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Park visitors can enjoy a mug of sweet, nonalcoholic Butterbeer
Chip Litherland
August 2, 2010 12:53 PM EDT

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One reason so many wizards wanted to get rid of Albus Dumbledore was that he was soft on Muggles. Now he’s gone too far: the headmaster has let those decidedly unmagical humans into Hogwarts. Tens of thousands a day swarm through the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a 20-acre (8 hectare) swatch of Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Fla. Beneath the looming redoubt of Hogwarts School, these undocumented aliens clog the quaint main street of Hogsmeade, buying Sneakoscopes and Fanged Flyers at Zonko’s Joke Shop, mailing postcards (with special Potter stamps) from the Owlery, posing for a photo in front of the Hogwarts Express, slurping Butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks restaurant. Why, the clerk of the Hogsmeade branch of Ollivander’s is bestowing holly wands on Muggle children. The whole spectacle is enough to turn a pureblood’s stomach. Somebody alert the Ministry of Magic! Page Lucius Malfoy! This may require the attention of … You-Know-Who.

(See pictures of the Harry Potter theme park.)

The visitors are all votaries of J.K. Rowling’s seven Potter novels, which have sold more than 400 million copies worldwide, and the six movies the books have so far spawned, which have earned nearly $5.5 billion in theaters and quillions more on DVD. Universal has spent a reported $265 million (or about the production cost of the sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) to concoct a grand, obsessively accurate replica of Rowling’s vision.

The author made sure of that. Rowling had final approval on all aspects of the Wizarding World. From her home in Scotland, she signed off on the design, rides and some 600 pieces of merchandise, most of them unique to the park. Her involvement helped induce many of the films’ stars — including Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) — and artists (designers Stuart Craig and Alan Gilmore) to work with Universal’s park sorcerers, Mark Woodbury and Thierry Coup. Rowling may hope to transform Muggles into wizards. Universal’s goal is to turn the Potter legions’ ardor into a major magnet for the company’s two Florida theme parks and three hotels.

(See pictures of the Harry Potter cast.)

The great age of theme-park creation in the Sunshine State spanned a decade, from Disney-MGM Studios in 1989 to Islands of Adventure in 1999, with Universal Studios Florida and Animal Kingdom in between. The four parks, along with Disney’s existing Magic Kingdom and Epcot, consolidated the Orlando area’s status as a top vacation destination. This millennium has seen less expansion: a new attraction here (Universal Studios’ the Simpsons, the funniest, best-scripted ride ever), a fireworks display there (the entrancing Wishes at the Magic Kingdom). The Great Recession took a big bite out of family-vacation budgets — attendance at Universal’s Florida parks dropped about 10% last year — and stifled the ambition to build. Even the Wizarding World is just a new section of an existing park.

(See TIME’s photo-essay “The Great British Thespians of Harry Potter.”)

World of Wonder
But what’s here is choice. Unlike the candy-colored palette of any Disney park, black, gray and white are the dominant shades at the Wizarding World: the daunting slate of Hogwarts, the subtly ornamented shops, all capped by the rooftops’ perpetual snow, which in the oppressive summer heat serves as both a daydream and a taunt to sweltering guests. Cute, or Disney’s robust American form of it, is out. Quaint, British-style, is in. The Wizarding World is a bit like Stratford-upon-Avon, except that Rowling, not Shakespeare, is the presiding genius. And you don’t walk into the house she once lived in; you experience the dream she created.

See pictures of Daniel Radcliffe.
Watch TIME’s video about wizard rock.

Parks need rides, and the Wizarding World has three — two borrowed from the Lost Continent, a part of Islands of Adventure that Universal foreclosed on to make room for Harry. One is the Dragon Challenge, formerly Dueling Dragons: a coaster ride on twin tracks that sends the two speeding trains into 360-degree orbit and occasionally within 18 in. (46 cm) of each other. It’s been adapted into a race from the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, with the tracks renamed Hungarian Horntail and Chinese Fireball and the preshow area decorated with the Goblet, the Triwizard Cup and other Potter totems. The Flight of the Hippogriff (previously the Flying Unicorn) is a more sedate ride showcasing one of Hagrid’s favorite magical creatures. At one point, an animatronic hippogriff bows to you. Bow back.

(Watch an interview with Daniel Radcliffe.)

The big new attraction is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which blends the scenic vistas of Disney’s wondrous Soarin’ ride with the jolting narrative adventure of Universal’s Spider-Man. Strapped into your broomstick pod, you are led by Harry, Ron and Hermione on a forbidden journey (remember, you’re a Muggle) skyward out of Hogwarts, observing a Quidditch match, eluding the grasp of a cranky Whomping Willow and practically getting heatstroke from a fire-spuming dragon. It’s an impressive, harrowing, high-octane trek — not for the little ones.

(See pictures of Harry Potter fans.)

But take them anyway so they can enjoy the splendid preshow. (They stay in a waiting room while you’re on the ride.) As the line snakes through the “Gryffindor common room,” wizards in wall frames chat cattily about you; a holographic Dumbledore — the great Michael Gambon — explains the school rules; and Harry, Ron and Hermione appear to invite you on the journey. Postride, you exit through Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods, which sells many of the books’ gadgets, from Death Eater masks to the coveted Golden Snitch. Then stop for a meal at the Three Broomsticks, with traditional English food like fish and chips and Cornish pasties (of high quality for a theme-park eatery) and the Hogsmeade-exclusive Butterbeer — basically cream soda with a secret foam topping, and delicious.

No question, the Wizarding World is a hit. That’s clear from all the blogs grousing about the hours visitors can spend waiting to get on a ride or even to be admitted into Potterland. Some of the shops are so small that crowds often must line up outside just to buy stuff. (Guests staying at Universal hotels get into the park an hour before the official opening. Or you can just wait for an off-peak month in the fall.)

But even if you don’t have time for the Forbidden Journey, you can get the full Potter experience just walking around, admiring the evocative precision of the decor, immersing yourself in Hogsmeade. Here, as at Disney, the park is the ride. And the Wizarding World is one fabulous trip.

See TIME’s special report on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
See the best movies of the decade.

 

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