Review: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – from the heart of an obsessive fan

Hogwarts at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

I recently visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, FL for the first time.  I’d been to Islands of Adventure many many times before, but the WWoHP was still under construction the last time I was there.  I had read a lot about the WWoHP and I was very curious as to what my reaction would be, considering I’m a hugely obsessive Harry Potter fan.  Unlike some other fans, however, I’ve never shown much of an outward expression of this obsession.

I don’t own boatloads of Harry Potter merchandise, I’ve never dressed as a wizard or drawn a scar on my forehead, I’ve never been to a Wizard Rock concert or to a convention.  Other than the ring I wear every day that has the sign of the Deathly Hallows on it, my HP obsession has always been inward.  I have a deeply personal connection to the books, and while I’ve occasionally written about it, it’s not something I share or talk about much.  Of all of the things I love, it’s the one that I have the most trouble finding the right words to express the depth of my feelings, and I’ve so often been antagonized for it that I’ve mostly given up.  (I’ve written about it a bit on my blog, but I’ve never been very satisfied with how it turned out.)

It was with a mixture of excitement and nerves, therefore, that I first entered The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  To get the most obvious statement out of the way first, let me say that the WWoHP is gorgeous.  The castle of Hogwarts, up the hill at the top of the main street of Hogsmeade is stunning, with perfect use of forced perspective to give it an appropriate sense of size.  It looks as though it appeared there straight out of the movies, and standing there surrounded by the snowcapped Hogsmeade buildings really drives home the experience.

The main attraction of the area is the ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which you enter directly beneath Hogwarts castle.  It’s a remarkable feat of engineering, with the robotic arm ride system giving a unique sense of movement and illusion of flying.  The ride combines projected video and animatronics and is exciting and thrilling.  The transitions from 2D screen to 3D sets and back is kind of jarring and can break the continuity of the ride, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a technical marvel.

The other rides in the area, Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge are rethemed versions of previous Islands of Adventure attractions, Flying Unicorn and Dueling Dragons.  The rides themselves are unchanged, but have been given new settings and storylines to fit into the WWoHP.  In Hogsmeade you can also experience Ollivander’s Wand Shop, where a group of twenty or so will view a wand fitting, as a member of the group is chosen to try out wands until they are chosen by their wand (which can of course be purchased after the experience).  Hogsmeade is full of shops where you can buy both the standard slate of souvenirs and items that fit in-universe, such as wands, owls (stuffed, of course), candy, toys, parchment, quills and the like.  There is also food and drink available, including the famous butterbeer, at the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head.

In all, there is a lot to see and do, and I certainly enjoyed it, but I never felt the emotional connection that I think I should have felt to a land devoted to something to which I’m so deeply connected.  I’ve been trying to figure out why, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is all about the surface and lacks depth.  This may seem like a strange criticism to level at a theme park, where the point is to have fun, but as an obsessive fan I found my level of fun diminished as cracks started to appear in the beautiful facade that I was presented with.

Hogwarts Express

Let me try and explain by focusing on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the signature ride (spoilers ahead).  As you walk into Hogwarts, the queue winds its way through the castle, past the hourglasses that show the House Cup standings, and into Dumbledore’s office.  It’s beautifully recreated, looking as close its counterpart in the films as anyone could reasonably expect.  Michael Gambon appears as Dumbledore, explaining that we muggles are being given a tour of Hogwarts for the first time, introducing us to the world of magic, and that we will be given a lecture on the history of Hogwarts by ghostly Professor Binns.

So far, so good.  The queue proceeds on to the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, again faithfully recreated, with foe glasses and a dragon skeleton hanging from the ceiling.  Harry, Ron and Hermione show up (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson), telling us that they’re going to save us from a boring lecture and instead whisk us off to watch some quidditch on some enchanted flying benches.  Ron’s wand misbehaves, causing snow to fall from the ceiling, and the whole storyline feels great thus far.  We wander through the halls of Hogwarts, where we listen to portraits of the four founders discussing our tour, Harry Potter, the escape of Hagrid’s latest pet dragon, and other such things, and we get safety announcements from the Sorting Hat.  We finally board our enchanted benches in the Room of Requirement, Hermione casts a spell and we’re off.

Everything up to this point has been magical and feels like it fits with the universe of the movies.  It’s true, there’s no explanation of how Hogwarts happened to appear in Orlando.  I would have loved to see some kind of story element as you enter that would explain your transportation to Hogsmeade, somewhere in Scotland (maybe a portkey?).  But once your flying bench takes off, things start to fall apart.  You exit the castle and are suddenly flying over it, with Ron and Harry on their brooms, until you run into Hagrid and his dragon.  You take refuge in the wooden bridge (created for the movies) and are attacked by the dragon.  This scene is exciting and fun, and while I don’t remember Hagrid setting a dragon loose on the castle to attack muggles in any of the stories, I can deal with it because it’s fun and somewhat in character.

But what I can’t forgive comes immediately afterwards.  Your bench ducks away from the dragon and you immediately find yourself in Aragog’s lair, deep in the forbidden forest, where you’re attacked by spiders.  There is no explanation for this, no transitional scene, you’re just there.  It’s jarring and doesn’t obey any of the geography of Hogwarts, or the rules of magic (no apparating in the Hogwarts grounds).  Hermione is there and saves you and suddenly you’re being attacked by the Whomping Willow, and then just as suddenly you’re on the quidditch pitch in the middle of a Gryffindor-Slytherin match.

The geographically impossible jumping around is nothing to what happens next.  Out of nowhere, an entire host of Dementors attack for no apparent reason.  Is this a plot by Voldemort?  Have they gone rogue?  Are we time travelling back to Prisoner of Azkaban?  These questions aren’t answered, as we are chased by them throughout the pitch and randomly find ourselves in the Chamber of Secrets, where we are attacked by them further.  Harry saves us with his Patronus, and we escape as the cave collapses, and fly to the Great Hall where we’re greeted by cheering students and teachers with Harry on their shoulders (because he won the quidditch match and defeated the Dementors, I suppose).  The ride ends as we return to the Room of Requirement and disembark.

If my description of the ride didn’t make my feelings clear, let me try to describe it.  The Forbidden Journey, and the WWoHP in general, feel more like “Harry Potter’s greatest hits” than a true wizarding experience.  There’s no context or explanation given for much of what happens in the ride or what we’re shown.  I can accept a muggle tour of Hogwarts and all of the events separately, but the way they’re presented gives them no flow or connection, and only served to emotionally remove me from the experience.

It also left me with many questions.  When is this supposed to be taking place?  Clearly the characters are still students, Dumbledore and Fred Weasley are still alive, and even the Weasley twins are still students.  That would put it sometime in Order of the Phoenix, before the twins left the school, though we get no sign of Umbridge.  But then again, in the final scene the twins are shown in school robes, but not in quidditch robes with the team, while Ginny is on the team.  The whole thing just seems somewhat wrong, as if a bunch of executives sat in a room and thought up all of the moments they remembered from the films and just slapped them together.

Mandrake

This feeling continues into Hogsmeade, where charming details like Moaning Myrtle’s voice in the bathroom stand in contrast to some things that just make no sense.  In one of the shop windows is an unpotted Mandrake, making that adorable screaming noise that causes unconsciousness or death in the books and films.  Of course, it doesn’t do that to us, so I guess we’re forced to assume the window is enchanted to protect us?  And inside Zonko’s joke shop we find products like U-No-Poo which is a Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes product and would never be sold in Zonkos.  Along that same line there is a display for Puking Pastilles straight out of the movies, that is infinitely charming on its own but completely out of place in context.  And their Pygmy Puffs are available throughout Hogsmeade.

I suppose my general feeling was that I greatly enjoyed the details, but every time I took a step back it fell apart.  Harry Potter is so ingrained in me that I’m not able to simply shut my brain off and get lost in something that seems so determined not to care about the bigger picture.  Any segment of the Forbidden Journey ride was great on its own, but taken together it’s something of a mess.  The details of Hogsmeade are a joy to behold, but it loses its magic when viewed as a whole.  Context matters to me; one of the reasons Harry Potter was able to worm its way into my soul was how connected and important the relationships were to each other.  Nothing could ever be taken alone, because each moment had a larger importance.

Hagrid's Hut at WWoHP

Interestingly, I really enjoyed Flight of the Hippogriff, which was perfectly themed and self-contained.  Despite the ride being designed for kids, its story and setting work much better than the other rides.  You head to Hagrid’s cabin and the pumpkin patch for a Care of Magical Creatures lesson with Hagrid and Buckbeak, and the whole thing works, particularly the animatronic of Buckbeak on the first lift hill, bowing to us.  But, once again, take a step back and realize that Buckbeak isn’t at Hogwarts in Order of the Phoenix.  And I fear the time setting problems will only get worse once the WWoHP expansion opens, rumored to contain Diagon Alley and a Gringotts ride, along with an appearance from Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange.

On a related note, if the experience is taking place during the time period I’ve assumed, it’s awfully lighthearted given the events in the magical world at the time.  If they wanted to set the WWoHP during Order of the Phoenix or Half-Blood Prince, the tone of the area should be much darker, with Ministry of Magic interference or the thread of Death Eaters and Voldemort looming over everything.  If they wanted a less gloomy tone, they could have set everything after the Battle of Hogwarts in Deathly Hallows and have Harry giving tours because of his fame, with McGonagall as Headmistress.

Weasleys' Ford Anglia

I’m sorry if this all comes off as nitpicking and silly, but it’s my honest reaction (don’t get me started on the poor selection of wands in Ollivander’s).  I can honestly say that I did enjoy The Wizarding World of Harry Potter a lot, it’s beautiful to look at, the rides are great in some ways, and that I can’t wait to go back, but I feel like it didn’t connect with me the way it should to someone as much a fan as I am.  I imagine the casual fans enjoy it a lot more than I do, without worrying about the smaller stuff, though I would think that the Forbidden Journey ride’s “greatest hits” style would rub most people the wrong way.  I’ve read so much online from megafans about how emotional they found the experience, as though they were really at Hogwarts, and I’m sad to say that I didn’t feel the same.  I’m the most emotional person I know, and I cry at the drop of a hat, so it’s disappointing that I wasn’t able to feel what they feel when it should have been so easy.

What do you think?  Are you an obsessive Harry Potter fan, a casual fan, or couldn’t care less?  Have you been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter?  If so, what did you think?  Am I taking things too seriously?

5 thoughts on “Review: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – from the heart of an obsessive fan

  1. As someone who hasn’t been to a theme park in over a decade, I’m curious now — how does it compare to other movie world rides? Are they usually more coherent? Is it easier to do for a single movie/book rather than a series? Are there darkly themed ones or are they all light-hearted? Suggestion: a future post about your favorite movie-related theme park ride or experience!

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    • Other rides are certainly more coherent, usually with the plot of the ride making more sense. As far as themed areas of parks, that’s more hit or miss. WWoHP is more ambitious than most, so there’s more to go wrong, so to speak, but given the level of involvement from the filmmakers and J.K. Rowling, I expected a better continuity than what I found. Universal Studios has always been a bit spastic with its theming and storytelling when compared with Disney.

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  4. Hey, thanks for this review! I’ve been to the Warner Bros Studio Tour in London and Harry Potter: The Exhibition in Seattle, both of which containing the real props, costumes, and set pieces. From your article, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter appears to be more interactive and immersing; perfect for the HP-obsessed children within us all. Thank you again! I plan to be taking a visit to Orlando in a few years, and very much appreciate your insight as I wait for my opportunity to visit.

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