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!"