At this very moment, mega-millionaire author J.K. Rowling and some of the actors made semi-famous by her fantasy franchise might be strolling down a red carpet to the applause of adoring fans. OK, so it sucks that you weren't invited to the three-day media orgy that culminates in Universal Orlando's Friday, June 18, grand opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure. Still, fan or not, try to feign interest in the attraction's debut, assuming that we all have a stake in our town's entertainment-based economy. Here are talking points to help you impress out-of-town Muggles when they ask about that new-fangled Potter park they read about in Parade magazine.
1. Total immersion
Take one step into Hogsmeade Village and realize that the dough Universal dropped to hire cinematic scenic designers Stuart Craig and Alan Gilmore was well-spent. The crooked cobblestone streets and snow-shingled roofs surpass the Styrofoam and stucco simulations of other parks, and the Hogwarts Express locomotive looks like it might steam away at any moment. As long as you remain inside the area, the illusion is unbroken; aside from the heat, it looks and feels strikingly like an enchanted Scotland.
2. International appeal
Speaking of Scots, no other attraction in recent memory has the potential power to pull visitors from across the pond like the fictional Potter, who is still wildly popular in his U.K. homeland. With the dollar and euro nose-diving, Brits soon may be the only ones left with sterling to spend. An influx of the English might be the stimulus injection our tourism-dependent tax base desperately needs. Based on my recent encounters with boatloads of Virgin Holidays tourists at theme parks, it seems to be working already.
3. Holy Hogwarts
Hogwarts Castle, with its impossibly stacked spires perched high atop a craggy cliff face, towers over everything in the land like a fantasy painting brought to life. It may be "only a model," but the actual show building it camouflages contains one of the coolest queue lines in theme-park history. The half-hour walking tour inside the wizardry school is so packed with special effects — lifelike holograms of Harry and his pals and moving portraits that look like oil on canvas even up close — it doesn't feel like waiting in line (unlike the hours spent in the exterior queue getting up to that point). Which leads us to …
4. KUKA conquers
Haunted Mansion. Space Mountain. Tower of Terror. Every decade or so, a "dark ride" is built that redefines the genre and raises the bar for the whole amusement industry. Disney formerly dominated this arms race, but Universal claimed the next-big-thing crown with 1999's the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. Today, the chaotic and creepy Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey takes that title, thanks to the KUKA Robocoaster. The "Spider-Man meets Soarin'" blend of simulator screens and animatronic effects is seamless, but it's the unique disoriented-flying feeling generated by the gigantic assembly-line of robotic arms that pushes Forbidden Journey past great to truly groundbreaking.
5. Recycling? Regifting!
Potter's other rides are just re-dressings of pre-existing roller coasters, but don't dismiss them. Dragon Challenge retains the near-collision thrills of Dueling Dragons, adding props and projections from the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire storyline. It's a shame they scrapped the stained glass and skeletons from the queue but left the tracks' old paint scheme intact. And Flight of the Hippogriff is a significant upgrade over the Flying Unicorn kid coaster, with animatronics, awesome views and faster speed.
6. Wand wonder
The new ride is the park's big draw, but the experience inside Ollivander's stunningly detailed wand shop is the sleeper hit they'll talk about at home. One child out of each 25-member audience is selected to try out his or her own wand. Simple effects make flowers wilt and lighting flash until the "destined" wand is dramatically revealed. The actors in the merchant role are utterly charming, so be prepared to happily spend $30 on a twig.
Beyond wands, I've never seen a park with such a plethora of high-end park-exclusive collectibles — no Toys R Us action figures or tacky "I Survived" T-shirts here. People are busting down doors to buy $100 school robes and $300 broomsticks. Back on earth, $10-$15 at Zonko's toy shop will net you a Sneakoscope spinning top or stuffed pink Pygmy Puff pet (like my new one named Woobie).
8. Bottoms up
Everyone's buzzing about Butterbeer, a tasty blend of vanilla soda and butterscotch nondairy foam ($8-$10 in a refillable mug; it's better frozen). Pumpkin juice, pear cider and Hog's Head ale are also for sale, but did you know that no Coke or Sprite is sold in the area? It's all the better to authentically wash down a baked beans and black sausage breakfast or a shepherd's pie supper.
9. Little touches
Don't overlook the amazing overload of decorative details the designers have tucked throughout the park. Howlers scold, golden snitches flitter and enchanted quills scribble behind animated storefront windows. (The "Moaning Myrtle" haunts the lavatories: It isn't every day you can listen to what sounds like a little girl crying while you pee.)
10. People power
What puts Universal's attraction over-the-top is the enthusiasm of the employees. Whether it's students singing in a frog choir or conductors posing for photos with the train, they are the most obsessive in-character cast members that I've personally witnessed. May they still be gung-ho after a sweaty summer in wool and fur.
Almost everyone exiting the Potter previews has been apoplectic with pleasure, but a few rushed to their podcasts and blogs to bleat "EPIC FAIL!" A lot of sniping is likely due to sour grapes from Mouse sycophants, but there are a few legit grumbles among the grandeur.
Universal's PR team shot itself in the foot early on with the "theme park within a theme park" promos. Potter isn't a huge standalone attraction; it's an average-sized island within the existing IOA park. Notice that they aren't using that tag line anymore.
By appropriating only a portion of the Lost Continent island for Potter's playground, Universal ensured that crowds will completely overwhelm capacity for the foreseeable future. A contractually obligated expansion may solve that issue in a few years. Until then, arrive extra-early or wait for January.
Many plus-sized parkgoers have found Forbidden Journey's overhead restraints more restrictive than similar systems on other roller coasters. Even guests who passed the "sample seat" test outside the ride have been denied boarding after waiting in line. Some choose to kvetch about it, others have been motivated to slim down.
The scripted spiels of Hogwart's simulated inhabitants are superb, but there's nothing truly interactive like in Disney's Living Character shows such as "Turtle Talk With Crush" and "Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor." Worse, those pricey wands don't "do" anything at all. What happened to MagiQuest-style role-playing games?
Most unforgivably, the secret protagonist of the Potter series (and a popular character) Severus Snape is nowhere to be seen. Did oily actor Alan Rickman refuse to participate? Call witchy Rita Skeeter at the Daily Prophet. Inquiring minds want to know![email protected]