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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Part 3: What’s Wrong with It

I visited the new attraction at Universal Studios Florida three times, once in the evening, once with early morning admission, and once for a special event called Night of a Thousand Wizards which was associated with the Harry Potter conference Infinitus.

As I previously described, I was hoping to be awed and overwhelmed by the experience of having, as Universal and all their marketing campaigns have been claiming, an “immersive” experience. Instead the experience was cold, distant, and so disappointing with no sense of being immersed in this beautiful magical world. I will walk you through the area and describe what is there. Later I will dream about what I think should have been there, what I think is needed for a better and truly immersive adventure.

You can see Hogwarts castle from a distance as you enter the “Islands of Adventure” area of Universal Studios. It looks a bit odd, with all the other rides and amusements as a foreground. Getting to the Harry Potter area requires walking through other themed zones and depending on which way you go, you might have to walk what seems endlessly through “Jurassic Park” or by way of “Seuss Landing” and through a mythological realm called “The Lost Continent.” Going the Seuss/mythology way, you suddenly come out of the Arabian market section and you are facing the arched entrance of the Wizarding World with a carved sign that proclaims “Please Respect the Spell Limits.” I still don’t know what that means and it is an odd, clunky statement with no literary flourish, not what you would expect as a greeting or warning as you are about to enter a world built on beautiful phrasings and sentences.

You are entering the wizarding community of Hogsmead which is on the outskirts of Hogwarts castle. This is a major disappointment because while Hogsmead is interesting as the only all-wizarding village, it does not hold the promise of a magical experience  that Diagon Alley does (more on this later). You enter under the stone arch and see the engine of the Hogwarts Express sticking out of the tunnel of Hogsmeade station on the right and the snow covered village of Hogsmeade ahead. The tunnel is there to hide the fact that there is no train and no tracks attached to this train façade. You can’t go in the train or see inside it, which I am guessing many fans would have loved. It doesn’t evoke the station from the stories: it is located right next to the village, not some distance away as it should be. The conductor of the frozen train, whom we do not know from the books or movies, is a nice man who will pose for pictures, but he looks like the muggle conductor from the movies who will not help Harry find the platform in his first year. He doesn’t seem magical at all and as one of the few human characters he makes a big impression. But his cheery demeanor is not repeated by any of the other human workers in the place who ranged from bored to surly in their interactions with us.

The Wizarding World’s Hogsmeade village is a collection of shops built around two pre-existing rollercoaster rides. It also included a small performance area and a restaurant. The tiny buildings are all snow covered, supposedly because in the movies the village has always been seen in the winter and, some suggest, because the village is always magically covered in snow. It looks more like something in the Alps. It simply looks weird, not magical, especially when the temperature is 100 degrees with stifling humidity. The castle on the hill beyond the village is not snow-covered. There is a snowman at the end of the village, right before you reach the gates of the castle.

One of the most important building in Hogsmeade, the Shrieking Shack, is not there; if there was any excuse for building Hogsmeade instead of Diagon Alley, it would be to include the Shrieking Shack. The Three Broomsticks is a large restaurant with some cheap lighting effects and props scattered about. Inexplicably attached to it is the Hog’s Head, here merely a bar with specialty beers and a moving hog’s head on the wall. There was no Aberforth or any goats in sight when I was there nor any hint of a secret passage to the Room of Requirement. The food in the Three Broomstick is passable, what would be expected from a place that has to serve tons of people and get them out fast. The interior was dark, the wait to get in was long and the line hot because it snaked through a very tight hallway. There were a few feeble displays there. There is no Madame Pudifoot’s tea shop for snogging.

The entire area of the Wizading World is simply too small and it is crowded, not just because the crowds are large, but because it is poorly designed for the flow of people. The streets are also jammed by people in line for butterbeer at stations that are inexplicably plopped down right in the middle of the road. If they were afraid people wouldn’t be able to find the butterbeer unless it was blocking traffic, there are wrong. It is the one thing everyone I know sought out. It would have been better off served in pubs off to the side that also provided a cool, shady place to sit.

There are two types of shops in Hogsmeade: those that are just storefronts with props, and those that you can actually enter. The store names are from Hogsmeade and it is a bit confusing because they are not as familiar as Diagon Alley ones. While Ollivander’s does have a branch in Hogsmeade in the books, it adds to the confusion here because the wand choosing, which takes place for most new wizard kids in Diagon Alley, is here in Hogsmeade.

People are trying to look into all the shop windows (those that are not blocked by lines) so that impedes movement. The windows contain props from the Harry Potter world and many of them are somewhat interesting to look at, when you can see them. The windows tend to be dirty with fingerprints and the interiors are dark during the day so hard to see into. All the windows reflect the glare of the sun quite badly, making viewing difficult and photography nearly impossible. Has Universal Studios never heard of non-glare glass or plexi? At night most of the windows are lit from the inside and reveal something of the shop interiors and more props, but none, I am afraid, that seemed remarkable or evoked a sense of wonder and awe except for the moving quidditch balls.

Now, in the last year that we did Harry Potter and the Magical Museum at the Penn Museum, we were privileged to include the remarkable Diagon Alley built by a civilian prop designer and HP fan. Betsy Coe’s version of Diagon Alley, complete with full scale shop windows (which she built completely inside her house!) and clever and stunning props, was much more interesting and exciting than the Hogsmeade shops. Betsy’s props were set in displays that evoked a sense of immersion that contrasts with the distancing the Wizarding World shops impose. She had researched and constructed props that in most cases are indistinguishable from the Wizarding World ones. This says both that Betsy did a great job and Universal did a barely passable one. Universal had tons of people to work on this as well as a budget far surpassing that of an individual fan. They couldn’t come up with window displays that would knock us off our feet? It is one more bit of evidence, I am afraid, that the Wizarding World was done “on the cheap” even if it did cost lots to do (more on that later).

In addition to the window displays, there were real shops that you could (theoretically) walk into and purchase things. The real shops are so small that only a few people can enter at a time so lines to get into the shopping areas are long (up to an hour). The entry lines are not on the main street but off to the side in alleyways, presumably to keep the main street open (though it doesn’t really help). Once you are in, the merchandise in every shop is hard to see and harder to buy because you cannot move around easily.

There is Dervish and Banges, a sort of wizarding department store, that has merchandise for each house including ties and robes. But nothing is well displayed or easy to find because you can’t see the shelves and have to stand too close to the racks. A combined Zonkos/Honeydukes is a candy and magic shop that has lots of nice candy (both muggle and themed Harry Potter versions) but the magic section has only a few of the novelties associated with Zonkos or the Weasleys’ shop. The punching telescope is a cheap plastic telescope that has a feeble light inside that lights up a picture of a boxing glove; we bought it without being able to try it out and felt cheated. Betsy Coe’s version, in comparison, had us laughing when we first saw it. The fanged Frisbees were good and there were a few tshirts, a muggle yoyo (just a yoyo), and unimpressive sneakoscopes and rememberalls.

Ollivander’s wand shop (or actually the Post Office, where the wands can be purchased) is fed by the crowds from the wand selection experience. The line for this experience is very long, up to two hours most of the time we were there. The line covers several of the shop windows. About 30 people go in at a time and one person is chosen to have a wand select them. The Ollivander we had conducting our experience sounded bored and as if he were reading a script. The effects when the chosen wizard tries wands were mild and predictable. At one point a few boxes pop out of the wall and are promptly reset by Ollivander before the next step. You could almost hear the whirring of the motors as the boxes roll back in. It would have made more sense to have the place in a mess at the end of the wand selection.

At the end of the experience (which is short, maybe 4 or 5 minutes), the crowd is sent into the very crowded Post Office/wand shop. We were immediately asked our birthdays and shown a box that had a wand that apparently had selected us because of that birthday. But we had seen wands we wanted in the window on an earlier visit and wanted to see those. We finally got them but it was so crowded we wanted to scream. Maybe I am wrong but I think a lot of people want to buy Harry Potter things as part of their experience and the minuscule size of the shops makes that an unpleasant and difficult activity. Who could possibly have come up with the idea to make small shops that are unpleasant to shop in? At any rate, there were some very nice wands to purchase if you survive the shop.

The performance area presents two activities: a “Frog Choir” and a “Triwizard Spirit Rally.” We never saw the Frog Choir perform but we saw them walking away one time. The performances are not ongoing and not very often and at any rate the performance area is too small to hold a crowd. We did see the Triwizard Spirit Rally and it was silly and like a High School Musical dance number. The participants stayed around for a few photos but their handlers rudely dismissed the crowd after a few minutes.

Now to the roller coasters. I assume they were kept because it was cheaper than building new rides. We rode the smaller one, “Flight of the Hippogriff” but didn’t get on the second, larger one, “Dragon Challenge.” To me, roller coasters as part of this experience just don’t make sense. They are like roller coasters everywhere and the addition of some scenes, props, and new names don’t change the fact that they have nothing to do with a Harry Potter world. What a shame that the space occupied by these two old rides was not utilized for something more imaginative.

The next part of this report will address the new adventure offered by the Wizarding World and anticipated by fans: “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” The news is not good, friends, but does require a long and detailed description.

Photos for this section follow.