To explain how the Wizarding World of Harry Potter fails, it's instructive to describe the one moment during my recent visit in which the new theme park succeeded.
A group of tourists reverently entered the attraction based on Ollivander's magic-wand shop. After the sunlight and noise of the park outside, it was a shock to be in such a tiny, dark space, magic wands in handsome boxes stacked all the way up the walls, a serious-looking older man bustling about. He spoke to the 20 or so nervous children and parents in a plummy British accent. "Welcome to Ollivander's," he said, "makers of fine wands since 382 B.C."
Suddenly the man fixed his gaze on one boy. "You are in need of a wand," he said.
The boy nodded. He looked about 10. His name, he said, was Brandon. He wore Crocs and a white T-shirt. The old wizard pulled a box from the wall and peered at the boy over his desk. He handed him the wand and asked him to try it out. "Point the wand at that ladder, Brandon," Ollivander instructed, "and say, Accio ladder."
Brandon pointed the wand, his eyes wide. "Accio ladder," he said, putting on a British accent of his own. All at once a wall full of drawers shook violently open and shut behind the ladder. The boy jerked his arm back, and Ollivander gently took the wand from his fingers. "Not quite right, it seems," he said.
Eventually, of course, just as Harry Potter's wand "chose" him, a wand chose Brandon—accompanied by a light show, a puff of wind, and a John Williams musical cue played over the shop's speakers—and his family was ushered into the adjacent souvenir shop to buy that wand for $30. (Families whose children weren't plucked out of the crowd by Ollivander could buy other wands—Harry's! Voldemort's!—or wait in line for another chance to have Ollivander hand-select one for them.)
Yes, the rather bald aim here was to move souvenirs. But for one moment, Brandon had been able to imagine himself a resident of J.K. Rowling's world, where magic is real. And so had I.
That the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the new attraction at Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure theme park, doesn't deliver that feeling more often can be blamed on many factors. It was 101 degrees the day my wife and I visited, very un-English conditions, which were surely not Universal Studios' fault (although Orlando, Fla., is never going to feel like England). Nor were the choking crowds; we were the ones stupid enough to visit a highly anticipated theme park on its opening weekend, and anyway, we had a publicist slipping us past the queues, so we couldn't really complain about that.
The real problem with the WWHP is the failure of imagination on the part of its creators. They've designed the village of Hogsmeade beautifully, right down to the crooked chimneys and the owl-crap stains in the Owlery. But the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a theater with no drama—an expertly designed set through which Muggles wander, waiting in vain for magic to happen.
And boy, was I ready for magic. I'd read about how the park's plans included just three traditional amusement rides—that the point of the attraction was less to thrill visitors than to immerse them in Harry Potter's world. That was fine with me, as the novels had fostered in me a powerful desire to visit the world Rowling had imagined, as strong as my desire to visit other incredible places I'd only read about, like Tuscany, or the '60s.
I wanted to meet Hogwarts students and professors and be surprised by spells and creatures and magical happenings all around me, to fool myself for just one day that the place I'd devoted so many hours reading and thinking about was real. I wanted WWHP to be a Colonial Williamsburg of magic. I wanted to live in a world where magic is possible. What's so hard about that?
We arrived at the gates bright and early Sunday morning, accompanied by the Universal publicist who would be helping us navigate the lines. The park looked spectacular: the Hogwarts Express steaming away, the snow-capped village of Hogsmeade nestled behind it, and Hogwarts castle up on a hill just as I'd imagined it. We'd left our children at home; they just would have cramped our style. (When the seventh Potter book was released, we sent our daughter to her grandparents' for the weekend so we could read our two hardcovers in peace.)
First stop: Zonko's and Honeydukes, joined into one store at WWHP. We traipsed to the door but were stopped by an employee, who said, "This is the exit," in flat Americanese. Oops! Once in, we browsed the Chocolate Frogs and Sneakoscopes, but about half the merchandise was the kind of junk you'd find in any dollar store: Jacob's Ladder, Duck on Bike, even—oh, J.K.—Whoopee cushions.
We walked the crowded main street of Hogsmeade, past Potage's Cauldron Shop and Gladrags Wizardwear, marveling that these silly names thought up by Rowling 20 years ago were now full-fledged stores we could walk into. "No, these are just storefronts," our publicist corrected, "but each one is really amazingly designed, with magical elements." They were quite lovely. The "magical element" in the Potage's window was a spoon that stirred by itself.
The Three Broomsticks Inn, the park's only restaurant, was astonishing to behold, all dark wood and cathedral ceilings and antlers on the wall. The modern kitchen and takeout windows were tucked just far enough away that they didn't ruin the illusion. Staircases wound to the upper floors, where light poured through windows, illuminating rafters, a dusty old cleaning cart, and the trunks of the Inn's guests. Could we go up there and poke around? "No, it's just decoration," our publicist said. "If you watch the walls and ceiling carefully, though, you might see the shadow of a house-elf!"
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.
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.
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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Slate V: Hogwarts Comes to Life