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Fantastic journey: The rides at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter do not disappoint

Along with fiendishly detailed Hogsmeade village and the effects-laden Ollivanders wand shop, the 20-acre Wizarding World of Harry Potter features three "attractions." Two pre-existing Islands of Adventure coasters have been polished and Potterized, plus a state-of-the-art thriller (yes, the one you've been buzzing about) is tucked inside the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; it blends motion simulation, animatronics and giant spitting spiders that want to eat your face. Sound fun? Let's go for a spin:

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

Height requirement: 48 inches Ride duration: 4 minutes

The Dementor got me. Totally freaked me out. Not even ashamed to admit it. The grim ghoulie, seemingly stories tall and inches away, lurched out of the shadows, the two of us soaring, spinning high in the air. You could hear the nasty thing, too: the Dementor's kiss! I thought I screamed, grimaced, shut my eyes. But as I plunged backward with roller coaster oomph and saw my face reflected in the thing's chilly breath — one of many mind-scrambling effects on this oft-spectacular ride — I wasn't recoiling in horror at all.

I was smiling like a big dope.

How good is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the most buzzed-about thrill ride in years? More importantly, is "FJ," as insiders and nerds like me are calling it, better than Universal's Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, long considered the greatest "dark ride" of all time? Both attractions were designed by the same dude: slight, soft-spoken Thierry Coup, the newest rock star in the theme park world. Coup is confident that FJ takes the dark ride "to a whole new level."

He's not far off. FJ is like Soarin' on steroids — or maybe the Haunted Mansion without the yuks. All in all, it's pretty darn good. But I hesitate to give it the nod over the peerless Spidey, as some of FJ is so fast, so frenetic (especially the filmed portions), the result is disconcerting, dizzying, hindering the narrative rather than helping it. That said, I rode the sucker twice — didn't feel barfy at all! — and would have gladly climbed into the four-person "flying" bench for another trip if I wasn't there for, um, work and stuff.

Blending motion simulation, 360-degree filming techniques and visceral effects on the epic scale of the Yeti in Expedition Everest, FJ uses a robo-arm (on a moving track no less — a technological first) to flip, twist and spin you through a series of larger-than-life environments both "real" (a bridge under siege by a fire-breathing dragon, the Forbidden Forest, a meet and greet with the Whomping Willow) and projected onto screens (flying over Hogwarts, battling Draco Malfoy in Quidditch). Universal has also recorded a new score, created with the help of original composer John Williams, that sucks you in with cinematic boom.

The ride itself lasts about 4 minutes, but the sprawling queue — all of which is inside dark, shadowy Hogwarts — is just as cool, as it sets up the ride's multiple narratives: Muggles are allowed into Hogwarts for the first time; Harry, Ron and Hermione want to sneak you away for a Quidditch match; and Hagrid has lost his pet dragon.

The line brings you past such nods to the fiction and films as the Mirror of Erised and the Sorting Hat, which, in a puckish twist, provides ride-safety warnings in rhyme. You'll also wander through the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom (wait for the snow — brilliant), Dumbledore's office (3-D without the specs) and the painstakingly created talking-portrait gallery (Salazar Slytherin is not happy you're there).

Final verdict? The Potter nerd in me geeked the heck out. Even if you're not a thrill fan, tour Hogwarts anyway; you can chicken out at the end. As for the ride, when the too-busy filmed scenes morph into genuine meetings with humongous beasties (was that . . . a basilisk?), it becomes the very stuff of theme park dreams.

Flight of the Hippogriff

Height requirement: 36 inches Ride duration: 1 minute, 6 seconds

Call me a softie, but the Flight of the Hippogriff might be my favorite part of the Wizarding World. Seriously! Formerly the Flying Unicorn, the spiffed-up kiddie coaster is now a "training course," as Hagrid has you ride a wicker Hippogriff in preparation for handling the mercurial half eagle, half horse. (Lovvve the wicker remodeling.) The cozy, leafy outdoor queue takes you past Hagrid's pumpkin patch (listen for the snacking bowtruckles), the giant's home (is that Fang barking?) and, ultimately, an eerily large avian nest. HOWEVER, if you want to find out what's in that nest — remember to bow when you go past — you need to board the ride, a fast, short but benign family coaster.

Dragon Challenge

Height requirement: 54 inches Ride duration: 2 minutes, 25 seconds

A looping, spinning, corkscrewing inverted coaster that gets relatively little Potterization, Dragon Challenge used to be Dueling Dragons, twin-track coasters that race each other. The tracks still take the same wild, whipping routes (and are, alas, the same ugly colors), although now you have your choice between riding the Hungarian Horntail or the Chinese Fireball. ("The Fireball is so much better!" said a gaggle of teen girls who let me scream along with them.) Although the queue hasn't been reimagined and decked out as inventively as Flight of the Hippogriff, you still get to see the Goblet of Fire, the Triwizard Cup and, in a nice wink, the Weasleys' feisty, flying blue Ford Anglia.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.

Fantastic journey: The rides at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter do not disappoint 06/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 17, 2010 10:52am]

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