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(See also: PART 1   PART 2   PART 3)

One of the most anticipated and promoted parts of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando was the new ride called “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” As I mentioned in Part 3, the other two rides in this themed area are reworked roller coasters that don’t offer an unique experience that calls out, “Harry Potter!” This ride was supposed to be different, advertised on the Universal website as “a one of a kind ride experience.

After walking through Hogsmeade, you arrive at the gates of Hogwarts castle. The castle towers over the area from its perch on top of a rocky hill. The gates, however, are not “towering” as Universal claims but are rather small in scale, maybe 10 feet to the base of the large, impressive winged boars.

To the right of the gate is a set of mock seats for the ride which is deep in the castle. The ride is not capable of holding larger passengers and anyone over 250 pounds is supposed to test out the seats before they commit to taking the ride. You are doing this testing in full view of the streams of people heading into the castle. It is more than a bit embarrassing but aside from this ritual of public humiliation, who could possibly design a ride that does not hold passengers larger than that. As we get closer to the ride itself, we will see that the goal is not necessarily to provide the best experience for the customer but to prove to the other themes parks, especially to Disney, that Universal beat them all by designing what is supposed to be the best, most awesome ride in the world. It is not that at all.

The crowd streams into a small doorway carved on the rocky hill. It doesn’t seem very much like Hogwarts, especially when you enter a very dark, tiny vestibule. You expect to see the Entrance Hall and then the Great Hall, all majestic and candle lit with that crazy, alive ceiling. Alas, (as Dumbledore would say) you never enter any great hall or recognizable entrance. This may seem like a small issue but entrances (as we saw with the unenchanting entrance to Hogsmeade) are crucial for setting the stage for an otherworldly experience. The entry to such an alternative universe should be a portal to what J.R.R. Tolkien (“On Fairy-Stories”) and many folklorists have called the “Faerie,” that dangerous realm of “magic,” “marvels,” and “imagined wonder” that addresses basic (he calls them “primal”) human needs and desires. Among these desires are places that help us think about time and space, encounters that enable us to “hold communion with other living things,” language that reminds us of the power of words, and activities that encourages a co-creation of an experience. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, starting with its main entry and continuing with this one into the castle, fails at all these tasks.

After you enter the castle (and try to adjust your eyes to the very dark lighting) you are directed to the right to the tiny space that holds lockers where you are required to store your belonging because they won’t fit on the ride. This is a common practice on other Universal rides as well and is very annoying. Other theme parks seemed to have worked out letting people keep their possession but Universal has not. I have a particular dislike of this feature because we put bags of purchases in these same lockers one night and someone was able to access our locker and steal most of what we had in it. The lockers in the castle are usually filled up so you have to wait until someone empties theirs. There is a charge if you leave your belongings in for too long.

If you don’t intend to ride the ride but just walk through, you can bypass the lockers but the instructions from the staff (who are sometimes but not always located at this entrance) were so muddled it was unclear that one could do this. Anyway, on to the walkthrough which eventually gets you to the ride. The first part of the line goes through a very dark corridor which has a few props just sitting on the side. The Mirror of Erised is here but you do not pass very close to it if the line is moving straight through. You do pass the one-eyed Witch (guarding the passage to Honeydukes) but it was hard to tell what it was because it was so dim. Is it asking too much to supply a few cheap spotlights? Besides, the witch was just opposite the Mirror of Erised, totally out of context for both of them.

The line then goes outside of the building and snakes around, sometimes under a canopy with a few fans, sometimes in the sun. I have no objections to standing in a long line to get to a new ride if the line is designed to keep you comfortable and occupied with fun and interesting displays. This one could have used a few more fans and maybe misters to keep the crowd cool. Keeping you interested was another story.

The outdoor line then enters what appears to be a large greenhouse with snaking lines up a hill. There are live and fake hanging plants but nothing that looks magical.

I assume this is Sprout’s greenhouse because later, when you get to the top of the hill, the line passes a narrow set of cages with plants (mandrakes), pots, and a few tools. The cages don’t make any sense and the contents are hard to photograph.

When I was dressed as Professor Sprout for Night of a Thousand Wizards, I was asked to pose in front of this case by several people. There are, it reminded me, few costumed characters in the entire Wizarding World (Ollivander, the dancing veelas, shop clerks) and that is a big mistake. Those of us who came in costume for our NoaTW event had to abide by strict rules not to pretend we were part of Universal. Maybe they were afraid we would show them up, show how lively it could be if you just put a few people in costumes and had them interact with the crowd. It wouldn’t take much and this is what is necessary to bring the place alive. As it now exists, it is a passive experience and that is continued as you re-enter the castle proper for the continued walk to the Forbidden Journey.

When you re-enter the castle, people applaud because you have made it through this long part of the line. You enter another dark hallway with a statue on the right of what I think is a representation of the founding of Hogwarts.

Then there are the house point hourglasses set against the wall (with what looks like sand instead of gems) and a statue of a man pointing that is not identified.

Straight ahead is the large phoenix and spiral staircase leading to the headmaster’s office. That is a leap from the entrance hall (hourglasses) to the 2nd or the 7th floor (where the office is supposed to be) and it does not have the gargoyle guarding the entrance. Very confusing. Behind the staircase is a famous wall hanging of a unicorn (seen in the movies in the Gryffindor Common Room) and then on to a tall room with portraits all the way to the top. The room is very dark and the portraits hard to see but some of them are moving and talking. It is hard to step aside and stay in the room so you can hear and see the living portraits but people were trying to do that. It includes portraits of the founders of Hogwarts.

Next is an introduction to the narrative that is supposed to make the actual ride have some connection to the Harry Potter story. When you enter Dumbledore’s office (again, so dark you can’t see the objects displayed in the cases on the wall) you are greeted by a video projection of Dumbleore up on a balcony. It is nicely done but hard to hear because the crowd chatters loudly and most people don’t stop to listen. There are several versions of this lecture and all talk about wizarding values.

Dumbledore tells you to enter the Defense Against the Dark Arts Classroom not for a DADA lesson but for a History of Magic lecture by Professor Binns. Huh? Then you enter the DADA classroom (dim lighting again) where on another balcony, Harry, Ron, and Hermione admit that Professor Binns is both boring and dead so why don’t we join them for a game of Quidditch. Huh?

Narrative continuity is not a strong point of this place but this is bordering on the absurd. You are instructed to go the Room of Requirement (and suddenly Ron makes it snow. Huh?) in order to sneak out of the castle. At this point, it became clear that they should have forgotten the millions of dollars they spent filming the movie actors to create this walkthrough. It makes no sense at all. Further along the way there is also a Gryffindor Common Room (furniture against one wall) and a portrait of the Fat Lady that is one of the better effects but she is not at the entrance to the common room.

Right before the ride is a Sorting Hat that talks.

I never knew which space was the Room of Requirement but I assume it is the one where the ride loads. The ride looks high-tech, not like a magical activity. You get loaded in and a large arm comes over your head and locks you in by pressing down on your legs. The ride twists and turns you as you first view a video of Harry in his quidditch outfit flying around the quidditch stadium. You then encounter a dragon which comes out at you like something from an old funhouse ride, spewing steam and popping its head in and out. This cost millions of dollars? There is also a scene of spiders hanging down and dementors flying at you that are no better than most Halloween decorations in any American neighborhood on October 31st. Not only did this ride attempt to mix up several narrative threads but it looked cheap and cheesy. The ride itself seems to twist, dip, and turn just because it can and many people experience motion sickness on it. The problem is that if you are trying to appeal to many people, why design a ride that makes people sick?

Several times I heard people express dissatisfaction with the ride and suggesting that it all could have been done more effectively and simply by having a quidditch version of the California Adventure (Disneyland) favorite called “Soaring over California.” This is simply a video projected on a screen with the audience hanging in seats that move and soar with the action. There is no need to turn people upside down or have junky props jump out. Soaring over California is a ride that people actually applaud in appreciation when it is over. So why didn’t Universal save all that money and do something like Soaring over California? The answer, I think, in in a competitive mindset at the theme park where they were trying to “outDisney Disney” (as we were shown in a marketing presentation at NoaTW). Universal Studios, in addition to getting the rights to Harry Potter over Disney (more on that in a later blog) also got exclusive rights to a ride technology that involves a robotic arm. In this case it seems that the technology drove the ride design, not a narrative or good story like you find in most Disney productions. Universal did not outDisney-Disney, they simply made a state of the art ride that is a mess and that does not provide a wonderful immersive experience. What a shame, what a lost opportunity.