Hogsmeade in the Time of Pottersville

The whole reason for coming to Florida, other than visiting grandma in her snowbird condo, was for my kids to see “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios Orlando.

They had grown up with the J.K. Rowlings series in a way that I can’t imagine other generations imprinted by a series of books (not Oz, not Tom Swift, not Nancy Drew) and we had raised them by taking them to those midnight bookstore openings and now movie openings every couple of years all thorugh their lives.

I keep thinking how this is going to alter this entire generation, growing up in a world ruled by spells and monsters. But for now, it means they have to see this ride, even though they both have never expressed much interest in theme parks, hardly visited the local ones, and are old enough to either be in college or thinking about it.

So naturally we got up early to be among the first in line when the park opened. This is the only advice I’ve ever gotten about theme parks that works. See the big rides early even if you have to finish your first coffee of the day before climbing onto Space Mountain – what a way to fully wake up.

I am apparently not alone in this theory, as lines formed for the $15 parking fee, and cars snaked into the multi-level lot before dashing to the lines at the ticket counters. And having spent more for a bunch of admission tickets than a single roundtrip airfare from Hartford, we did what most everybody else in line that hour did – dash as fast as possible to the one corner of the park dedicated to Potter. This meant totally ignoring all the rides for Jurassic Park (so 1990s!) and Seussville, however fanciful its design.

Even so, at 8:30 in the morning, we were told via staticky megaphones, that part of the park was full to capacity. I felt like Dorothy at Oz (and yes, I guess that’s my childhood book series reference, 100 years old and all) in her first visit to the Emerald City. Full? But we’ve come so far already.

More than that, we paid the nearly $400 for this one thing that we couldn’t get in to see. Well, you could get return tickets, they said, way way over at the other en of the park. Or stand in a “stand by” line for a chance to enter should, say, the even more early-minded Potter-fanatics inside would tire of the attraction by 8:45 a.m.  Again, let me say, this is like getting a standby ticket for a flight for which you’ve already paid full fare.

At any rate, the wait commenced. And thorugh some miracle a lady dispersed some tickets for 11:45 a.m. entry to Pottersville, er, “The WIzarding World,” and suddenly we were the luckiest themepark goers in Orlando. We bided our time in Seuss Landing, waiting in an hour line for a short train ride, and a shorter line for a carousel twirl. We even went into the disappointing “Poseidon’s Fury” ride which didn’t seem based on a film at all, unless it was a B-movie rip-off of Indiana Jones. Predictable, dull, poorly-written, “Poseidon” didn’t raise one’s expectations for the main attraction.

But then at 11:45 a.m. we got in, and the girls just basked in the glory of an accurately made Hogsmeade. They’d seen it in their minds thousands of times as they re-read the books, they saw what Hollywood was able to create on the big screen, but here they were able to walk amid it, to smell the smoke from the locomotive and pose with its conductor upon entry.   They just wanted to stand and take pictures at first, with none of that urgency to quickly queue up somewhere.

We moved inexorably to the castle, where the signature ride was, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” My one tip here is to go in as a “single rider” rather than as a group. It will get you on in 20 minutes rather than 90 minutes (though our wait was more like a half hour).

Once on the ride, on flying benches, with walls between each seat, you won’t be able to see or even banter with your other benchmates anyway, so unless you’re bent on getting a photograph of all of you together on one bench, this is, like it was for Harry, a journey one must take on his own.

The fast pass option for rides (which honestly makes for a pretty annoying caste system at theme parks these days) does not work on this ride. So skip the money on that option if this is your chief destination, as it was for us.

A combination “motion ride” with real ride, it uses the latest ride technology, incorporating 360 degree projections with actual models of dragons or spiders, plus environmental details like smoke, water, heat and flash.

The story itself, like the movies, I find, didn’t make any sense at all for the uninitiated non-Rowlings reader. But there’s a lot of flying around, fighting evil things and then chasing one another in a rooftop Quidditch game. The girls, who knew every detail referenced in the ride, appreciated it immensely.

That the actual actors from the film show up and shout encouragement was cool for them as well. But it was like seeing Harry Potter movies in 3-D from the first row – you may get a little motion sickness from it all. And a pint of Butterbeer afterwards – a too-sweet cream soda with a foamy head, would put you right over the edge.

Still, a fight out of the ride-ending gift shop meant out to the other nearby ride, Flight of the Hippogriff, which is pretty much a Crazy Mouse kind of small-coaster ride that is nonetheless well designed to look like wicker carts and has things like a nesting Hippogriff and Hagrid’s rural hut in the passing scenery.

This one got one of us even more woozy though the rest of us were fine. But none of us considered for even a moment taking on the third ride in the section, Dragon Challenge. Said to be the only dueling inverted roller coaster in the world, and the winner of some international roller coaster awards, it is also a repurposed ride from the park. When the park opened in 1999, it was part of the Lost Continent area of the park (which it is near) and the coasters were named Fire and Ice instead of Chinese Fireball and Hungarian Horntail. Just looking at it might make you ill.

So we were content just walking around the area and taking in every detail. This being the first Christmas season for the attraction, which opened in June, there were long lines for everything, including the theme shops.

You could wait in line to buy a stick, for example. Actually, the sticks were called wands and the shop a recreation of Ollivanders. There were also Honeydukes, Derish and Banges and Zonko’s Joke Shop.

I was dying for a beer from the Hog’s Head pub but decided to waitt in line for lunch at the Three Broomsticks, not a candlelit dining hall of Hogwarts vintage, but a town eating joint. It’s a combination of sit down dining with fast food ordering and it seems to work well in getting people in and out.

They know how to please patrons in these parks, however crowded they can get. I needed no spell; the beer suited me fine.

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