ernie bufflo and the wizarding world of harry potter

In case you doubt my Harry Potter love, this was my Halloween costume a few years ago.

Did you miss me? The blog has been rather neglected for a while because I went on vacation with my family to Walt Disney World.  While we were there, Jon and I took a day to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Islands of Adventure, something we’ve looked forward to since the day we heard there would BE a Harry Potter theme park.  I figured y’all might like a review of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

To preface, I should say that I’m something of a Disney World loyalist.  This trip marked my 14th visit to Walt Disney World, and if you figure that each vacation was 5 days in the parks, I have spent 70 days in Walt Disney World.  I know Disney like the back of my hand. Map? I don’t need no stinkin’ map!  I’ve also visited Universal Islands of Adventure once before this trip.  And I have to say: I wish Disney had done the Harry Potter park.

Why? Well, while Universal undoubtedly has bigger, better rollercoasters and thrill rides, and more of them, Disney does better at creating a cohesive world.  From the minute you pay your parking fee and the attendant says “Have a Magical day!” Disney is themeing every tiny detail of your experience.  Everywhere you look is a piece of a greater theme.  And you never see chipping paint or dusty animatronics because Disney has an entire fleet of maintenance people painting and touching up each and every single day.  Contrast that to the sad, faded, chipping paint in the Dr. Seuss portion of Islands of Adventure: there was scum in the water of the fish on the Cat in the Hat ride, which also featured a very dusty cast of robots!  Disney is also exceedingly efficient.  There are people making sure the right number of people get on the correct seats of the rides so the lines move smoothly.  Meanwhile, on the Dragon Challenge ride at TWWOHP, it was a free-for-all of seat choosing, which led to clogged lines and confusion.

Also: at Disney, you can take your bag or stuffed animal or magic wand on every single ride with you.  Even the ones that go upside down like the Rock’n’rollercoaster.  At Universal, before you ride anything, you have to stash your stuff in a nearby locker, which, though they are free, ads a whole new layer of pushing, shoving, and waiting in line to the experience.  In addition, Disney’s FastPass system is more democratic.  At Disney, you simply show up at an attraction, swipe your ticket, and get a FastPass which tells you to return at a certain time to enter a special line that is invariably much shorter than the main line.  At Universal, you just pay twice as much for your ticket and you can stand in the faster lines all the time, all day, unlimited.  I have to say, though, those who go through the Single Rider or FastPass (whatever Universal calls it) lines at TWWOHP are missing out, as some of the best parts of the park are actually along the main line.  Perhaps my biggest tip: stand in the main line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is the ride inside of Hogwarts, even if it’s an hour long, because otherwise you’ll be missing out on some majorly cool stuff.

Hogwarts was captured perfectly.

This guy looked just like a Weasley, and he was actually British. Instead of sticking him in Three Broomsticks, TWWOHP should have him working in Zonko's, doing magic tricks and actually "being" a Weasley.

Finally, Disney doesn’t call their employees “cast members” for nothing.  Every single person who works there knows he or she is literally playing the role of a citizen of a magical world, and they act the part.  From the deeply creepy folks who are found to work the Haunted Mansion to the 1920s “movie stars” roaming the streets of Hollywood Studios (aka MGM Studios), every single person you encounter is in character.  At TWWOHP, there are a few folks playing actual characters, be they Ollivander, or the conductor of the Hogwarts Express, but I wished the employee had had an answer when I asked him if the Sorting Hat had determined which house colors each TWWOHP employee was wearing, instead of looking at me like he had no idea what “sorting” was.  I also wished there had been some actual witches and wizards roaming around the Three Broomsticks or bumping into us on the streets of Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade.  (On that note: TWWOHP takes things from Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade and smooshes them together into one place they call Hogsmeade, which is not entirely accurate to the books.)

That said: TWWOHP is extremely well done, despite my view that Disney could have done it better.  As we approached the gate of Hogsmeade, Jon and I were jumpy with excitement like two kids on Christmas morning.  And everything just looks right.  I knew it would, I really did.  I mean, they got the movies right, without disappointing the passionate fans of the book series, so they had already proven they could do it.  They did not let us down.

Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley looks like it should and features all the shops you’d expect, including Honeydukes, Zonko’s, Three Broomsticks, The Leaky Cauldron, and Ollivander’s.  There will be a line outside of Ollivander’s.  It’s worth standing in.  What’s it for? It’s to get inside the shop and see a little show where one lucky kid is chosen to have his/her wand selected by Ollivander himself.  Sorry folks, you probably won’t be that lucky kid.  BUT, it’s extremely well done, and the kid who was chosen when we were in the shop was so excited that it was adorable to watch.  Everyone else has to select his or her own wand in a very tiny and crowded store.  Still: I GOT A  WAND! Hermione’s wand, to be exact, because she and I are practically the same person.

Also inside Ollivander’s/The Owl Post, you can purchase postcards and Owl Post stamps, and have them postmarked and “delivered by Owl Post” (which apparently operates in cooperation with the US Postal Service) to your friends, which is pretty fun.

The first attraction when you walk in TWWOHP is the Dragon Challenge.  This ride was actually at Universal before TWWOHP and was called Dueling Dragons, as it’s a two-track coaster which has both tracks running at the same time, so it sometimes looks like you might actually touch the other car on the other track.  They worked it into TWWOHP themeing by making it the Dragon Challenge from the Triwizard Tournament.  Aside from having to stow my stuff in a locker and some confusion that could have been remedied by having employees ask how many were in each party and sorting them into rows, it’s an awesome, intense coaster and a lot of fun.  It does go upside down and through corkscrews. I loved it.

Goblet of Fire

The main attraction, located inside of Hogwarts, is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  It’s part virtual reality, part animatronics simulation, and if you are prone to getting dizzy, take your Dramamine– you’ll need it.  It’s a really well-done ride, and, as I mentioned before, make sure to go through the whole line or you’ll miss out on some real favorites from the world of Hogwarts.  (We first rode the ride by going through as single riders, and later rode together, going through the main line.  We were astonished at all we’d have missed out on if we hadn’t gone through the main line.)

There’s also a sort of kiddie coaster called The Flight of the Hippogriff, and you get to see Hagrid’s House in line for that attraction.

Another major aspect of Hogsmeade is obviously the Butterbeer.  I was worried it would be disgusting, actually buttery or sickeningly sweet in the hot hot heat of Orlando.  It was better than I imagined. It was delicious– I had the frozen version on a cast member’s recommendation.  They have carts selling it in the streets, but you’d be better off to go have lunch at Three Broomsticks and sip your Butterbeer with your meal inside the air conditioning.  Three Broomsticks also had great food, including a Great Feast which feeds 4 for $50 and is a great deal in theme park food, along with other British classics like shepherd’s pie, cornish pasties, and roast chicken served with rosemary roasted potatoes.  They also have actual Hogs Head beer, in case the teeming masses in the park make you yearn for something with more of a kick than a sugar high from a Butterbeer.

Inside the Three Broomsticks

Ultimately, I had an awesome day at TWWOHP. I got to enter a world I know and love through books and films, and it lived up to my high expectations as a fan and a reader.  Still, as a Disney fan, I have even higher expectations of my theme park experience, and I know it could have been better.  Despite that, I know any of my Harry Potter fan friends will absolutely love the park, and I can’t wait for some of them to go so we can geek out about it together.

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