Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Last weekend, Child No.1 and I went to Orlando Florida to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. It turns out that the HP part is in one of two parks there called "Islands of Adventure." It had more adventure than islands which was just fine.

We actually started out by going to other non-HP Universal park. This was the park based on movies and it was very similar to the one we visited in LA last year. The shining light of that park is The Simpson's ride. It is basically a short episode that starts in the queue and ends with one of those simulated roller coasters. It is just great -- true to the series without any gratuitous things. It demonstrates that rides need good writing and production. We did a ton of other rides including the now, getting old, ET ride and the Twister ride which was very cool (you got to kind of experience a tornado) but let's face it, was based on a movie that died 15 years ago.

But the main deal for us was the next day with Harry Potter. Because it was just the two of us, I splurged on the VIP experience so as to avoid all queues and make sure we saw everything. I wouldn't recommend this for families with young children but between the 12 year old and myself, it was well worth it. Basically, we had a guide for about 5 hours who took us past all lines and also through bits and pieces ordinary souls couldn't reach. That meant my daughter could ride the Hulk to her hearts content and I could sit in the shade and watch. It also meant we got to see behind the scenes at the Spiderman experience -- first going on a ride, then getting the inside tour and then going back for another ride to appreciate some of the technical details. For instance, the designers thumbed their noses at Orlando inspectors requiring an "Exit" sign in the ride with a "This is not an exit" sign hidden comically within. 

This park was apparently based on books rather than movies. So there was a Dr Seuss world that was very well done, plenty of comics -- including an entire 'Toon Lagon' devoted to comic strips that even I was too young for! I guess they are targeting the resident Florida demographics with that one. There was Jurassic Park although the ride seemed more movie than book based. And finally there was Harry Potter.

I would not say that Universal have gone all out with Harry Potter but, as these things go, it is best practice. They have recreated the village of Hogsmeade set below a clearly not to scale but impressive nonetheless, Hogwarts. Hogsmeade has the Three Broomsticks restaurant as well as the Hogshead bar where you can get yourself a butterbeer -- it's good but sweet. There is an overpriced candy store -- consistent with the monopolistic retail practices set in motion of JK Rowling. And there is Olivanders selling wands. Now as any self respecting fan will tell you, Olivanders is in Diagon Alley not Hogsmeade but there it was. You go into that and you get a little show and then they stiff you for some wands. Suffice it say, they do a roaring trade in wands converting what must be a $5 top cost toy at $40 a pop. They also outfit kids in robes which many of them wear for the remainder of their visit in the Florida heat -- thereby causing a virtuous Butterbeer payment cycle. We didn't go that route but my daughter, who always saves and never spends, cleared out her deposits with a ton of T-shirts, Quidditch equipment and a couple of wands. Which wand? The elder wand of course.

There are a couple of gratuitous roller-coasters based on Harry Potter. The best part of them are the queues which take you inside bits and pieces of Hogwarts. Of course, the best queue which we experienced at leisure rather than by waiting was for the main Harry Potter experience ride. That queue had a moving portrait gallery and Dumbledore's office. But it was the ride itself that was fantastic. It was another one of these immersive rides but where you sit with feet dangling apparently like riding a broom. Broom riding isn't smooth especially when you are chased by ever single villan in Harry Potter in the space of six minutes including pretty darn large spiders. But it was good and it would be one of those rides well worth the 90 minute usual wait. 

If there is a sad part to this, it is clear how much more they could do with Harry Potter to make it a bigger experience. For instance, really creating Hogwarts and other common scenes. But I guess it would just cost too much and they are getting as many visitors as they are going to get anyway. I suspect that when the crowds die down, some expansions may occur to get them back. For the moment, if you are going to DisneyWorld it is worth siphoning off one day to go to Harry Potter as well.