the provided locker, but kept my camera around my neck. Inside, everyone was snapping pictures, and I took quite a few with a “Harry Potter” who’d forgotten her camera. This time I took my camera on the ride, though the photos didn’t come out. I guess it really was magic. J Returning, I found the locker holding my purse had jammed, and the only locker attendant was off at the dragon ride. After probably 10-15 annoying minutes, my stuff was liberated and I and the other annoyed patrons were set free. Ignoring the shop, I determined to hurry through the rest of the park, as they were closing the line on forbidden journey and likewise everywhere else. (I must say the staff were quite friendly and tried to help. Though my green necklace made them all assume I was a Slytherin. Hmph.)

I got in the Olivander’s line, since that and butterbeer were left on my list of things I hadn’t tried yet. I should’ve started with butterbeer. The line was sweltering to levels of near-agony, not moving at all most of the time. Perhaps half an hour passed. Boiling alive, I removed my lights, hat, and cloak. At last, they let in a small crowd of us. One girl was chosen and handed wands to try. They produced silly effects in the store, until she and the quirky wand maker “settled” on the “perfect” wand. Right out of the movie. However, I was standing in the back of the crowd, and didn’t see so much.

Then we the watchers of the wand ceremony were freed to shop. “Can I just get out of here?” I asked, and was told to struggle through the crowd to one of several exits. I did, and got into the butterbeer line. There was a dance party going on, with popular music that, while nice, felt a little jarring to me. For our event, the butterbeer was free (normally it’s $3 a glass), and I ordered both the “regular” and “frozen” varieties. I prefer the regular, which (though on the warmish side) is fizzy like cream soda. Both have a lovely butterscotch foam on top. When it melts into the soda, the effect is very like melted ice cream—with a lovely soft and creamy feel. The frozen was perfectly all right, but not as interesting. Then just as I was sitting down to drink both glasses, it was time to leave (note: I’d done two activities, a little food, and no shopping during our event). I made it onto one of the hotel boats before many of the others and got to bed at 2:30 am. So was this event better than just visiting the park? Presentation: no. costumes: kind of. Time with fans: I guess. Rides: lines no better than going early in the morning, Time: not enough. Refreshments: acceptable but not worth the exorbitant ticket. Event: needed work.

So the place certainly was beautiful and clever, catered toward the fans and picture-perfect for the movie (the movie set designers constructed the place!) Everywhere was something cute, from the Gringotts sign over the ATM to Moaning Myrtle in the bathroom. The mobs will die down eventually (although Forbidden Journey you could easily go on over and over and over) and the butterbeer is lovely (and better for you than a latte, the park designer assured us). As a magical kingdom set in a theme park, it’s definite competition for Disney. Just try to go in winter.

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Filed under Harry Potter, Pop Culture