The Wizarding World of Harry Potter :: It’s All About the Butterbeer!
Like a dragon breathing warmth into the cold halls of Hogwarts, "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" has fired up ticket sales at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure. You can tell: the moment you walk into the park, it feels somewhat empty of late. Empty, that is, until you walk to the land diametrically opposite the park’s entrance. Then you’ll say to yourself, "Ah - so this is where everyone is!"
It’s easy to see why; The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (I’ll just shorten this to "Harry Potter" from here on out), for the most part, finally meets the quality marks of attractions launched by the mouse down the street. There’s little doubt that Universal has more thrills than does Disney World; Disney caters to families, while Universal’s coasters encourages a wider mix of devotees (that can be both good and bad). But with Harry Potter, Universal has finally delivered a perfect blend of excitement, theme and high-end adventure, making it the must-see of any Orlando vacation for the time being.
Just step onto the land, revisualized on top of what used to be part of the Lost Continent, and you’ll encounter a beautifully realized Potterland. My recommendation: head right at the part entrance, and walk through Hogsmeade village. This may seem somewhat backwards chronologically, but thematically it’ll ensure a smart progression through the land. At the portal to Hogsmeade, you’ll see two remarkable sights: a lifesize replica of the Hogwarts train (bellowing smoke, of course), and the incredible vista of the village itself, artfully realized in high perspective. Pop into one or two of the stores - Dervish and Banges, Zonko’s, the Owl Post, or Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods - and you’ll realize not only how deep into the Harry Potter lexicon the artists at Universal delved to create goods, but also what a brilliant merchandizing opportunity has been exploited here. In Honeydukes, you probably won’t mind shelling out $6 for a chocolate frog, and I’ll wager there are more wands at approx. $40 sold by Ollivanders per day than stuffed toys in the rest of the park combined. Capes, brooms, scrolls and owls compete with the more traditional t-shirts and keychains for your attention, but the handiwork is first-rate.
But the real attraction of Hogsmeade lies in the town square, at an unassuming barrel/cart that no doubt will have lines nearly as long as do the rides. This is where you’ll find Butterbeer, the drink made popular by Hogwarts students (and staff) frequenting the Three Broomsticks. Universal is keeping the ingredients of this tasty brew secret, but it seems to be a combination of root beer, vanilla cream soda, and perhaps some butterscotch. Topped with a frothy whip that also tastes creamy, the concoction is sold in both liquid and frozen form (~$4 for a regular cup, or ~$10 for a souvenir mug), and is incredibly yummy. Those without a sweet tooth will find it difficult to get to the bottom of the cup, but it should absolutely be enjoyed - and kids will find it delightful.
As for the attractions themselves, there’s no shortage of entertainment for children of all ages. If the line is not too long at Ollivanders, step in and watch as one lucky guest is "chosen" by a wand in an interactive show. For those who enjoyed the double dragon coaster in the Lost Continent, don’t fear: it’s been revisualized for the Triwizard Cup. The twisting coaster is the same - the effects have been upgraded. Even the ride designed for smaller wizards, the Flight of the Hippogriff, is enchanting for grownups as you dive and spiral around Hagrid’s hut and lands.
The main attraction, however, is both new and technologically marvelous. Within the towering castle of Hogwarts you’ll experience the movies interactively; first, in a queue that winds and wends through the grounds outside, and then through classrooms, Dumbledore’s office, and even the Room of Requirement. Then, you’ll be strapped into a (wait for it) magical bench (huh?) as you’re flown on an adventure that must be experienced to believe it. This ride has the seamless multi-media interactivity of Spiderman across the park, but is yet more thrilling. A word to readers with younger wizards: parts of this ride are truly frightening.
The only defect in an otherwise perfect land can be found between the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Jurassic Park; as you walk between the two lands, you’re able to look up towards Hogwarts castle and view some of the un-themed buildings housing the attraction; while this is a minor thing, it’s confusing and distracting - which is why I recommended entering the attraction from the Lost Continent, not from Jurassic Park, where the illusion is somewhat shattered.
That caveat aside, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter represents not only a step forward for Universal’s engineering and design squads - comparable to the best Disney can produce - but it also represents a small leap forward technologically for ride architects. Simply put, it’s now a must-see stop on any vacation to the Orlando area. Just make sure you don’t overdo breakfast; it’s not the same without butterbeer!