There just aren’t many weekends like this past one in Central Florida. Locals were treated to several simultaneous new offerings, and the normal hectic pace of small changes gave way to a veritable torrent of updates and attractions to experience, all in just a few days. Forget the “new to me” photos—I’ll have to save those for a future update. We’re talking major upgrades and news.
In Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS), the venerable Tower of Terror received an upgrade. They started up a nighttime dance party in the shadow of the Sorcerer Hat. The Mickey Kingdom has a similar dance party (Club 626), but more importantly, it welcomed back the Main Street Electrical Parade and kicked off the Summer Nightastic Fireworks Spectacular, a generic name for a decidedly un-generic show. More on all of that in a later update.
Harry Potter is here!
But while Disney had lots of action, the real headline-bursting news was in Universal’s Islands of Adventure (IOA), where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has been undergoing “technical rehearsals” (their term for a soft opening) for a few hours per day lately. It started the prior weekend, when guests of Universal’s hotels were allowed to visit the new land for a few hours in the morning, and that blossomed later in the week into all visitors, usually only from 9-11am.
If you get in, you’ll see an exciting new vista!
If the area is not open, you’ll encounter a wall of Team Members directing you away.
The new land encompasses two former rides that have now been rethemed. The kid coaster “Flying Unicorn” has been changed to “Flight of the Hippogriff” and “Dueling Dragons” has become “Dragon Challenge.” In these two cases, the ride experience didn’t change much, though there was new theming in the queue and the ride vehicle itself.
Hogwarts towers over everything.
The big news, of course, was in the one new ride, Forbidden Journey. This is a hugely advanced attraction, so it wasn’t operating all the time during the previews, and in fact we first visited on a day when this ride’s problems prevented the land from opening at all to anyone who wasn’t a hotel guest. While disappointed, I understood this decision. The hotel visitors were Universal’s “whales” (to borrow a term from Las Vegas for the high-spenders), and it does make sense for Universal to shower them with attention. They certainly paid the most, per day, of everyone gathered here. The pattern of early morning tests is likely to continue until the official opening on June 18, with the usual caveat that nothing is guaranteed. Get there right at opening if you want a shot!
I’m not going to mince words. The Potter land and its exciting new ride Forbidden Journey is a revelation. It’s easy to be enthusiastic about new rides in general—after all, they are new!—but in this case, it’s not an exaggeration to point out how astonishingly innovative this ride is, how amazingly immersive the entire experience aspires to be, and how complete the illusion is when you’re in the Wizarding World. Frankly, it’s ridiculous how good this new land and this new ride are. I’m going to go out on a limb here—not everyone will agree with me—and suggest that this is presently the best ride/theme/experience combination available in Orlando. You heard me. There’s nothing better in Orlando.
The slowest-moving part of the queue.
There, I said it. It’s not just Disney quality, it’s above Disney quality. It’s laughable to think that anyone else will win awards at IAPAA or the THEA accolades this year. Everything belongs to Potter. To borrow a phrase from American Idol Experience judge Simon Needham, there is a frustrated (and thirsty) Leprechaun out there somewhere… because they just set the bar really high.
Disney’s Summer Nightastic program, as good as it is, really pales in comparison. Consumers might yet win if this spurs the Mouse to do amazing things in the Fantasyland expansion, but don’t hold your breath. The Potter expansion is everything that IOA was meant to be originally: a challenge to Disney on its own turf; to out-Disney Disney itself.
Everything else in this update is rife with spoilers. Read at your own peril!
It may look snowy, but it was darned hot this past weekend!
Let’s start with the ride. Forbidden Journey doesn’t break new ground so much as smash the old measuring devices to smithereens and call it a day, bellowing to the bare sky its superiority. It’s a brand new ride mechanism best described as a “robocoaster”: attach a row of coaster seats to a crane that swivels in all directions and tosses riders about like so many rag dolls, mount that crane on a moving vehicle that proceeds through the building, and weave together movie screens and live-action sets (complete with Disney-quality animatronics) so seamlessly that you’ll be panting to catch your breath.
You don’t exit the ride pumping your fists and demanding to get back in line. That happens ten minutes later. Rather, as you get off the ride, you’ll be processing that the experience you just endured was unlike anything you’ve ever gone through before. You’re ecstatic of course, but you’re also trying to come to grips with everything that just happened because it’s so far out of your normal frame of reference, and indeed you may lack the vocabulary to make adequate comparisons. It’s part thrill ride, certainly, but it’s also solidly paced action that will quicken your pulse in and of itself, and I haven’t even mentioned the heart-pounding sections of the ride.
The ride is designed to scare you, you see. On three separate occasions (dragon, spiders, dementors) you will feel your intimate space invaded by the sets and robots around you. It’s unnerving how close they come, and entirely unexpected. My very brave seven year old, scared of no roller coaster invented, had to close his eyes to get through the ride.
Outside the ride, wizards from schools that compete with Hogwarts pose.
The storyline may leave some visitors a bit cold. It’s all explained rather hurriedly in the queue by our three heroes, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, played by the same actors you know from the movies, and appearing here as projections (similar to what you’d see in Universal’s Disaster attraction, where Christopher Walken plays a movie producer).
The line moves through the exposition a bit quickly, but apparently our heroes want us to see a Quidditch match for some reason, and Hermione casts a spell on our “bench” to make us fly. The ride itself is our flight on the bench, complete with Over the Shoulder restraints (the OTS restraints are probably why the Universal Creative team felt safe in piercing the usual “envelope of protection” and letting the sets/robots come so close to riders, since we can’t move and cause mischief).
In the queue, paintings argue with each other with startling realism.
We zoom out of the castle, seen via a screen, and quickly encounter a dragon. Soon enough, we zoom out of the movie and transition to a live set—the ride is like Spider-Man in that respect. But there are far more robotics in the live sets. The dragon himself makes an appearance, far too close to our faces for comfort.
The ride itself impressed me with its combination of capacity and individualization. On the one hand, it’s like a Disney Omnimover, especially in the loading platform. But once we zoom away, we separate a bit from the vehicle in front of us and behind us, a bit like Peter Pan Flight. But the film screens were enormous, and I’m still not sure how it was just-us watching the one movie for so long. In retrospect, they must have switched us to different screens every so often, with the main character guiding our eyes (we’re following behind Harry on his broom) so that we are only focused where they want us. In my case, at least, it worked flawlessly. I had no idea how they pulled off the tech. That may not hold true on my 12th (or even second!) ride, but I was wholly convinced on my first time through.
Dumbledore’s office in the queue.
We pass to the forest, where oversized spiders threaten us, some of them in our personal space. You’ll also get sprayed by water here, and even though I knew to expect it, this made me recoil when it happened. The ride has a definite edge to it, and in retrospect, I later found myself grateful for that edge. The Potter books have the same borderline “too scary” aspect, and the movies even more so. If Disney had won the rights to the character, as they were vying for, then we would have ended up with something less scary, I’m sure. This made me glad Universal had won. Since they are not Disney, they are more able to play on the margins, and actually have an edge to the attraction.
After the spiders we have more adventures (was it here we saw the Whomping Willow almost smack our car?) and when we make it to the Quidditch match, we are attacked by dementors. Startlingly, they follow us off the screen and attack us as animatronics, again coming too close. At several points in this chase, our vehicle tilts back so far it goes near vertical—you don’t want to have ANYTHING in your front pockets, or it will fall out.
Finally we make it back to the Great Hall and the ride is over. We disembark in the same hall full of floating candles (a neat effect) that we had seen when boarding.
The frog choir, straight out of the movies.
The ride itself spares no expense. There were no moments during it when I saw a vehicle, a track, or an errant screen. The illusion was complete, in my experience, and the sets were lushly decorated. While the basic idea may have been the same as Spider-Man, the Forbidden Journey looks like it costs much more than Spider-Man to construct. To oversimply, let me just say that everything looked convincing on the ride.
That goes double, in fact, for the very long queue. There are a few stretches of boring switchback—much of it in the Orlando heat—but the parts of the line which traverse the castle are richly appointed. Sometimes movie-oriented attractions make it a point to show the façade-type nature of the “set” and allow the illusion to break, but there is none of that anywhere in Wizarding World. It’s portrayed as a full-bodied, red-blooded creation there in front of you, a full bore simulation. The line resembles Dueling Dragons’ old queue, but unlike Dueling Dragons, it doesn’t culminate in a bare-steel ride, but rather continues and even elevates the theme.
In the queue, we pass first under the castle and see the Mirror of Erised (you see what you desire) before emerging outdoors for the switchbacks and a partly covered greenhouse of Professor Sprout (watch for the mandrake plants in one corner). I especially appreciated the presence of the (real) meat-eating pitcher plants overhead.
Back inside, we pass a few statues (someone out there will know what everything is!) and the sand-counting device which keeps track of the House points for the House cup, a neat touch. Then around a hallway or two and we see our first talking portraits. They are just recordings seen in a flat-screen TV, I’m sure, but the surface glass is textured as if by painting, and light glints off it very convincingly. I was impressed as hell by this simple effect, which was used to even greater effect in the next room with several paintings.
From there, we move to Professor Dumbledore’s office, where he appears as a projection to greet us. It’s only a quick hop from here to the main room of the queue, which is surprisingly small but offers the only storyline available, about a Quidditch match (I’m sure I’ll pick up more if I go more often.)
After that, it’s only a few more hallways, and then a quick trip around the Gryffindor common room and we’re home free. There’s a vehicle here to double-check you can fit (extra-large passengers won’t be allowed, and there’s a similar vehicle at the start of the line outdoors to check your size), and then the line winds around the Sorting Hat before the loading platform.
All in all, quite a bit to see and process. Like the Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland, there are loads of details to note. Way, way more than can be seen (let alone absorbed) on a first visit. Not for nothing is Universal Creative staffed with so many talented artists, many of them former Imagineers.
It’s hard to know how to begin describing Hogsmeade. Calling it “realistic” and “highly detailed” seems to be such an understatement as to do it an actual disservice. You could spend an entire afternoon strolling here, taking things in, and not see half the details laid out for us to discover in the years ahead. There are props from the movies in the windows, which is neat enough, but there are also gags and actions that call attention to themselves. You’ll see papers blow around, animated “Howlers” scream at wizards, jumping chocolate frogs, owls that move only occasionally, and a monster book that growls and thumps vigorously. A public board displays the Wanted poster for fugitive Sirius Black, done in the same style as the movies, with a movie embedded into the newspaper Daily Prophet.
It’s a bit like Toontown—exploring will reward you. Has there ever been an environment as detailed as this? I think yes – Mysterious Island at Tokyo DisneySea comes to mind, and that one is not only superbly themed, but built on a grandiose scale – but Hogsmeade rules the roost in Orlando as far as I can tell. It has vaulted to the very pinnacle in one fell swoop, no mean feat.
Want some candy?
There’s a candy store called Honeyduke’s with sweets straight from the movies: chocolate frogs, every flavor beans, and so on. Startingly, they even use the exact same wrappings as the movies (we looked at the first movie again a day later to be sure). Zonko’s carries gags and magic tricks, while the Owl Post has knickknacks galore. A separate shop (Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods) at the exit of Forbidden Journey sells a lot of stuff from the Houses. You’ll find several types of clothes with the Gryffindor colors, for example. It’s a bold merchandising choice. Rather than stuff the stores full of “I survived Harry Potter” shirts, they put in clothing and toys that act as if Hogwarts is quite real. It adds to the illusion, in my opinion, and I hope they continue that.
Case in point are the drinks. Two of the highly-discussed beverages are new inventions; Pumpkin Juice (mostly apple juice with pumpkin puree; really does taste like liquid pumpkin pie!) costs $7 a bottle, while butterbeer (only available non-alcoholic) will set you back $10.50 if you want it frozen and in the souvenir cup (it’s cheaper for the regular cup, but you want to be able to buy refills for only $3, don’t you?) Some folks are reporting that the ‘regular,’ non-frozen butterbeer is their favorite, but we haven’t sampled both yet.
You can pick up drinks at the Hog’s Head Tavern, a real bar with real alcohol (and a fake boar’s head on the back wall that will grunt and move around if you tip the cashiers). Like the Enchanted Oak restaurant before it, the Three Broomsticks is attached to this bar under one roof. It will serve all three types of meals later, but was only serving breakfast during the preview days. Distressingly, the menu showed no prices on it, though I did like the video-Daily-Prophet theming of the digital menu itself.
The Broomsticks occupies the spot of a former restaurant,
but was built brand new from the ground up.
Speaking of distress, you’ll want to gird yourself before stepping foot in Ollivander’s to buy a wand. Probably there’s a line outside to see the wand experience, which is a quaint and relatively quick live-action show to pick a “wizard” child in the audience to test-run a few wands, almost destroying the overstuffed store in the process.
It’s cute, and it’s meant to encourage all children to head next door and buy a wand for themselves. But when we’re herded next door, we encounter a wall of other visitors. The stores, you see, are dramatically and horribly overcrowded.
Maybe it was poor planning, or maybe J.K. Rowling (who demanded a whole lot of creative control) wanted the stores to feel crowded and claustrophobic to match the look/feel of the movies. But if so, this was operationally short-sighted. No one is going to buy wands under these circumstances. Making matters much worse, there are two entrances to this wand store apart from the Ollivander’s experience. They need to cut off access from the other part of the store (via a rope?) and turn the outside door to an exit-only door to restore sanity here. That would make the shop inaccessible unless you went through the wand experience, but too bad. At least gridlock would be avoided. Perhaps they can sell wands at the store near the IOA exit also.
Good luck finding a wand – it’s too crowded!
When all is said and done, the Wizarding World is likely to have a big impact on the overall bottom line for Universal. The devil is always in the details. How much of an impact? Enough to justify the huge expense of this expansion? Enough to do a similar expansion at other Universal parks around the globe? Surely this will be a test bed for such questions.
Given the stunning quality of the theming and the jaw-droppingly good ride, it’s my prediction that people will walk off this ride and rave about it to their friends. That kind of word of mouth will drive attendance much more than any marketing effort, and I think IOA has finally found its identity.
To call this section a “park within a park” (what they said early on about the Potter expansion) is a bit much. It’s just a new land in the IOA lineup. But it’s a phenomenal one that hits on essentially every cylinder, something that never happened to the other areas of IOA.
The train is just for photos.
If you want to boil it down to one simple sentiment, I’d say that Universal is finally, and perhaps for the very first time, on a level playing field with Disney. Will it drive enough attendance? Any guesses are pure speculation, but I’d speculate it will bring more attendance than Disney wants to see, though perhaps not as much as Universal wants. I wonder if IOA will benefit at the expense of the Universal Studios Florida park.
Am I "Wild About Harry?" It *is* the hottest thing going right now. And speaking of going, I’m itching for a return visit to the Wizarding World. The pumpkin juice and butterbeer were both delicious, the theming is unparalleled, and the ride groundbreaking and breathtaking. I’ve already been and I can’t wait to go again.