We got a sneak peek at Harry Potter's world
Muggles were smuggled in thanks to the Orlando International Pow Wow, a travel industry trade show, and they let their geek flags fly high, snapping up sweets from Honeydukes or a Sneakoscope from Zonko's Joke Shop and Hogwarts Cup T-shirts. Though we followed the rules of not taking pictures, they are already leaking out over the Internet thanks to camera phones and Twitter.
-- The designers did a stunning bit of Hollywood stagecraft as you walk through the archway into Hogsmeade, the wizarding village that abuts Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Step through the arch and the music swells, a train engine to your right belches out steam, charming thatched-roof shops line a winding cobbled road and you can see the huge castle up ahead. The roofs are dusted with snow and even though this is muggy Orlando, for a just a second, it took everyone's breath away to be transported to snowy Scotland.
-- Hogwarts Castle lives up to all of the hype, looming above this world within a theme park. It has all the rambling presence and odd assymetery J.K. Rowling imagined, since this is not a piece of architecture that has to obey muggle rules of what holds up a tower. The castle is really the waiting line for the Forbidden Journey ride, winding visitors past the magical greenhouse (we wished the plants moved), the Mirror of Erised (some labeling would have been helpful since it didn't show our heart's desire), talking oil portraits make the Haunted Mansion's version look laughable, the Griffindor Common Room and an up-close look at Dumbledore's office (with the big man himself nattering on about keeping visitors safe with his special charms). Once again, the Hollywood wizards make this look like the actor, Sir Michael Gambon, is there in the room.
-- Try the butter beer (which tastes like the sweetest cream soda you've ever had) and the pumpkin juice (like apple cider with a hint of pumpkin and also very sweet), both non alcoholic. There's also a malty Scottish ale brewed especially for the park called Hogs Head Brew which is sold, quite appropriately, in the Hogs Head Pub.
-- The Three Broomsticks also was a polished bit of set design of an old pub and inn with stag horns on the wall and a hogs head over the Hog's Head pub that even snorts at you. This is the signature restaurant in the village, with things like shepherd's pie and fish and chips in the reasonable $9.99 to $13.49 range. There also is a platter for four featuring salad, chicken, ribs, potatoes and more for $49.99. Over on the kids menu, you can get fish and chips, chicken fingers and more. And the folks at Universal made a point of noting that except for the fish and chips, meals are served with healthier options like grapes and applesauce. Fries are only available upon request.
-- About two dozen people at a time were ushered inside Ollivander's famous wand shop, full of dust and stacked to the ceiling with slim cases of wands. The proprietor gives a speech about how the wand picks the wizard, not the other way around. He invites a visitor to take one and test out a holly "with a core of phoenix tailfeather" and drawers magically open, lights suddenly come alive and you hear a boom of thunder. Then the guests are ushered into -- surprise! -- a gift shop next door where they can buy one of their favorite character's wands. Someone should have clued in Harry that you can have Voldemort's wand for $24.95. In the adjacent shop.-- The Owlery has a half dozen animated owls hooting and a real Owl Post office lets you send a howler to Grandma with a Hogsmeade postmark. In the shop next door, you'll see a snarling book in a cage, which Potter fans will recognize as the Monster Book of Monsters textbook assigned by Hagrid for his magical creatures class.
-- The shops could be dangerously expensive if you are feeling free-wheeling, with nods to the books' many bits of wizarding life that almost escape attention on the first read. Remember the Fanged Flyer, the brand of saw-toothed Frisbee sold in Fred and George's joke shop in Diagon Alley? You can get one here for $24.95 (glove included). The shop staff welcomes you in with a hearty "Welcome to Zonko's!" when you walk through the door and the workers are boning up on book trivia to explain the many oddities on the shelves. Honeydukes sweet shop, with the chocolate frog croaking in the window, has the sugar quills the Hogwarts students used to fool their teachers into thinking they were concentrating when they really sucking on spun sugar in disguise, as well as Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, gigantic lollipops, fudge and cholcolate confections.
-- Throughout the exhibit, the shops combine standard toys, clothes and chotchkeys repurposed with wizarding names, such as the spinning top renamed a Sneakoscope ($14.95) or the saw-toothed Frisbee I mentioned earlier. There's a Golden Snitch for sale (a ball on a pedestal with wings that flap for $14.95) and wizarding school supplies like cauldrons, robes and working geeks can get a lanyard to hold their office badges that looks like the Hogwarts ties. There's even a corner of dark wizard goods in Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods, such as an “I served time in Azkaban” T-shirt or Death Eater gear that looks like an Ed Hardy design. (Ah ha! We knew he was a dark wizard!). You can also find incredible chess sets, all the books and movies and a remarkable collectible brooms that can cost as much as $300. For that much, they really should fly.
Sharon's only quibbles are that the hype, or maybe my own imagination, led me to expect a huge space devoted to the sprawling grounds and forbidden forest. Instead it's a magical spot tucked into the Islands of Adventure. The designers have a done a good job of disguising that by blocking out the sight of the nearby Incredible Hulk roller coaster and piping in music and sound effects so the only thing you see or hear as you walk the cobbled streets is a quaint magical village. But it is just a short walk, and it's easy to imagine how cramped this space will feel when thousands of Potter fans mob the place.
Sherry's only quibble was that if you are not the biggest fan, you may get a bit bored with it because it is not a big space. But we didn't get to go on the big ride, the Forbidden Journey, or the revamped versions of Flying Unicorn and Dueling Dragons coasters (which are getting a makeover to be called Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge). Once you add those in to the experience, that will likely give any theme park fan a jolt.If you haven't read the books or seen the movies, much of this will go over your head. If you have, you'll be in danger of outdoing Trekkers in the geekiverse, snapping up merch to feed your obsession. And if you're not a fan, chances are someone in your family is to tell you what is going on.
The street performers tell us we are in a theme park after all. The boys from Durmstrang do a Russian-style number with shafts and a gaggle of Beauxbatons danced around in their fluttery blue uniforms doing a ribbon dance. It makes us worry that they may try to cash in on the Disney princess gravy train and try to get little girls to have tea parties dressed as Moaning Myrtle or looney Luna Lovegood. Those Beauxbatons cloche hats will be something to die for when the girls play dress up, but the Potter-verse is just too dark of a place for that. We'll find out when it opens to the public on June 18.
-- Sharon Kennedy Wynne and Sherry Robinson
Photo courtesy of Universal's Islands of Adventure. The arched entrance to Hogsmeade; Dumbledore's office.
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