Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Not the literary creation, of course, but the amusement park at Universal Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida!

As with most health care professions, my wife is required to complete a certain number of continuing education hours each year in order to maintain her certification as a physician.  The American Academy of Family Physicians helps with this by holding an annual Scientific Assembly, at which attendees can earn 20 or more credit hours at seminars that run for twelve hours a day over a four day period.

Obviously, after an intensive period of study and information absorption, a break is needed.  Each year the Assembly is held in a different city, and each year the Assembly tries have that "break" in the form of a celebration which takes advantage of the best that city has to offer.  In Boston, it was a concert by the Boston Pops held exclusively for the attendees and their families.  In San Antonio, it was a cookout at the Alamo.

In Orlando, the Assembly rented Universal Islands of Adventure for the evening.

No outsiders, just a few thousand family doctors and their families.  No long lines, and the entire park all to ourselves.  Wonderful.

My wife and I made a beeline for that part of the park known as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  (Us, and most everybody else!)  Megan and I had the opportunity to "do" Universal a couple of years ago at my dad's 80th birthday, so we felt we could skip the other areas--Comic Strip Land, Dr. Seuss Village, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent and Marvel Island.

We are both Harry Potter nerds.  We wanted Hogwarts.

The first thing we saw upon entering the gates of Hogsmeade Village was the train station with the Hogwarts Express steaming away at the platform.  The conductor cheerfully greeted all of us Muggles as we entered the town.

Hogsmeade itself is delightful.  A mix of what we all imagine Hogsmeade to be with a healthy dose of Diagon Alley thrown in.  Zonko's Joke Shop and Honeyduke's Sweets are the first shops you pass on your way up the High Street, followed by Flourish and Blott's, Dervish and Banges', and the Three Broomsticks Pub.  On your right will be Ollivander's Wand Shop and the Owl Post, and at the end of the lane is Hogwarts Castle.

The first thing we did was to get ourselves a couple of Butterbeers from the Butterbeer wagon.  They were, alas, not only nonalcoholic but very disappointing.  For all the world it tasted like creme soda topped with a caramel-infused whipped cream.  Butterbeer is available in both a frozen slushy version and a "draft" version; at $21.00 for two we thought it terribly overpriced in spite of the souvenir plastic glasses.  Butterbeer is normally available for far less at the Three Broomsticks, so if you go, wait until you get inside the pub.  We fell prey to our newbie ultrafan nature.

Pumpkin Juice and Pumpkin Fizzes are also available.  Very sweet and quite delicious.  I much preferred my Pumpkin Fizz to my Butterbeer.

After browsing the shop windows, we headed for Hogwarts.  I understand that when the park is open to the world at large, the wait for the Forbidden Journey ride can be hours long.  For us that night it was only about twenty minutes, and it was barely long enough to appreciate the level of detail that goes into waiting for the ride.  You start off through the Hogwarts grounds and enter the greenhouse and Herbology.  There are alway props to look at, and everything is perfectly duplicated from the films.

From the greenhouse you finally enter the castle, where you are asked to get rid of all bags and loose items in a free locker adjacent to Filch's Confiscated Goods (the inevitable end-of-ride gift shop) and continue on into the castle.  You will see just about everything you ever wanted to -- the witch statue that hides the secret passage to Honeydukes, living paintings, the Griffin statue that guards the entrance to Dumbledore's office, and so on.  If the ride is too scary for you, or if you don't meet the physical requirements (you have to be 48" tall and guests of a certain largeness cannot be accommodated on the ride -- I barely made it at 6'5" and 285 lbs.) you can still wander the castle.

You wind through Dumbledore's office and are greeted by a film of Michael Gambon explaining his new initiative of Muggle/Magical interaction at Hogwarts.  It's great.  You also get a short film from Harry, Ron and Hermione in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom.  Again, you will see EVERYTHING you wanted to see -- Sorting Hat, Dragon skeleton, spine-shaped candles, everything. When you get to the Gryffindor Common Room (and get to see Dawn French's Fat Lady living painting -- DO NOT MISS THIS!) you are finally getting close to the actual ride.

You will enter the Room of Requirement, be seated on a bench with three other people, and Hermione will charm the bench so that it flies.  From then on you are in the hands of one of those flying rides that use movie screens and physical motion to induce the illusion of movement.  Sort of a cross between Disney's Haunted Mansion and Universal's Simpsons ride, if that helps.

I won't spoil the plot other than to tell you that it involves Quidditch and Hagrid, but it's great.  Lots of jerking around -- they are right to make you locker your loose items! -- and some genuinely scary moments for littler ones, but well worth the time invested.  I'm told the ride lasts about five minutes, but it felt like it lasted far, far longer.

If you are a Harry Potter fan, or even if you merely enjoyed the movies, I heartily recommend this experience.  Again, I have no reference to compare what the wait times might be like on a normal visit to the park, but my wife and I had a wonderful, wonderful time.

More on the other parts of Hogsmeade soon!

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