Even a muggle might admire this world modeled on Harry Potter’s
ORLANDO, Fla. — “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’’ My niece Erin Sullivan remembers the first sentence of the first Harry Potter book, which she read in second grade. Now, the words tumble out of her as a costumed conductor waves us past a crimson locomotive — an exact replica of Hogwarts Express from the first film — puffing steam as though arriving from the transitional world.
It’s grand opening day at Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and we are inside Hogsmeade Village with thousands of believers. To the uninitiated, the train with its handsomely articulated Victorian luggage would be merely charming. But to Erin, 17, who grew up overachieving with author J.K. Rowling’s brainiac heroine, Hermione Granger, the train is vindication. It means she has crossed the threshold separating wizards with special gifts from normal people, called muggles. Guess which one I am.
From the sign of the boar, the 20-acre Wizarding World unfolds like a book — or seven — connecting fans to the places, people, and experiences of Harry and friends. Like the books, the physical re-creation is nuanced with references to sorting hats, boggarts, squibs, bludgers, and howlers that Erin explains as though speaking in tongues. Nothing’s dumbed down, and the detailing — from the cant of the medieval chimneys and ye olde storefronts to the ashy haze and roasted meat smell of The Three Broomsticks pub — inspires awe. Voices call out in every direction: “Look at the architecture.’’ “Oh my God, this is so cool.’’ “We’re so coming back.’’
While my sister, Laurie, and I are lost in the shop displays of snowy stuffed owls and wizarding tools, Erin has goals. When asked what she wants to do first, she says, “The castle.’’ Erin and everyone else.
The castle, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is the center of Harry’s universe. As we drift in its direction, we’re buffeted by a crowd of people whose joy belies the fact that most stood in line for eight hours just to reach the Hogsmeade gates. Erin Halsey of Bloomington, Ind., occupied her time by knitting a hat, finishing it to the cheers of onlookers. Now, she’s queued up for another two-hour wait at the massive pillars at the castle gate.
The castle’s marquee experience is called the Forbidden Journey, which begins when you enter the castle. Inside, we’re greeted by Albus Dumbledore, the school’s headmaster, whom Erin describes as “a Merlin-Yoda cross.’’ Through 3-D holographic projections, the character (played by Michael Gambon) is so lifelike that the lines between reality and fantasy blur. We see the Mirror of Erised — “I show not your face but your heart’s desire’’ — and the school’s founders, whose gilt-framed portraits speak to us and one another. The encounters tap into the emotion of the Potter stories, even for non-fans.
In the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, Professor Binns is giving a history lecture when Rowling’s heroes — Harry, Hermione, and Ron Weasley — materialize and suggest we cut class. The romp begins as we are wedged into “enchanted benches’’ that whir through a Forbidden Forest of black spiders and Dementors in good old scary-ride fashion.
Then the enchanted part, made possible by a video projection and a robotic system designed by Universal for what comes next: We fly. We narrowly escape the jaws of a Hungarian Horntail and plummet head-first toward a gaping black lake, with Harry on his broomstick shouting encouragement an illusory arm’s length away.
“That was the best experience of my life,’’ a boy Erin’s age high-fives his waiting father when the ride ends.
“It was worth the whole wait to see him come out of there,’’ the boy’s grandmother says.
In the village, lines snake in all directions, some for the vendor carts dispensing Butterbeer and cinnamon-laced pumpkin juice; others for the shops — Ollivanders, Zonko’s Joke Shop, Honeydukes Sweet Shop, the Owl Post, Dervish and Banges — some faithfully reproduced from the movies, others faithfully imagined from the books. (The wait at Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods is minimal since the Forbidden Journey cleverly drops you at the shop — where you can buy a photo of yourself on the ride.)
They’re like no lines I’ve stood in. Strangers strike up conversations and help one another. Children press their faces to the shop windowpanes, dazzled by sugar-spun quills, chocolate frogs, quaffles, pygmy puffs, and sneakoscopes. Adults run their hands over the master-crafted stone and woodwork, possibly the best facades in theme-parkdom.
Erin waits 40 minutes in the Honeydukes queue for a single cauldron cake. The chocolate treat is reproduced from the books for the first time by Universal’s executive chef.
We luck into a pre-lunch-crush table at The Three Broomsticks, where the dark, heavy-planked rooms offer a few degrees of cool. In Book Three, Harry has his first tankard of Butterbeer here. Erin hums along to the Weasley Stomp from the movie soundtrack while robed waitstaff hustle past with trays of fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, roasted turkey legs, tasseled ear corn, and the fabled brew. “The cream on top is the thickest, butterscotchiest thing I’ve tasted. Try the frozen,’’ a woman next to us suggests. We do. (The beverage comes in a keeper souvenir mug for an extra charge.) Brews of the alcoholic kind can be had at the bar under the snarling hog’s head.
“I wish this had been open on my 11th birthday,’’ Erin says at the Owl Post, where real mail goes out with a certified Hogsmeade postmark. Hint for parents of 10-year-olds: Harry’s invitation to Hogwarts arrives on his 11th birthday.
Finally we’re admitted, 30 at a time, to Ollivanders, “Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC.’’ In the dim anteroom stacked to the eaves with wand boxes, a reenactor chooses one lucky fan to experience an epic Harry Potter moment: being fitted by Mr. Ollivander with one’s personal wand. Erin stands at the edge of the group, tall and luminous in a white shirt and hat. He chooses her.
“The wand chooses the wizard. It’s not always clear why,’’ the actor quotes one of the books’ most memorable lines. After a few misfires with thunderous stage effects, a match is found, “For a wizard with creativity, a loving heart, and self-discipline. You are destined to make your mark.’’ My niece holds her wand — 14 1/2 inches, birch and phoenix tail feather — beaming. In the shop, fans select their own wands for $30 each.
All day the air rings with cries of “awesome’’ and “cool.’’ I have the feeling something transformative has happened, beyond what Universal expected. I think of Rowling writing the books alone, her narrative being transmitted through thousands of Universal creators.
“I love this place. I tend to want to be here every day,’’ says Thierry Coup, Universal’s vice president of creative development, who immersed himself in Harry Potter’s world for five years. “It has all that depth. Timeless stories, exciting locations, adversity. All there.’’
Maybe that’s why we connect to this park. Because it’s based on a narrative of more than 50 pages.
“It’s not ‘Jaws,’ ’’ a student from Florida State University who knows her theme parks says emphatically. “They’re getting better and better.’’
“Harry talks about pride, courage, having really good friends, and being loyal to them,’’ says Dwayne Young, principal of Centreville Elementary School in Centreville, Va., whose fifth grade won a free visit courtesy of the “Today’’ show. “I see it in the students. The trip is bringing them together.’’
“For her mom to connect with the child she was, as she’s approaching the world,’’ says Laurie, who will be taking Erin to look at colleges soon.
There are two more rides, The Dragon Challenge, which Erin rates “excellent,’’ and Flight of the Hippogriff, “for families.’’
Erin does the castle twice and smiling dreamily says, “This was a good day.’’
Patricia Borns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.