Theme park review: Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

ORLANDO, Fla. — So this is what it feels like to fly.

Harry Potter is on his sleek Nimbus 2000 broomstick, leading us to the Quidditch pitch.

We’re following on an enchanted bench high in the air, wind in our hair, feet dangling.

It’s Universal Orlando’s newest ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

Holy smoke and flame! Where did that dragon come from?

It’s chasing Harry, who goes one way. We go the other, and suddenly we’re lost in the Forbidden Forest, facing one deadly hazard after another.

The most difficult challenges in designing the ride, says Thierry Coup, Wizarding World’s
creative director, were “trying to meet the fans’ expectations,
ensuring everything was accurate to the movies, and creating the
feeling of free flight.”

His team has got the flying down; the scenes are amazing.

Our enchanted bench is manipulated by a robotic arm
that moves along a track while animatronic objects move around us and
computer-generated scenes are projected on a 360-degree screen. Some of
the images are a little blurry, but don’t require 3-D glasses like the
Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, a Universal thrill ride that employs
an earlier version of this technology. The sound isn’t very good,
though; I ride Forbidden Journey three times before I catch all the
comments by Harry and Hermione.

Whoosh! We’re about to crash into a stone wall when
we soar up and over it. Uh-oh — Dementors on the way. We dive, the air
rushing past us. The combination of effects feels real and gives the
illusion that we’re flying faster and farther than we really are. At
this speed, the ride should end in Kissimmee.

The bench turns, and suddenly we’re flat on our
backs, staring up at the Whomping Willow, whose muscular branches are
moving menacingly toward us.

The story is fractured, taking riders through a
chamber of magical horrors as they try to get back to that Quidditch
match. Coup said Universal chose some of the most iconic scenes from
the Harry Potter books for this ride. Giant spiders drip venom, a
dragon breathes fire, Dementors radiate their deadly chill. If they get
close enough, they’ll suck our souls out through our mouths.

Aaagh! A Dementor is floating right in front of us.
Someone screams. Then Harry appears and drives off the wraith-like
creature with a Patronus Charm. He leads us through collapsing stone
tunnels and gets us safely back to Hogwarts, where this story began.

Even if you haven’t read the books, you can enjoy
the dizzying ride, the near-misses as you speed over walls and through
trees, the startling face-to-face encounters with monsters.

About that dizziness: Some people get queasy. Paul Kudelko of Tampa
said he is prone to motion sickness, but wanted to ride with his
daughters, so he closed his eyes for the duration (about four minutes).
“You felt like you were flying, it was so smooth,” he said, but he felt
sick anyway.

His teenage daughter, Caroline, loved the ride. “It was so awesome. The line was so long to get in, but it was so worth it.

“On the ride, every time we turned a corner, there was something else. Every turn was a surprise.”

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REST OF THE ‘WORLD’

Forbidden Journey is the centerpiece of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a themed zone at Islands of Adventure that includes two other rides and lots of retail:

—Ollivander’s wand shop: In this cramped and dusty
shop with boxes of wands stacked to the ceiling, music plays, bells
ring and lights flash before the correct wand — birch, ash or hazel? Phoenix
feather, unicorn tail hair or dragon heartstring? — is found. Sometimes
only one customer is helped at a time, though many more can watch. This
bit of magical theater takes five minutes or longer, so the line moves
slowly. Whether or not a customer goes through the choosing ceremony,
the wand (about $30) is purchased next door at the Owlery.

—Butterbeer, pumpkin juice: The non-alcoholic “beer”
tastes like lightly carbonated cream soda with a thick foam head and a
hint of butterscotch. Go for the slushly-like frozen version. “Pumpkin”
juice, which blends apple juice with pumpkin and apricot purees and a
little spice, is less sweet.

—Dragon Challenge: Formerly called Dueling Dragons,
this pair of coasters has a new soundtrack and theme (the Triwizard
Tournament from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), but the ride
itself is unchanged. They climb up the lift hill in tandem, then take
off on separate tracks that seemingly bring them within inches of
colliding three times. It’s still one of the best coaster rides in Orlando.

—Flight of the Hippogriff: Formerly the Flight of
the Unicorn, this sedately paced junior coaster with gentle loops and
drops has new cars in the shape of rattan Hippogriffs — part horse,
part eagle. Don’t forget that etiquette requires you to bow to the baby
Hippogriff nesting near the start of the ride.

—Queue for the Forbidden Journey: Foreseeing that the line for this ride would be long,

Universal created elaborately detailed scenes to
entertain waiting riders. From the mandrakes in Professor Sprout’s
greenhouse to the portraits of Hogwarts’ founders talking about Harry
Potter to the sophisticated hologram of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore,
the queue is a wonder. Even if you don’t ride, walk through.

Hogsmeade Village: In the
restrooms, Moaning Myrtle whines through hiccupping sobs about her
plight — until she is drowned out by the roar of a hand dryer.

The shops sell hundreds of products from the Harry Potter books that were created for Wizarding World. Quidditch broomsticks ($250-$300)
were sold out even before the official opening. Wizards’ robes, golden
snitches, sneakoscopes, extendable ears, chocolate frogs, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Jelly Beans, collectible pins and the usual hats, T-shirt, mugs and picture frames are also among the merchandise.

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(c) 2010, The Miami Herald.

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