Yesterday I visited Universal’s Islands of Adventures for an early trip into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (which has its grand opening scheduled for June 18th.) I saw the sites and rode the rides. Before reading on, though, you should know three things:
- I worked for both Universal Studios and Walt Disney World from 1994-2001. During that time, I have been around for dozens of ride openings and I’ve seen more theme park rides than I care to admit in casual conversation.
- While not full on geek about it, I am a fan of the Harry Potter books. I have read them all and enjoyed each thoroughly. By no stretch of the imagination, though, am I an expert in the Potterverse.
- My post will contain details about the ride that could be considered “spoilers” – so if you want to experience the ride for the first time without any expectations, don’t read this blog entry.
Okay! Warnings have been dispersed. Let’s get started:
Talk about walking into another world! Universal’s design team has done a spectacular job of making Hogsmeade in a way that you forget that there are dinosaurs and cats in hats just a few steps away. The buildings are tall enough to block out the view of the rest of the park so that, as far as you’re concerned, there is no theme park. The detail on the streets and the buildings are nothing short of amazing as long as you overlook the occasional “magical fire hydrant”. (Kaleb’s joke, not mine; but I agree with him). ADDED NOTE: Walking around Hogsmeade in the summer leaves your brain a bit woozy. It’s what I call the Blizzard Beach effect: where the painting and props look like winter and snow, but you’re sweating from the extreme heat.
FUN FACT: You can’t buy soda in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The closest you can come is sparkling pumpkin juice. Seriously. You can only get Butterbeer, various juices and beer. (Yes – they make alcoholic Harry Potter beer for the grown up kids visiting.) I tried the sweet kid’s butterbeer, though, at Hog’s Head and it tasted exactly as you would expect it. One recommendation: get the blended instead of on ice. It is much better that way. Shannon did have the alcoholic version and it was just as good.
We ate lunch and the Three Broomsticks and did the “feast” meal special. The food (which included corn, ribs, chicken, potatoes and more) was well worth the cost. It was more than your standard “theme park food” that most people are used to.
This cute and quirky part of Hogmeade results in an almost guaranteed sale for Universal’s merchandise department. Approximately twenty five people file into a time room and one is randomly selected to be fitted for a wand. With six people in our group, we scored pretty good odds and Tracy got selected. After a couple of clever effects set up to give you the feel that the wand you are using is truly magical, such as watering a plant, the wand maker (NOTE: not Ollivander) presents you with the wand that seems to suit you best. After the show, you have the option to buy the wand for about $30 dollars. I can’t WAIT for the pissed off parent with the crying child who didn’t get to keep his wand. LOL
Where the FAIL comes in is the fact that something this popular WILL have a line… and there is no queue. The show lasts about five minutes. If you give another five minutes for load time, I would guess that you can put through about 150 in an hour. On days that the park stays open for ten hours, that’s only about 1500 that will make it in… and thousands of other people who didn’t get their chance. Where it gets WORSE is that there is no queue line. Hence the line just goes down the street which (as past experiences have taught in theme parks) usually ends in disaster.
So… great experience, but bad operational execution.
You can’t spend enough time staring at the castle on a mountain. Using the old size/perspective trick that Disney did with Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disneyland, Hogarts gives the illusion of being a massive building. That’s only the beginning, though. Hogwarts serves as the queue line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the one new ride built for tWWoHP. While I tend to call in favors and skip lines in theme parks (I HATE lines), I was advised by EVERYONE I talked to that you should go through it. They were right – and the journey is most of the fun for this attraction.
The paintings that come to life like in the movie: AWESOME. The effect is done seamlessly so that you don’t think that you’re looking at clever LCDs in painting frames. Nope: these suckers look like living paintings. EPIC WIN.
The rest of the theming in the line is just as solid and serves to distract from how long the line actually is. You run into Harry, Ron and Hermione who set up the story of the ride for you and (depending on your timing) they even make it snow inside.
When you get there and see a long wait time (which you will), Don’t Panic! The time goes very quickly with all the distractions the queue has to offer.
FAIL: HARRY POTTER AND THE FORBIDDEN JOURNEY
Thus we reach the low point of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: the new ride. The premise is simple: Hermione charms your seats and allows you to fly with Harry and Ron to a Quidditch match taking place. Along the way (and once there) you run into Hagrid, a dragon, Aragog and some spiders, the Whomping Willow, and even some Dementors. The ride system uses a new “robo-arm” system to hurl guests around as opposed to being on a ride track. In total, it’s a mix of Back to the Future/Star Tours type flying with animatronics and the usual smoke and water gags. There is VERY little that is original about the ride. Here are my key points of contention:
- The Dragon: You battle a dragon; the CGI is pretty; you have the feeling of flying… and then you face the REAL dragon. The life size head and model is pretty damn impressive – and it does absolutely nothing. The jaws don’t move. The head doesn’t move. It just sits there and you hear noise. Absolute weak sauce.
- The Dementors: I guess the effects department ran completely our of ideas for amazing shock and awe in a ride because the uber-creepy dementors look like nothing more than balloons with fabric stretched over them. Cheesy Halloween ghosts at their worst. With the staggeringly amazing amount of detailed packed into the streets and queue of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, why not spend the time on an element that will be (quite literally) right in front of the guest’s nose??!!!
- Transistions: Going from the screen view to the “real” rooms in the ride (dragons, spiders, trees, etc.) is less than smooth and serves to distract the rider more than entertain. All rides of this nature have these moments (the Spiderman ride at Islands of Adventure for example), but it is extremely distracting in Harry Potter for some reason. My guess is due to the fact that the ride is completely dark – and the levels of darkness in the screen rooms and the “real” rooms just don’t match up.
The ride, while clever, just failed to deliver to the level of awesomeness of everything offered in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
FAIL: ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE AND THE FUTURE OF WWOHP
I remember working at Universal Studios in the late 1990s. The thing we prided ourselves with (as a team and theme park) was how well we maintained everything for the guest experience. Walt Disney World had fallen in quality at that time and things were looking more and more faded. Well, now Universal Studios is at that same stage.
When Islands of Adventure opened it was a crowning achievement in theme parks. Bright colors and innovative rides made the park a premiere destination that easily impressed even the most jaded theme park attendees. Walking through Seuss Landing yesterday, I saw what had become of the place. The paint had all faded and the areas were dirty and in disrepair. A short walk over to Jurassic Park also displayed the same failure to keep the attractions up to standards. The dinosaurs in the Discovery Center looked less like impressive animatronics and more like old toys that were ready for replacement. With their joints exposed and the skin peeling, these once great monolith attractions looked no better than the local county fair.
It was depressing.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the current “new hotness” in the park, but if Universal’s standards have dropped this dramatically then it is only a matter of time before Harry’s magic will wear off. Sadly, based on what I’ve seen, that time will be sooner rather than later. I’ll try to stop by again next year and (hopefully) be proven wrong.