Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My trip to Hogwarts

Me at the entrance to Hogwarts at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida!
This photo and all others in this post by Mrs Jessica Blair

On December 20th, my wife Jesse and I drove up to Orlando, Florida to visit Universal's Islands of Adventure. Since we were already in Florida visiting her dad (who lives in West Palm Beach), the pull of an amusement park that featured both "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" and numerous Marvel Comics themed rides was too strong to pass up.

We had booked our tickets in advance online, and paid about $30 extra for fastpass tickets. I highly recommend these, because even though they won't help much for the big ride in Harry Potterland, they enabled us to walk right onto practically every other ride in the park.

Jesse had just finished reading all 7 Harry Potter books, so we were both really excited to go. As we entered the park she asked me if I was sorry she had read them, since it would have saved us a lot of money if she hadn't (since we probably would have skipped going to the park if that was the case). Actually, I was pretty happy she wanted to check it out, since I had wanted to ride the Spider-Man and Hulk rides for years.

Islands of Adventure opened that day at 8am, and by the time we had walked over to the Potter section it was 8:45. By that time it was already at capacity and we were led to a long line where we had to wait an hour just to get into that part of the amusement park.

We instantly ran over to the big ride, called "Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey". This was the one ride our fast passes didn't work for, and the one all the reviews said was really amazing. We were really sad to hear the ride was temporarily down, but that we could wait in line just to walk through the castle. Hopefully, by the time we got through the line, which was already pretty long, the ride would be operational again. After about 70 minutes, this was indeed the case, and the crowd cheered when the announcement was made that "classes were back in session".

Inside the castle as you wait for the ride you pass through a hall with the bean points for each house in giant tubes of fake colored stones, followed by a hallway of talking paintings that features an arguement between Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin (pictured below).

Paintings that talk!

You then enter Dumbledore's study where actor Michael Gambon tells you to watch out for dragons, among other things. The next room is a Defense Against The Dark Arts classroom, where Dan Radcliffe, Rupert Gint and Emma Watson appear from under an invisibility cloak and tell you to escape a boring lecture with them, setting up the ride. How they hope to sneak out hundreds of Muggles waiting in line is truly a measure of their power as wizards. So the "plot" of the ride is established in these rooms. We are escaping a boring lecture at Hogwarts to watch a Quidditch match and there's a dragon on the loose.

Just as we passed the fat lady painting who guards the dorm rooms of Gryffindor, who also talks to the riders, the ride attendants made us check everything we had into a locker before they let us on the ride, which at the time seemed silly. Not even a purse? We could hold onto that! Nope. No purses. No jackets. Nothing. So we went downstairs to the lockers, which are provided for free when you go on the ride, and put our stuff away.

I realized very quickly why this is so. The Forbidden Journey is a motion simulator mixed with a roller coaster, and your moving seat actually flips you over to the point where I thought my cell phone was going to fall out of my pocket. The screens and action are so intense that you really feel that you are completely immersed within the movie, which is seen on screens above, below and on all sides of your cart as you move through the castle. This is a long way from Star Tours.

It's a great ride and well worth the wait. Stuff you see: You fly through a Quidditch Match (Malfoy smirks: "Some of your admirers, Potter?" as he smacks into his broom). You see the spiders, the Whomping Willow, and numerous other things I'm forgetting right now. The dragon and Hagrid inevitably show up, and breathe a warm gust of fire at the rider, which felt good after a small splash of water earlier in the ride.

At the end of the ride, practically every cast member in Hogwarts school is seen at a celebration for winning the Quidditch cup, and they applaud for both Harry and you, the rider of the ride, for helping to catch the dragon. Don't exactly remember how I did that as I was flying around in a rollercoaster seat, but thanks... This is kind of nice for the kids, since the ride might be a bit intense for them, to get the Harry Potter cast cheering for them at the end of it. All the rides at the amusement park, actually, have the ride attendants applaud the riders at the end. This includes this one, the kids Dr. Seuss rides, and the Incredible Hulk, which is one of the best rollercoasters I've ever been on and rode twice within 15 minutes with my fastpass... But back to Harry Potter...

After the ride, we entered one of the first shops with expensive Harry Potter shwag. Sweaters, scarves, buttons, and overpriced Viewmaster contraptions were there in abundance. The store was packed, but the lines to buy any of it were short. Both Jesse and I got sweaters, since we're dorks. We then went straight for the Butter Beer in Diagon Alley.

Our original plan was to bring back some bottles of this, which is non-alcoholic, for some of our friends. Unfortunately, and kind of stupidly, they did not offer this for sale in bottles. It was served chilled or frozen in cups, and you couldn't buy it pre-packaged as a souvenir. It tastes like cream soda mixed with a buttery vanilla topping. Good stuff. The day we were at the park was cold, so by the time I was finished drinking the stuff I was shivering. Still worth it.

Besides the main ride, there are 2 others in the Harry Potter section of the park. One is a small rollercoaster that features Buckbeak at the beginning and is over in less than a minute. The other is a much faster rollercoaster that I think they converted from another ride, since it didn't seem to have much Harry Potter themed stuff around it. I went on the former but not on the latter, since we had to meet Jesse's grandpa for lunch. No biggie. Something for next time.

They also have groups of singers and performers that sing the "Trouble Trouble Something Wicked This Way Comes" song from the Halfblood Prince movie and various arias with talking frogs in front of a giant rock carved with mystical symbols. Universal hired red headed English actresses in their cast to give the audience that Weasleyesque quality.

The shops were so busy you had to wait in line to get into each one. Olivander's Wand Shop had 2 lines: One to have a wand "choose you" if you want to buy a wand ($30 and they don't light up!) and one if you want to get some of the shirts and other exclusive crap that only Olivander's has. This included Quidditch shirts and a few other pins and whatzits. They also have a Monster Book of Monsters prop that rumbles in front of the kids.

The other shop is a candy store and practical joke shop that merges Honeydukes and Zonko's Joke Shop into one place. They have Chocolate Frogs and Expanding Ear toys (the latter not being licensed Potter gear but close enough to be in stock there.) If you buy a pink fuzzy "Pygmy Pup" plush doll (which IS officially licensed), the staff give you a round of applause. We passed on that, but did get some chocolate frogs for the kids Jesse nannys for.

They do have a restaurant (The Three Broomsticks) that serves Shepherd's Pie and other English entrees, but most of the other storefronts are just nicely constructed backdrops. Still looks really nice with the fake snow on the roofs. Here's some pix:

At the exit of the Harry Potter section you can pose for pictures in front of the Hogwarts Express with the train conductor, which I thought wasn't necessary for a good photo. I like to think that the people in the background of this image are actually Harry, Ron and Hermione after they drank some Polyjuice Potion:

This image is begging for Photoshop

Well, that's about it. A good time for any fan of the books who is willing to wait in line with thousands of other Muggles. Perhaps in a few years from now when all the movies have come and gone from the theaters and have already made their journey from Netflix to Cable to Network TV, the novelty will fade and the lines will dissipate in Harry Potterland like they did in the Jurassic Park section of Islands of Adventure. In the meantime, while the iron is hot, I suggest that Universal converts the lame-as-lame-can-be "Poseidon's Lost Temple" ride, which is adjacent to the Potter stuff, into an attraction related to the books. Perhaps Voldermort's Death Duel or something...

Finally, as for the Marvel Comics stuff: Spider-Man ride is great, Incredible Hulk rollercoaster is AWESOME, and they didn't have any exclusive souvenirs that featured Dr. Strange, so I got to save some money in that area...

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