Universal Studios' new Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park fails to bring the magic.

Notes from different corners of the world.
June 24 2010 11:41 AM

The Park That Should Not Be Visited

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter fails to bring the magic.

(Continued from Page 1)

At the adjoining Hog's Head Tavern, the eponymous beast snorted behind the bar as the tender poured a butterbeer. It tasted of thick cream soda, with a gross marshmallow head. All around us, prepubescent boys compared mustaches, delighted to be hoisting frosty mugs.

The pumpkin juice, it should be noted, was totally delicious. But where was the magic? In imagining WWHP, I'd envisioned the best of the Potter movies, Alfonso Cuarón's third installment, in which characters go on about their business while, behind them, witches lazily conjure mops and chairs stack themselves. Forget the magical mops; where were the witches? Where were the wizards in their robes? We didn't expect to see Harry and Ron wandering around, but Hogsmeade didn't feel like a place where wizards and witches live. It felt like a place that tourists visit and spend money and go on roller coasters. It felt like an amusement park.

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Well, if it was an amusement park, perhaps the rides would salvage the experience. WWHP features two run-of-the-mill roller coasters, both repurposed from the park's days as the "Lost Continent" section of Islands of Adventure. But the showcase ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, takes place in Hogwarts castle proper. Walking through those gates was an undeniable thrill, and I was itching to explore the castle in which I felt I'd lived for over 4,000 pages.

As we approached the doors, I saw a mysterious passageway leading off to the left. "Can we go in there?" I asked.

"No, that's the ride exit," our publicist said. "This way. I'll get you through the line."

The line was at that point 120 minutes long. It did wend its way through Dumbledore's office, and past the Fat Lady, and into the Gryffindor common room. In each location, surprisingly lifelike movies of Michael Gambon and Daniel Radcliffe talked to us as if we were really there. Everything looked spectacular from behind the crowd-control ropes that guided us through Hogwarts' halls.

The ride, too, was very exciting. Strapped into a four-person car, we seemed to fly through the air on broomsticks, and at one point we were spat at by an acromantula. Outside the castle, after the ride, a four-person Hogwarts choir sang songs from the movies in Glee-style a cappella, their smiles polished and wide, mini-mics taped to their flushed cheeks.

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It's been reported that Rowling's initial plans for a Potter park—which fell apart after years of negotiations with Disney—were for a highly personalized experience in which visitors would enter through the Leaky Cauldron, visit Diagon Alley, and then take the Hogwarts Express all the way to the castle. It's tragic that Disney and Rowling parted ways; even if that model proved unfeasible, it implies a bigger, more immersive vision for the park than the quaint English village it's turned out to be.

It's hard to believe that Disney's Imagineers wouldn't have found ways to pack every corner of their version of PotterLand with surprises and wit, both of which are sorely lacking in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. One imagines motion-sensitive animatronic goblins taking your tickets, or Hagrid's Blast-Ended Skrewts mucking up the rides, or a Mirror of Erised showing each visitor a picture of himself surrounded by bags of money. I'd love to see a Disney-built version of Diagon Alley, with drunken warlocks passed out on the street like the rum-guzzling Pirates of the Caribbean.

At the very least, Disney wouldn't have been shy about, say, hiring 100 actors with good British accents to walk around in robes, wave wands, and do some magic tricks. What we wanted wasn't tasteful reproductions of buildings from the Potter movies; we wanted the messiness of the Potter books, where magic is funny and woven into the fabric of everyday life.

There's a disconnect, of course, between creating one-on-one magic—the experience that Brandon had in Ollivander's shop—and the financial imperatives of a (relatively) affordable mass-audience theme park. Maybe that's a problem that can't be solved without actual magic.

But it means that after the initial thrill of seeing Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, the WWHP offers little reason to stick around. By noon, thanks to our publicist's help in skipping queues—by then the line just to get into Zonko's was an hour long—we'd been on every ride, visited every shop, looked in every window, even poked at the Gringotts ATM to see if it did something special. (It did not. It was an ATM.)

There was nothing left to see. We sat on a bench in the Owlery, the unmoving owls and their painted-on owl shit in the rafters above us, and watched the crowds. It's no fun to be reminded that the world is nothing special.

After a tasty lunch of fish and chips at the Three Broomsticks, I visited the bathroom. The cries of the ghost Moaning Myrtle reportedly echo in the ladies', but I looked in vain for any sign that the creators of the Wizarding World had invested the men's room with some whimsy. It was just a men's room, albeit one cleaned by janitors forced to wear medieval-style clothing. I approached the sink and held my hands under the faucet. A bit of quotidian magic—a motion sensor—turned it on automatically. I sighed. It would have to do.

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