J.K. Rowling's phenomenal book series has sold more than 400 million copies worldwide, the movies based on the books have grossed billions -- and now Muggles who love to immerse themselves in the books and films can go one step further. Since June 2010, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter "theme park within a theme park" has welcomed visitors to Hogwarts and Hogsmeade.
Where is it? Orlando, of course...
Islands of Adventure is one of two theme parks at Universal Orlando, and previously had five themed "islands". It now has a 20-acre Harry Potter "theme park within a theme park"', with two main areas, Hogwarts Castle and the village of Hogsmeade. The Wizarding World took over some areas of The Lost Continent, and two existing attractions were adapted to the Harry Potter theme.
The Harry Potter Theme Park Experience
From its earliest announcement, the aim of this Harry Potter theme park has been to create an "immersive experience", that allows fans to really feel they've entered the world of Gryffindor and Ollivanders and owl posts. Academy Award-winning production designer Stuart Craig -- who worked on all the Harry Potter films -- headed up creative design.
How well has it turned out? Our About.com Guide for Theme Parks says it's "one of the--if not the--most richly detailed, immersive environments ever presented at a theme park. It takes the art of park storytelling to new and breathtaking levels." Or as another review put it: "If God is in the details, then Wizarding World is the holiest place on Earth."
The authenticity -- if we can use the term for a fantasy world-- even extends to the merchandise offered. There's no sunscreen for sale, or popcorn... You can however, buy a Nimbus 2000 broomstick, and drink plenty of butterbeer.
It's a delight to stroll past the quaint shop-fronts in Hogsmeade, with suitably odd angles and quirky details, and to shop in Honeydukes and Dervish and Banges...
Be warned, though, that you'll be strolling with plenty of company: the Wizarding World is hugely popular. Check tips about visiting the Harry Potter theme park: advice for beating the crowds; tips about Ollivanders Wand Shop, and butterbeer, and the best time of day to feel a bit of magic in Hogsmeade.
The iconic Hogwarts Castle towers in the theme park, and inside is the new state-of-the-art attraction "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" - more on that, below. As visitors line up for the ride, they wend their way through Hogwarts: past talking portraits, through Professor Sprout's greenhouse... Dumbledore, Harry, Ron and Hermione make appearances. Hogwarts in itself is a wonderful attraction. (And it's hugely popular: see tips about line-ups.)
But of course, a theme park also needs a thrilling ride or two. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is the marquee attraction, and our Guide for Theme Parks loves it: "The signature Potter attraction uses advanced robotics to send guests on a wild journey alongside Harry, Hermione, and Ron where they experience many iconic scenes from the films. It is the most advanced, stunning park ride anywhere."
(I found the journey whizzed too fast by dementors, whomping willow, quidditch pitch, etc.; but to each his own, people love the ride; and feel free to share your own opinion below.)
The two other rides existed previously and have been re-purposed: the former Dueling Dragons double roller coaster is now the Dragon Challenge, pitting the The Hungarian Horntail against the Chinese Fireball. Both are wild, inverted rides; the Fireball is faster and higher than the Horntail.
Less intense for guests is a training flight on the Flight of the Hippogriff coaster ride (formerly the Flying Unicorn): a very short ride, but fun, and offers a good glimpse of Hagrid's hut and of a baby Hippogriff in its nest.
There are just these three rides in the Wizarding World; much of the appeal is the "immersive experience". Guests can dine in the Three Broomsticks, quaff a drink in Hog's Head, shop in Zonko's joke store, find a wand in Ollivanders, try exploding sweets, mail letters from the Owl Post...
It can probably be said that never was a theme park under such pressure to "get it right": the legions of Harry Potter fans have strong feelings about all things Wizard and all things Harry. Early on the President of Universal Orlando promised: "We're going to be true to the books and the films, and make sure that when people come here they're going to be very, very happy with what they see."
I'm happy to join the consensus in saying: they did a super job.
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