Here is an admission. I was a very late Harry Potter adapter. As with most things that become popular very quickly, I was initially extremely skeptical. I have to test the waters very cautiously to insure that thing is worth my time before diving in. Most of the time, I learn just enough to realize that said popular thing isn’t worth my time (ex: Twilight, those children fighting each other books, Obamamania, anything played on popular radio these days). Initially, the Harry Potter phenomenon was one that I wrongfully assumed might not be worth my time. As I watched the first films 1-5 in the theater, I realized that I couldn’t act anymore like I didn’t enjoy Harry and Hogwarts. I loved the movies and thought they told great stories. After seeing The Order of the Phoenix, I raced to the bookstore to buy Book 6, and soon after that, Book 7. After completing them, went back and read Books 1-5. I loved them and kicked myself for not realizing how much I would love them sooner.
What I loved about the books is that they were children’s books with well-developed characters and stories. JK Rowling is a master storyteller. I cared about what happened to the characters that she created. I couldn’t put down any of the books as I was reading them. Reading each of those books were happy moments in time. I have felt the same way about the movies. While obviously, the movies cannot be as detailed as the books, they have done a wonderful job of transitioning what they can from the page to the screen. They have been impeccably cast. Nothing about the films felt artificial, but rather, magically realistic, which is entirely how reading the books felt.
All of the things that the makers of the Harry Potter movies have gotten right in translating the books to the films the makers of the Harry Potter amusement park have gotten wrong in translating the movies to the park. Pretty much, it was a half-assed effort all around. I wanted to love this place, as I had been anticipating our trip here for months. However I realized that my opinion on the taste of the Butterbeer pretty much summed up my feelings on the entire park. The foam was delicious, but the main body of the drink, bland and completely ordinary.
In my view, the delicious foam was the ride through Hogwarts, entitled “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” It is a pretty interesting use of technology and is pretty delightful until the very end. What bummed me out about the end was that they took you to the great Hall, but instead of flying through the magical expanse of that enormous room, looking down on the candles and the students, you instead looked at a video screen that tried to recreate the image of the Great Hall. It was a terribly cheap ending to what could have been a pretty exceptional ride. I know that some have talked about how magical it was to wait in line wandering the rooms of Hogwarts Castle, but even that I thought was pretty poorly conceived. The rooms didn’t flow together at all the way that they should. They threw Dumbledore’s Office in the Tower next to the Defense Against the Dark Arts Classroom, next to a hall with portraits and the Fat Lady. Maybe other people never thought much of the floor plan of Hogwarts and therefore were amazed by being able to see the rooms and not think about the fact that nothing was where it should be. I am not one of those people.
As for the other two rides, they are pretty standard roller coasters. The Flight of the Hippogriff is pretty lame, and they don’t even make it look like you are on an actual Hippogriff. The Dueling Dragons is much more fun, but is still a standard roller coaster. Walking through the village of Hogsmeade is pretty nice, although I don’t think they made it big enough. Everything seems very cramped and small. they didn’t build enough attractions. Seriously, to even get inside any of the shops, you were forced to wait in ridiculously long lines. As much fun as I thought it would be to see some kid have a wand choose him at Ollivander’s, I didn’t want to wait 45 minutes to get into a store that was trying to get me to buy something. No thank you. Also, I didn’t like that depending on where you were walking in Hogsmeade, the illusion of being in Harry Potter’s world was broken by seeing “behind the scenes” things that they didn’t do a good job covering up. I was particularly peeved that they kept exposed parts of the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride (it looked like a giant warehouse), instead of covering it up better with a larger version of Hogwarts castle.
In general though, I kind of figured that Universal would do not as complete of a job as Disney would have when it came to this thing. In general, Universal Studios seems pretty inefficient and poorly run when compared to Disney. JK Rowling’s initial negotiations with Disney leaked the illusion that the park was going to be really magical, personalized, and special. When those negotiations fell apart, I guess JK Rowling was fine to accept Universal’s scaled down version of the Park. And scaled down it was. The most magical thing in the park was my favorite Dyson Airblade Hand Dryers in the bathrooms (I still want one of those for my bathroom).
Granted, I didn’t go in the shops, because I was sick of the crowds and generally not as impressed as a I hoped. So I would be willing to give this park another try on a future trip to Orlando. I would like to go on that Castle ride again, because it was pretty spectacular (until the very end), anyway. However, in general, I was just disappointed because all of the unique details and magic that made the books and the movies so charming was wholly lacking from the park. The whole time I was there, I wasn’t wowed; I was just thinking of the many ways that it could have been made better than what it was. When you have books and even movies that make a fantasy world so complete and so believable, it is disappointing to realize the real-life recreation of that world makes the reality of the fiction seem impossible.
I wasn’t the only one disappointed. I read this review in Slate at the time the park opened thinking the writer being unnecessarily negative. Turns out, he was right.
Brittany, Noah and Steven in front of Hogsmeade cottages
Enjoying the most delicious part of the Butterbeer, the foam.
Steven and David in front of the exit from Hogwarts Castle