My Harry Potter fandom is about to reach epic proportions now that I am the proud new owner of annual passes to Harry Potter World, I mean, uh, Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure. I have been itching to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter since it opened last summer, but I heard horror stories about the crowds and decided to let the fervor die down before heading there myself.
The first time I actually researched the new Harry Potter attraction was a few weeks ago while trying to decide between annual passes for Disney or Universal. I prefer exploring theme parks without knowing too much about them beforehand. I‘m not even too fond of the maps—makes it more of an adventure. I pulled up a few articles and read about the sheer awesomeness of eating at The Three Broomsticks and browsing the dusty wand boxes at Ollivander’s Wand Shop. I was sold.
Just a note to the Annual Passers: Universal is a flaky cockwart about their passes. Parking is included in the cost of the pass, but they won’t reimburse the cost of parking for the first day. Disney happily pays back those parking fees if you ask. The Universal customer service reps, on the other hand, just look at you like you’re a scroogey asshole for daring to ask. They tried to smooth it over by saying, “We add one extra day to the annual pass to make up for the cost of parking.” How thoughtful. Let’s do a little math, Universal:
Cost of Parking = $15
Cost of Annual Pass = $220
Cost Per Day = $220/(365 Days) = $0.60 Per Day
Amount That A Non-Cheap-Ass Theme Park Would Reimburse = $15 - $0.60 = $14.40
And one more thing: if you get the monthly payment plan, those bitches auto-renew your passes when they expire. If you don’t pay for the full cost of the annual pass upfront, call those slimey fucks and cancel before they re-up the pass. For shame, Universal. For shame.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The Harry Potter attraction is nestled away in the back corner of Islands of Adventure. There’s no shortcut. You’ll have a bit of a hike to get there regardless of the path you choose. The park seemed dead until we reached the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where just about all the park-goers had predictably congregated.
The bustling market street is based on the village of Hogsmeade, the little town where Hogwarts students venture on weekends to hang out, stuff themselves with candy, and drink pints of Butterbeer. The Islands of Adventure version of the town looks straight from the movies with its stuffy, weathered, English stylings and retro artwork. The designers obviously had a true passion for J.K. Rowling’s creations. Harry Potter fans can lose hours of their lives in giddy exploration as they discover little nods to the story in every corner of the village.
The Shops. Wonderful, Glorious Shops
I had one primary goal when I came to Harry Potter World: spend some serious jack on Harry Potter-themed crap. After snapping a few photos we made a beeline to Zonko’s, a toy and joke shop. When we walked in, I was in awe of the towering shelves which were loaded with jokes, gags, and gizmos. The mystique of the place faded somewhat when I realized that every shelf held the same ten or so items. Still, the merchandise seemed cool at first glance with items including Sneakoscopes, Extendable Ears, Boxing Telescopes, and even the stupid Pygmy Puffs which look like the offspring of Hello Kitty and a Tribble.
Connected to Zonko’s is the tiny, but unique candy store, Honeydukes. If you read about a sweet in the book, this fucking place has it. Fizzing Whizzbees, Chocolate Frogs, Bertie Botts Every-Flavour Beans, chocolate wands, Caldron Cakes and tons of other sugary treats battle for your attention as you browse the aisles. Calories have no place within these walls. Candy lovers have found their nirvana and it is Honeydukes.
It dawned on me that I was going to buy a lot of shit in these stores. I definitely didn’t want to lug huge bags around all day. So, I labeled my first stop at Zonko’s/Honeydukes a scouting mission and vowed to return later in the day.
After a delicious lunch at the Three Broomsticks, we hit what we thought was Ollivanders wand shop. What we assumed was the front door to Ollivanders was actually the exit. Some irate costumed chick, armed with a fake owl, guarded the door and snarled at us to go around.
We obeyed the creepy lady’s orders and found the entrance in the back; this one guarded by some guy snapping the jaws of a Monster Book of Monsters at all the kids. Unfortunately, this entrance throws you right in the middle of a customer stampede. By sheer luck I managed to snag a Voldemort replica wand as I rode the wave of patrons through the store. There were all sorts of costumes and toys in the store, but I barely caught a glance through the crowd.
Helpful Hint #1: Everything sold in this store can be purchased at the main Islands of Adventure shop near the park entrance. Now you, too, can shop in peace as we later did. (Don’t look for Helpful Hint #2, this is the only one)
After leaving the store, we discovered the intended entrance for the store, the Ollivander Wand Experience on the other side. This is actually a sweet little show that re-creates the wand-choosing scene from the first Harry Potter film. It’s not worth the 30 minute wait, though. They let in groups of about twenty into the store at a time. I assumed we’d all get a turn at choosing a wand, considering the lengthy wait, but only two kids from our group partook in the show. I was jealous. But entertained nonetheless.
Butterbeer Is The Shit
Since I read the first few books in 2003, I contemplated the heavenly flavor of Butterbeer that J.K. Rowling described. It had to be some sweet, buttery nectar of the gods. But what flavor could possibly be so delicious? When they announced that the Wizarding World would have Butterbeer on tap, my worst fear was a half-assed, cash-in attempt that did no justice to the delectable beverage from the story.
We went to the Three Broomsticks, a rustic, English/Irish eatery in the heart of the Wizarding World. The restaurant features a dark wooded, antique look complete with dented tables and mix-matched chairs. The fare includes British staples such as Sheppard’s Pie, Fish N Chips, turkey legs, and roasted chicken. You can wash your lunch down with Potter-influenced beverages such as pumpkin juice or Butterbeer.
You simply cannot pop your Three Broomsticks cherry without sampling the Fish N Chips and Butterbeer (unless you’re a vegetarian, then enjoy your salad-in-a-bag and croutons). Sheppard’s Pie is an acceptable alternative, but if you get anything else, you are dead to me. Dead!
I’m not a Fish N Chips connoisseur, but I was pleased with my vinegar-dipped lunch. After a few bites of the food, the moment of truth finally arrived: my first taste of Butterbeer. I slurped the beverage and smiled the frothy mustached smile of a kid chugging eggnog on Christmas morning. It was delicious and remarkably close to the flavor I imagined when reading the books.
Butterbeer is a thick, butterscotchy cream soda with generous layer of sugary foam slapped on top. I’ve heard mentions of birch beer, but I have no idea what that is, so I’m sticking with butterscotch. I chugged my Butterbeer down rather quickly and considered buying a second, but my lunch was filling and I still had some rides to conquer. No need to hurl all over the shiny, new decor.
I purchased my second Butterbeer a few hours later from an outdoor vendor. It was good, but it didn’t feature the rich heavenliness of the Butterbeer from the Three Broomsticks. I’m convinced that’s because I drank the second one immediately after the vendor poured it. The froth and the soda had no time to intermingle their synergistic superpowers. I’ll conduct more experiments on this hypothesis.
There’s also a frozen version of Butterbeer that comes in a cool mug that I plan on getting next time I go. Iced Butterbeer doesn’t sound nearly as pleasant as its liquidy alternative, but I need that mug.
Best. Ride. EVAR. For Those Who Don’t Close Their Eyes
I had no expectations of the Harry Potter ride going in. It’s not that I thought it would suck. I just assumed they put all the effort into making a kick ass village and knew that would appease the Harry Potter universe. I’m a cynic sometimes.
Islands of Adventure repurposed two existing rides for the Wizarding World: Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff. I rode both rides years ago and already knew what to expect. But I read no reviews or previews of the brand new ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. All I knew was that it involved Hogwarts and, from the outside, it looked fucking incredible. My eyes kept tricking me into thinking that Hogwarts was full-scale. Disney uses the same visual trick to make its Magic Kingdom castle look larger.
I figured the ride-makers would simply create a Harry Potter’d version of The Haunted Mansion and was in no rush to jump on the ride.
Before entering the Forbidden Jouney line, an attendant insists that that you place all loose bags and belongings in a locker. That was my first clue that Islands of Adventure did not simply copy The Haunted Mansion. During our 75 minute wait in line we were treated to a bevy of visual Harry Potter-themed delights: the paintings on the walls talk and move, Dumbledore gives a speech, a fossilized dragon hovers overhead, and all sorts of trinkets and contraptions from the stories lie throughout the building.
A majority of the wait was outdoors. We saw a drink vendor alongside the line feign business by counting the same handful of 20’s over and over and over. It was a gloomy sight, like watching a caged polar bear twirl his head to pass the days. I wanted to break the drink lady’s monotonous trance and buy a beer, but not enough to fight the crowd. Finally, a huge, sweaty man hurriedly parted the masses to reach her and purchase an ice cold brew.
Ah, beer. My wife and I smiled at the truism that only beer could drive a man to such a desperate journey. Or, apparently, so can bottled water for a thirsty, whining kid. How disappointing. Us non-parents rarely consider such prudent explanations. Still, this customer made the drink lady’s day and gave us a reprieve from the boredom. It was a long wait.
After the eternal line, Harry and his crew set the stage for the ride and we were loaded into very Haunted Mansion-ish, sideways carts on a track. I was pissed. Why the fuck did an attendant force me to stow my bags for a damn kiddie ride?
Within seconds, however, this beast of a ride revealed its claws. Dragons hiss, Dementors taunt, giant spiders dangle and spit while the ride yanks and tosses you in every direction. I am a 32 year-old man who prides himself on his ride-riding prowess; I was hanging on for my motherfucking life. Even the story makes a little sense. Well, for a movie-based theme park ride anyway.
I’m no mechanical engineer, so I have no clue how the Forbidden Journey works. It looks completely innocuous at first glance—like Finding Nemo at Epcot—but whoever created this ride is an evil genius. Brilliant, even. The Islands of Adventure went beyond the call of duty (I can never type that without thinking of doody) and created the best theme park ride of all time. Debate my claim if you must, but you will lose.
Of course my wife missed the whole damned thing. She closed her eyes through most of the ride. She does the same thing during scary movies—it’s actually one of her many endearing qualities. I was tempted to once again brave the 75 minute queue, just so she could see what she missed. However, I wanted to buy, er, see more Harry Potter things.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the mecca of Harry Potter fandom. It’s easy to say when you live less than an hour away, but if you claim to be a fan then you need to make the pilgrimage and immerse yourself in this attraction for a day. Or a week. Islands of Adventure was cool even before they added the Wizarding World. Now the park stands tall amongst the heavyweight theme parks of the world. Universal spared no expense in making Harry Potter World a playground for fans of all ages. Is this heaven? If not, can it be?