We're off to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010; F01

The castle rises above the foliage line, turrets and towers disappearing into the morning fog. The roof is frosted with snow. The Gothic spires jut from the stone walls at nearly impossible angles, as if affixed by magic.

My sister Paige turns to me and says -- and I swear there are tears in her eyes, though they might be from sheer exhaustion -- "It is glorious."

We are in line for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando. We have been in line for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter since 5 a.m., along with thousands of other slavish fans who arrived before dawn for the grand opening that is sure to be recorded as a major moment in nerd history.

Now, at 8:45, we are huddled on a wooden bridge next to a couple of nursing students from nearby Valencia Community College, who cut class in the hopes of seeing "Potter" stars Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, both in town for the opening. The gates to the village of Hogsmeade -- the World's official entrance -- are finally in sight.

"If I die in this stampede," one of the students, Emily Grice, says dryly, "I want my ashes sprinkled over Hogwarts."

Grice and her friend are wearing hand-painted "Dumbledore's Army" T-shirts and round Harry Potter glasses.

As fanware goes, these costumes are tame. Elsewhere in line I spot Quidditch jerseys and tattoos proclaiming devotion to Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin, the four houses of the Hogwarts school. One woman has a stuffed owl on her shoulder. In the sloppy, 90-degree Florida heat, there are dozens of people wearing heavy black robes emblazoned with the Hogwarts insignia over suffocating English sweaters.

Paige and I, who came to the Wizarding World to celebrate Paige's recent college graduation, may be nerds, but at least we are not robe people.

"I forgot my costume," Paige says.


"My costume."

Paige proceeds to tell me about her awesome Ravenclaw uniform, complete with blue and silver knee socks, which she has worn to every midnight screening and book launch.

We are robe people.

At 9:15, the gates open.

* * *

The fans have been waiting. For nearly a decade, since rumors about a park began circulating, the Potterphiles have been waiting to drink butterbeer, mail an owl post, poke around Honeydukes candy shop. The optimistic ones hoped that some engineer would find a way to enchant a broomstick; at the very least, everyone wanted something to hold on to after the release of the final books and movies. In 2007, Universal Studios announced official plans; earlier this spring an opening date was set.

The World requires no special tickets; $79 technically purchases a day's admission to all the Islands of Adventure attractions. But in reality, things like "safety hazard" and "maximum capacity" mean that not everyone gets in. Behind us are hordes of ticketed people who will not pass through the gates for several hours, if at all.

As we file into Hogsmeade, I forget about those people.

Glorious. Glorious.

We are suddenly in a medieval Scottish village, as constructed by witches and wizards.

On either side of the street -- narrow, to be properly British -- are familiar landmarks: the Owl Post, the Three Broomsticks pub, the cheerfully whistling engine of the Hogwarts Express. Hermione's pink gown from the fourth book's Yule Ball is displayed in the window of Gladrags, and the storefront of Honeydukes features chocolate frogs-- a favorite among wizard children, as each one comes with a Famous Wizard Card with stats on magical superstars. From sloping roofs to teetering chimneys, everything looks as though it could be a thousand years old, held together by just Spellotape and a charm.

Looming at the back of the 20-acre World is the Hogwarts castle, which houses the Forbidden Journey, the most anticipated ride and the only one created for the park (the others are the Dragon Challenge and the Flight of the Hippogriff, existing constructions that were spruced up with Harry Potter themes).

"The Whomping Willow?" says Paul Yurick of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who has just ridden the Forbidden Journey. "It was one inch from my head!"

With that irresistible endorsement, we head inside.

The wait for the Forbidden Journey -- so named because riders get an illicit "flying" experience -- is long, but the "line" is actually a tour through the castle. It begins with Professor Sprout's greenhouse, then moves indoors, where nearly every object is an Easter egg for rabid fans: the Mirror of Erised, the Pensieve. In the foyer outside the headmaster's office, talking portraits -- talking portraits!! -- of Hogwarts's four founders debate admitting Muggles to the school for wizards. Inside the office, a hologram of the headmaster, Dumbledore. Some coaster-phobes wait in line just for that experience, then peel off at the end and skip the ride.

Ultimately, our 40-minute wait passes fairly quickly. If you truly lack patience, there's a separate "single rider" line for solo tourists. That line is almost always faster -- one man told me he'd zoomed through in 10 minutes -- but the tradeoff is missing out on some of the castle's best goodies.

(The line raises my expectations so high that later, waiting for the Dragon Challenge, I ask Paige, "Ooh, what's that?" To which she replies: "It's a drinking fountain.")

The Forbidden Journey replicates a race through Hogwarts grounds. It's a seamless blend of simulator screens and live action, which is to say that when the dragon roars, its breath is hot and when the giant spider spits, its venom is wet.

After the ride, I get a $3 butterbeer -- tastes like cream soda mixed with butterscotch -- then head off to Ollivanders for the "Wand Experience," in which Ollivander himself waits on one member of each tour group. In ours, the lucky customer is Raphael Rodriguez, 12, who flew in from Puerto Rico for the opening.

Ollivander measures Raphael's arm, then has him test a few duds (they kill flowers) before finding a winner, which Raphael is invited to purchase for $27.95. "It's heavy," he marvels, weighing it in his hands, and his mom agrees to the purchase. Visitors not selected by Ollivander can still buy wands in the retail section next door, choosing among several different styles. We buy a wand modeled after the one used by Sirius Black, Harry's godfather.

We want to head to the Flight of the Hippogriffs next, but we get disoriented. The "park employee" we ask for directions turns out to be another tourist, Lena Czernec of Melbourne, Fla., wearing the most realistic Hogwarts costume I have ever seen. "I'm what you might call a purist," the teacher confesses, telling us that she commissioned the uniform from a costume designer on the Potter movies.

(Later, we learn to identify employees by the fact that they all speak in British accents, in varying degrees of badness.)

Our encounter with Czernec illustrates the best reason to visit the Wizarding World during its opening summer, with the ludicrous heat and lines. This is when the nuts go. Now is the time to bond with others who will not find it odd that you can name every character's Patronus (the animal-form protector that shields wizards from evil Dementors, duh).

Throughout the day, I keep hoping to discover the Biggest Fan, someone who astounds me with their Potterverse devotion.

In line for Flight of the Hippogriffs, I find him.

It's not apparent at first. Jacob Shimek, 10, is dressed in regular clothes. But he once converted his entire Bel Air, Md., basement into wizarding hot spot Diagon Alley. He also built a breakaway Platform 9 3/4 . Then he hired his mom to serve snacks on his reconstructed Hogwarts Express.

We meet when Paige wonders aloud why Hagrid's hut, the domicile of Hogwarts's lovable groundskeeper, has not been made into an attraction.

"Well," Jacob offers, "Hagrid's hut would be rather small, wouldn't it?" Jacob estimates that only a handful of humans could tour it at once, so sadly, it's just not practical.

I ask Jacob, what, in his expert opinion, he thinks of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

"I think they've done an excellent job in taking the original rides and giving them a Potterish feel," Jacob says.

And the new stuff?


* * *

Magic fades. Very quickly, when it's very hot.

Though the lines were bearable when we first entered the park, by afternoon, as the grounds reach capacity, we are completely miserable. The narrow British streets and shop aisles, so adorable earlier in the morning, are now a traffic hazard, and everything is completely gridlocked. We wait for nearly two hours in Honeydukes to buy a $10 bag of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. When we exit, I immediately get in line for another attraction, only to realize that it's the Honeydukes line again, wrapped around the building. At Ollivanders, the Owl Post and the butterbeer stand, more of the same.

Our flagging spirits are compounded by hunger. With the exception of the gargantuan-lined Three Broomsticks -- beefy British pub food like Cornish pasties and shepherd's pie -- and Honeydukes, there is no place to buy food. The Wizarding World has elected not to sell soda or other name-brand Muggle products, which is neat in theory but frustrating in practice. I would face Dementors for a cold Coke and a vegetarian entree, but we're trapped by the entrance lines. If we left the Wizarding World to buy something, we would never get back in.

It's all Harry Potter and the Deathly Heat, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of the Giant Queue, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Get Out of My Way, Kid, That Last Chocolate Frog Is Mine.

There are signs that other guests feel the same way, judging from the dialogue of exhausted-looking families:

"What do you mean there's no coffee here? Is the butterbeer caffeinated?"

"The Pygmy Puffs are sold out, Hannah. They're extinct. No, not extinct forever. Stop crying."

"If you poke me with that wand one more time -- "

Even Paige has had enough. "What more do you think we need to see?" she asks. "We've done everything here."

We could have done more, I think. We could have done more.

I'm finally convinced that it's time to go at 5 p.m., when I see the masses of people standing at the gates of Hogsmeade -- they can't enter the Wizarding World until some of us leave.

The line of wannabe wizards winds all the way through the park to the exit and beyond -- easily a quarter-mile of sweaty people wilting in their cloaks and Slytherin scarves. One woman stares enviously at our bag of jelly beans. "Did that come from Honeydukes?" she asks longingly. "I hope I get to go to Honeydukes. I've been in this line for nine hours." We give her some candy.

Then we begin the 15-minute trudge back to our room at the Doubletree Hotel. On the way, we pass a group of excited teens singing the Harry Potter theme song.

I want to punch them in the head.

* * *

The next day, we're still in recovery mode. Mid-morning, I do a live Twitter search for "Wizarding World" and "lines" to get reports on the crowd situation from those already in queue, and blanch when one account says it's still two hours to get through the main gate.

Instead we rent a car and drive an hour to Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, soaking up strip-mall kitsch and swimming until our fingers are pruny.

When we get back to the hotel, it's late afternoon and an evening of vegging seems to be in order. But when I flip on the television, HBO is announcing the television premiere of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," scheduled to air that night.

Can we really watch Harry Potter on a hotel television when the real thing is just a mile away?

It's a sign. We have to go back.

As we walk to the park entrance, ominous clouds collect overhead. The moment we pass through the ticket booth, the sky opens up and it begins to pour -- huge fat drops the size of marbles.

It is . . . a miracle! While we are splashing toward the Wizarding World, everyone else seems to be running away from it. The weak have taken this storm as a sign to leave. When we reach the gates of Hogsmeade, they are magnificently line-free. The narrow streets are clear. The butterbeer line is but a trickle!

There are other magical developments, too: Entrance to Honeydukes is now being monitored to prevent bottlenecking, and we find a snack stand in front of The Magic Neep selling fruit and soft pretzels.

The two outdoor roller coasters have been shut down because of the danger of lightning, but the indoor Forbidden Journey is still open, and I zip through that line with barely a pause.

When I get out, the rain has slowed to a drizzle. Paige, who skipped the ride to take advantage of the reduced-crowd Honeydukes, has procured me a frozen butterbeer. We sit in front of the Owl Post with our drinks and watch the Muggles dart past, ducking from shop to shop.

In their rain ponchos, everybody looks like they're wearing robes.

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