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At the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, reality intrudes

The first mistake was thinking the six of us could endure an hour in the 95-degree heat with one bottle of water.

The hourlong line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the star attraction at Universal Studios' new Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, begins in a cool hallway just beyond the gate to Hogwarts Castle. Too soon, it becomes a cattle pen masquerading as a greenhouse.

It wasn't so bad at first. But once we cleared an area just outside the dungeon, we discovered this attraction employed the same crowd-control tricks pioneered at Disney: a mass of footsore people, lumbering around one metal divider only to be forced to double back in the opposite direction. Trudging, in resignation, through heat that felt increasingly like oozing clay.

The second mistake, I decided after passing the same polo-clad family for the fourth time in the maze, was believing all those reviews of the Wizarding World I'd read online. They had promised us a jaunt through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, not a stop-and-go march that offered spectacular views of the castle but little hope of getting inside.

Still, we kept our sense of humor and patience. We had followed Harry for a decade, reading and rereading J.K. Rowling's books since childhood. We had seen the movies and worried that they would taint the purity of the books. We had favorite characters and scenes and even sentences.

And now, after a two-hour drive to Orlando and $79 to get in, we were finally there. Or, at least, we were in the line.

Finally, after criss-crossing some 200 times, we neared the castle entrance. So close, I thought as I leaned into the welcoming blast of air-conditioning.

The fire alarm shrieked.

The first high-pitched squeal was easy enough to shake off. But then it shrieked again. And again.

Families filed out of the castle. Babies wailed. Teenagers cursed.

At least they had gotten a glimpse of the treasures inside. We were still stuck in the hot line.

A few minutes later, a stern employee in a black robe beckoned us down a flight of stairs and through a gate, which he shut. I couldn't even see the castle any more; it was blocked by a sign for Jurassic Park. We had been exiled from Hogwarts.

As we stood there with a crowd of stormy-looking tourists looking for an explanation, or preferably a free pass to the head of the next line, the fake wizard turned around. "I'm sorry,'' he said, "but you will have to wait in line again. This is for your own safety."

"I'd rather be dead," declared a paunchy man near us, with menace.

I would have liked to cry, but instead we retreated to the English publike Three Broomsticks and recovered over lunch and air-conditioning. We sampled butterbeer, a fictitious nonalcoholic drink Rowling made famous, at $3 a cup. Too sweet for me, but cool — we took turns snapping photos of our foamy, sugary mustaches.

Then it was off to another hourlong line to get into Ollivander's wand shop. Again, it didn't live up to the magical spontaneity of the novels. You can pay $30 for a wand, but it won't do anything but sit in your hand, a constant reminder of your lack of magic.

The Wizarding World promises to pull you into Harry Potter's world, and true believers want to be whisked away. But then you're shown a shop window full of dancing cellos, and you press your nose against the glass only to find it's just a facade. You try to step into the castle and something as mundane and unmagical as a fire alarm reminds you that this is still Orlando.

It makes you feel like a Muggle (ask your kids, folks).

We made it back to the Hogwarts Castle, stood in line for another hour but finally got in. The oil paintings moved and we oohed and aahed. We marveled at the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. We hurtled through a clump of Dementors and flew alongside Harry at a Quidditch game. Universal's latest technology thrilled us.

But the delights of pixels and mechanical flight wore off when we stumbled out and slumped against a wrought-iron fence. When I got home, I washed off the sweat and grime of the day and curled up in bed with the seventh Harry Potter book — the fourth time I had read it.

The book — ink, glue, paper and maybe a little magic — kept me up half the night.

Vivian Yee is a junior at Yale University. She is spending the summer as a news reporting intern in the west Pasco bureau of the St. Petersburg Times. You can reach her at vyee@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

At the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, reality intrudes 08/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 6, 2010 8:57pm]
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