With Star Wars Celebration 5 just a few weeks away, Orlando has already been the focus of a butt-load of attention and general geek love. Within the last month our fair city has been a stop on the Star Wars In Concert tour, enjoyed record attendance at Disney’s annual Star Wars Weekends events and will play host to our first ever Bot Con – the annual Transformers convention. It’s no secret that the theme park capital of the known universe is a mecca for events and conventions, but no recent event (with the exception of the aforementioned C5) has earned Orlando a spot on the world stage more than the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Even those unfamiliar with the adventures of Harry and his pals have been the victim of the media and marketing onslaught that Wizarding World has generated. John Williams himself sat in with the Orlando Philharmonic during a red carpet reception celebrating the opening of the park — yeah, JOHN FREAKIN’ WILLIAMS! And let me tell ya, as only a marginal follower of the mega-franchise, I was still ecstatic at the opportunity to attend the opening day. And the many, many… many thousands of people with whom I shared the experience, made it all the more memorable.
Journalists, generally speaking, are notoriously grizzled and jaded. No so much from a need to be objective, but because we see and do so much in the course of our jobs that it just takes a lot to impress us. Speaking as an easily amused individual, I rarely have that problem.
My Potter-Pallooza came courtesy of my employer, who generously gave me 2 days to experience both a media preview and the grand opening. This was the first time since I left a daily news paper (hence the blog name ExPress) that I was privy to a large scale media event. Being of a small publication, however, I was still very much a face in a crowd. The Today Show and many international press reporters were given access beyond other media folks, but let’s not split hairs: Special treatment at a special event is a pleasure no matter the extent or the reason. And, having missed the John Freakin’ Williams performance, I was out to enjoy as much as I could.
The media preview included a press conference with some of the people who helped create the park, produce the movies and the stars of the Harry Potter films including Rupert Grint, Tom Felton and Michael Gambon and Harry himself, Daniel Radcliffe. Special? Yes! And so was finding Rupert Grint hanging out after the press conference, just chatting with the crowd, and very agreeable to the occasional photo request.
Another gift during the press conference was free Butterbeer. The drink, featured in the films, is re-invented for the park as a non alcoholic beverage. At first taste it’s like a combination of cream soda and root beer with a frothy head (added separately) that tastes mildly of pumpkin with nutmeg and other spices mixed in.
In short, it’s crack. Sweet, refreshing, mildly carbonated crack.
After 4 of them I still needed more – and I wasn’t the only one. Media, though jaded, are always up for a freebie… and this stuff was worth paying for. Empty Butterbeer cups could be found on every table and filled every trash can.
The Butterbeer buzz got us through the next part of the media day experience – a guided tour of the park. We were shown around the quaint town of Hogsmeade – painstakingly and wonderfully recreated for the park. Many of the shops are only storefronts featuring details from the films, but some were actual retail outlets such as Honeyduke’s candy shop and Zonko’s joke shop. Ollivander’s Wand Shop, however, is by far the most intriguing.
Inside, the wand maker Ollivander chooses someone from the crowd of shoppers and gives a one-on-one consultation in which he selects a want from the shop’s inventory. The recipient preforms an act of magic (with the help of some well placed animated devices such as moving books and a bell that rings). If the trick is successful, the wand has chosen it’s owner.
— Oh, you still have to pay for the wand, but you will know that your wand was meant for no one else but you.
The experience is more show than shop, with the actual store in a neighboring room. Visitors are guided into the real retail outlet after the show and, yes, only one person per group is chosen. Therefore, if you have a child who wants a wand, make sure he or she is aware that the Ollivander’s experience is a SHOW and that you will buy them a wand afterward. That way no promises – nor eardrums – risk being broken should your child not be chosen for the consultation.
Wizarding World is more than shops and shows. What theme park would be complete without rides? Dragon Challenge is actually the Dueling Dragons ride that opened in Universal’s Islands of Adventure years ago. It was a convenient addition to Wizarding World because it fit perfectly into the magical, mythical landscape. The former Flying Unicorn kiddie coaster is now Flight of the Hippogriff. The track is the same but the line cue is different with Hippogriff shaped cars added to the track.
The park’s marquee ride is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This attraction is actually two unique and awesome experiences in one. Within the amazingly detailed recreation of Hogwart’s Castle is a line cue that rivals most theme park rides. Talking portraits, ornate statues, a visit with Dumbledor and and an appearance by Harry, Ron and Hermione make every Muggle wish come true – and that’s just the start. The ride itself is an immersive experience with state of the art motion simulation and some frighteningly realistic creature effects. Not for the faint of heart, or faint of stomach, but if there was ever a good reason to risk losing a little of your breakfast, Forbidden Journey is it.
It seemed strange to have only three rides in the park but there are some details to consider.
One: Wizarding World is part of Universal’s Islands of Adventure – a cluster of “lands” that are only afforded so much space. Wizarding World is not much larger than all of Disney’s Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom, so there is only room for so much.
Two: It’s a new park. Who knows what they have planned if the park should be a hit once the opening weekend frenzy wears down.
Even with a surprise preview for the public (during what was supposed to be a media-only preview), the crowds were manageable and wait times minimal. But this was only a preview. The true test was to come the following day.
The Following Day: As the media and invited guests were gathering around the entrance to Wizarding World, an unimaginable throng of Potter fans were already gathered in the Universal Studios parking area. Thousands of fans packed the walkways that extended toward the grand opening area. The heat was unbearable, even for Florida. Having already experienced the park the previous day, we the media were feeling less-than-patient when the 9am start time was pushed back. All in all, the delays were tolerable, especially when word got around about just how many people were waiting in lines since the previous evening. Smart phones provided the information and the footage but no one could believe just how big it was until we ALL were allowed in.
A dedication ceremony (only about 30 minutes late) that included the stars from the previous day’s press conference was a quick and to-the-point production that included a meet and greet with some schoolchildren who had won a contest to be the first opening day visitors to Wizarding World. After that, the crowds were allowed to enter.
Within 15 minutes I watched as empty streets reached the attendance level we had experience the day before… and then surpass it. Within 30 minutes the crowds had made for a 2 hour wait to Forbidden Journey and not long after, the line at the Butterbeer vendor (located near the front of the park) reached Space-Mountain-like wait times. Before noon the line reached more than half way through the park – Just For Butterbeer!
At 11:30 I headed back to the media center for lunch. Not far away, a thunderstorm was beginning to build. It did not take long to make it’s way to the park. When I returned at about 12:30 both Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff were closed due to lighting in the area. Rain had already moved through with more on the way and thunder could still be heard in the distance.
… but the Butterbeer line was as long as it was before the storm. Not only had people stayed in line during the bad weather, but the storm could not deter the masses as they continued to file in behind those who had been in line for hours.
Crack, I tell ya. Crack.
Second only to the Butterbeer line, was the wait for Three Broomsticks – the one and only eatery in the park which, not surprisingly, has no reservations. The Three Broomsticks line snaked in front of both Honeyduke’s and Zonko’s which made entry into some of the only real shops in Hogsmeade, a task unto themselves.
Forbidden Journey however, was operating smoothly, even when it wasn’t operating. The ride had some technical problems and shut down a few ties during the day. The line, however, kept moving. The parts of the cue where guests are treated to various Potter-esque eye candy actually act as buffers. As people take the time to watch the portraits interact and visit Dumbledor’s office and see Harry and his friends, there is space building in the line sequence. Even when the ride shuts down, there is still movement through the cue as visitors take up the space.
Having seen expressions of joy, frustration, exhaustion and more joy on the faces of the crowds, it seemed the general feeling in the crowd was the same as any other day in a theme park. The heat and lines were harrowing, but all is usually forgiven once you get on the ride, pay for your souvenirs and taste the Butterbeer (crack). There will always be nay-sayers, complainers and haters, but as long as there is a fan base (and there is most definitely a fan base), things will work out.
Hell, I’d go back – even if I wasn’t guaranteed a Butterbeer.