A SIDETRIP FROM
Yesterland
Wizarding World
with Werner Weiss

With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 opening at U.S. movie theaters today, I was reminded of my visits to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure this year.

Even though Yesterland.com is primarily about discontinued theme park attractions, that’s not the case here. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a huge success and should be around for a long, long time.

Despite a wonderful queue, I was disappointed with the signature attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. I know that’s sacrilege. After all, the consensus seems to be that Forbidden Journey represents the pinnacle of themed attraction design. I know I’m in the minority, but I’ll explain my reasons.

Werner Weiss, Curator of Yesterland, July 15, 2011


Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Simulated moss on a simulated rock cliff

“Attention to detail.”

“Immersive environments.”

“We’re storytellers.”

If you follow the theme park industry, you’re aware of these catchphrases. Ever since Disneyland’s original lands and attractions opened in 1955, themed attraction designers have looked for opportunities to take the guest experience to the next level. Sometimes they are successful. Other times, inadequate budgets or poor executive decisions get in the way.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida succeeds brilliantly. The details have been executed with incredible skill and creativity. Guests are immersed in the world of J.K. Rowling’s books and the Warner Bros. movies based on those books. And guests participate in the story as they explore the nooks an crannies of the 20-acre masterpiece.

I intentionally chose the photo of the simulated moss to begin this article. Compare the details in the photo with artificial stone that you’ve seen elsewhere.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The wizarding village of Hogsmeade

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter officially opened June 18, 2010 (after a limited soft opening at the beginning of the month). Perhaps you’ve been there. If not, you’ve probably read about it. So I won’t describe all the details to you, but I’ll give you my reaction to the three rides—and to the best part of this park-within-a-park.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Flight of the Hippogriff

The three rides all fall under the category of thrill ride, but they’re quite different from each other.

Flight of the Hippogriff is the type of roller coaster that serious roller coaster aficionados call a kiddie coaster, but that I would call a family coaster. I enjoyed the one-minute ride with my wife, even though we didn’t have any children with us. The view of Hogsmeade from the top is great—that’s where the second photo in this article came from—and there are decorations in the queue and on the ride based on Hagrid and his magical creatures. The drops and turns are fun rather than terrifying.

Flying Unicorn at Universal's Islands of Adventure in 2003

Flying Unicorn (2003 photo)

Flight of the Hippogriff opened as the Flying Unicorn in June 2000, a year after the opening of Islands of Adventure. The odd-looking trains consisted of armor-plated carts with a unicorn horn on the front car. An elaborate backstory explained how an ancient wizard had assembled the carts from knights’ armor and scraps of wood from magical castles—and how the carts came to life when he placed the unicorn horn on the head.

I like the wicker basket look of the Flight of the Hippogriff trains much better.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Dragon Challenge

The next thrill ride also goes back to the 1999 opening of Islands of Adventure. Originally Dueling Dragons, it’s now Dragon Challenge. The trains of the twin-track, inverted roller coaster represent two dragons, a Chinese Fireball and a Hungarian Horntail.

I never wanted to go on Dueling Dragons and I didn’t want to go on Dragon Challenge either. There are people who love this kind super thrill ride, but I’m not one of them.

However, I walked the queue for Dragon Challenge until just before the boarding platform. It’s a nice walk, especially if the ride is a walk-on and you don’t have to wait behind guests wanting to board the ride. Among other things, you’ll see the crashed Ford Anglia (but why isn’t the Whomping Willow here?), the Goblet of Fire, and the Triwizard Cup.

Dueling Dragons at Universal's Islands of Adventure in 2000

Dueling Dragons (2000 photo)

Dragon Challenge is a bare steel ride. It still looks like Dueling Dragons, including the colors of the supports, tracks, and trains. Beyond the queue, there doesn’t seem to be any Harry Potter magic. (Of course, I’m making this observation as a spectator, not as a rider.) The ride is visible from parts of Hogsmeade and detracts from the fantasy of being in the wizard village. The ride is an ever-present reminder that you’re in a park that built its reputation primarily with thrills, not with storytelling. I wonder how much of the 20-acre Wizarding Word this ride takes up?

Still, it makes sense that they kept the ride. It was already there. It represented a huge capital investment when it was built, and it’s still a well-liked ride.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Hogwarts Castle, home of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

That brings us to the third ride: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It’s an attraction that attracts adjectives such as amazing, awesome, state-of-the-art, and cutting-edge.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Two winged boars guarding the gates of Hogwarts

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Entering the long queue for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Warning!

Before my first visit to The Wizarding World, I asked a woman at the park gate about the motion on Forbidden Journey.

“There are some rides that I don’t handle well,” I explained. “Over at Disney, I’m okay on Star Tours, but I had to sit down for 20 minutes after Body Wars. I can’t go on Mad Tea Party. Here at Islands of Adventure, I do fine on The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.”

“You should be okay then,” she replied. “Forbidden Journey is about the same intensity as Spider-Man.”

Hoping that she was right, I looked forward to the ride. A sign at the ride entrance suggested I might be making a mistake.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger

I entered the queue. The sign said the wait would be 10 minutes.

The queue is a walk-through of Hogwarts Castle, complete with visits to Madame Sprout’s greenhouse, Headmaster Dumbledore’s office (where he invites us to hear a lecture about the history of Hogwarts), and the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom (where Harry, Ron, and Hermione suggest something that would be more fun than a lecture). I let people go ahead of me rather than racing through. I wanted to enjoy the “show.”

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Gallery with oil paintings that move

As queues go, this might be the most intricate, detailed, and entertaining theme park attraction queue ever (even including Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye at Disneyland). Of course, it’s still a queue, with some long hallways and sections of switchbacks.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Sorting Hat

The final location in the queue before boarding was the Sorting Hat. Rather than assigning riders to the Houses of Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin, the animatronic Sorting Hat gave a safety spiel (“and so the Hogwarts Sorting Hat tells all you need to know”).

Time to board. I hoped this would not be a mistake.

First, let me share this description from an official press kit fact sheet:

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey draws guests into the excitement and chaos of Harry’s life. Guests travel through the Floo network and begin the adventure as they soar over Hogwarts, narrowly escape a dragon attack, have a close encounter with the Whomping Willow, get pulled into a Quidditch match and more. The combination of pioneering, state-of-the-art technology, innovative filmmaking and surprises around every corner encapsulates some of the incredible drama in the Harry Potter stories—and make this attraction the future of theme park entertainment.

That’s not quite how I remember it. I remember swerving very rapidly through a few scenes. Then I remember thinking that the motion was far more intense than Spider-Man, and that it would be a good idea to close my eyes, relax, and tune out as much as possible. I think the ride lasts around four minutes, but these were the longest four minutes. I was looking forward to getting off. I hoped that my breakfast would stay inside me (fortunately, it did).

I staggered over to Jurassic Park and waited until I felt better.

Yes, it was my own fault. I knew the motion might be a problem. I ignored the sign. I deserved what I got.

motion sickness medication

Motion sickness medication

A few weeks later I was back in Florida, this time with my wife. Our plans included The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I told my wife that she would have to go on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey without me.

I wasn’t happy. By all accounts, Forbidden Journey is the greatest achievement in immersive theme park entertainment and a bellwether of the future of attractions. And I’m a theme park historian fascinated by the past, present, and future of themed entertainment. I wanted to experience it—and not with my eyes closed.

I had an idea. If motion sickness medication works for boats and ships, maybe it would work for Forbidden Journey. We stopped at a drug store on the way to the park. I followed the instructions and hoped for the best.

This time, I was able to keep my eyes open during the whole ride. I was flying along with Harry Potter and other characters, through big stage sets and facing movie screens that gave the feeling of great speed. There wasn’t any time to enjoy the details. The emphasis was on fast, fast, fast in a dark and scary world. The ride was okay. I was a bit dizzy when it was over, but I felt much better than the first time.

[Disclaimer: Take the motion sickness warning seriously. The medication worked for me, but there’s no guarantee it will work for someone else.]

The technology that makes Forbidden Journey possible is amazing, but I can think of a lot of attractions that I enjoy more—at Disney parks and at Universal parks. The technology of a boat floating through s flume is primitive compared to the whiz-bang KUKA robotic arm technology that Forbidden Journey uses, but I think that Pirates of the Caribbean, which has been around since spring of 1967, is still a better attraction.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Hogsmeade

So what is the best attraction at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter?

It’s not any of the three thrill rides. It’s the village of Hogsmeade. That’s where the attention to detail, immersive environment, and storytelling provide a theme park experience unmatched anywhere else.

 

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© 2011-2012 Werner Weiss — Disclaimers, Copyright, and Trademarks

Updated February 17, 2012.

HARRY POTTER characters, names and related indicia are trademarks of and © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Harry Potter Publishing Rights © JKR.
Universal elements and all related indicia TM & © Universal Studios.
 
All photos, except for two historical photos: 2011 by Werner Weiss.
Two historical photos: (years indicated in photo caption) by Werner Weiss.
 
Disclosure per FTC guidelines: Werner Weiss received a complimentary gate admission and a press kit from Universal Studios Orlando. Mr. Weiss does not receive any financial consideration from Universal Studios Orlando.