Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: a Muggle’s View

Orlando, Florida, 2009.  Tarps and scaffolding mar the skyline of the Islands of Adventure theme park.  Proclamations from something called the Ministry of Magic tell revellers to be patient as the giant edifice that will become Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry rises from the ground.  Cue rolling eyes and witless barbs about stupid children’s books from this intrepid theme park goer.

Fast forward to October 2011, and that same cynical, stubborn naysayer is racing through the gates of Islands of Adventure, surging through the early morning crowds with a steely gaze of unwavering determination and only one destination in mind – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

What changed?  As with any life altering event of this magnitude, it was something of grave importance – a dramatic, almost spiritual occurrence of epic substance and consequence.  I, er, watched the movies.  And read one of the books. 

Life altering might be a bit of a stretch.

It only took two movies before I was completely immersed in JK Rowling’s magical world, and though we’d planned on skipping Universal completely on this trip, a few months later it seemed unthinkable that we would miss out on the chance to visit the famous school and the quaint, magical stores of Hogsmeade village.  Plus, Butterbeer!

This park within a park is burdened with massive expectations.  The weight of fan hype and overwhelmingly positive reviews leaves it with a lot to live up to.  I’m happy to report that for the most part, it succeeds.

We entered Hogsmeade through a massive archway, complete with instructions to “respect the spell limits”, and were immediately transported into the world of Harry Potter and his friends.  The ‘village’ is really a row of snow-covered buildings sprawled out in the shadow of Hogwarts itself.  The initial impact is stunning, but the real treat is in the detail all around you.  Every window has something magical to behold, filled with touches from the books and movies, from Hermione’s Yule Ball gown to a shrieking mandrake.  At Honeydukes, visitors can shop for some of the more famous sweet treats from the series, or pick up some familiar joke items at Zonkos.  Best of all, you can spend the whole day drinking Butterbeer!

All this before we’ve even been inside the castle!

Inside Hogwarts, the route taken to the Forbidden Journey ride, the immersion steps up a gear.   It was a genuinely jaw dropping moment to watch the Sorting Hat come to life and speak to visitors as they weave through the cleverly disguised queue that leads deeper inside the castle.  Every twist and turn takes you into another familiar scene, truly creating the feeling that you are actually inside Hogwarts.

The Forbidden Journey ride is like nothing I have ever experienced.  I struggled to fully describe it to friends and family, as no conventional theme park terms seemed to do it justice.  What I can say is that is genuinely thrilling and utterly convincing.  After riding it five times it was still completely seamless, and as close to the world of Harry Potter as you can possibly get.

That’s not to say that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is completely flawless.  The area is very small, and breathing room inside the most popular stores is non-existent, leaving very little space for browsing through the merchandise.  Ollivanders in particular suffers from a distinct lack of space.   

The theme, while eye-popping, is not all-encompassing.  More could be done to disguise the ‘ride’ element of Hogwarts (the giant white warehouse structure detracting a little from the effect), and some of the people working in the stores and at the rides, while perfectly pleasant and helpful, could learn something from Disney’s Cast Members and their ability to fully immerse themselves in a role.  Being something a purist about these types of things, I would also like to see my purchases handed to me in themed or store specific bags.  Handing me a wand in a plastic bag with Shrek on it somewhat shatters the illusion!

These are minor complaints, however, in a place where you can ride on an enchanted flying bench and visit Hagrid’s hut, where the wand really does choose the wizard and where Butterbeer is real.  A definite must-do for wizards and muggles alike.

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