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June 21, 2010

Muggles in Orlando!

I'm not one of those rabid Harry Potter fans. In fact, I've never read any of the Potter books, but I have seen two of the movies. They're okay, but I can't say I'm completely into it. I must admit, however, that I've been anxiously anticipating the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios here in Orlando. We live a mile away from the park and are fortunate to be able to go whenever we want, so I've been sneaking peeks of the developing area of the park while impatiently waiting for opening day, June 18th.

Considering the obsessive nature and large number of die-hard Potter fans, I had a feeling that Universal would be an absolute madhouse on opening day. Sure enough, it was crazy! Fans from all points of the globe started lining up at 2AM, seven hours before the unveiling. As local news helicopters filmed overhead, I saw the seemingly endless lines snaking around the various sections of the park - people lined up just to walk over the bridge and through the great stone arch entryway to Harry's magical world. Estimates were up to nine hours wait time, simply to enter the village of Hogsmeade. All this in 108 degree heat as well! Okay, scratch the plan to just "pop in and take a few pics real quick". Duh! Just call me naive Nancy! Saturday, things were a little more reasonable, so we decided to take our chances and brave the masses on Sunday for our Father's Day outing. Here are my observations...

I understand and appreciate the authenticity, but the area is rather narrow and tight. With the level of interest in the new area of the park, this does not make for a pleasant environment - a minor issue that will surely settle after the immediate newness wears down. The attention to detail and visual realism of the entire attraction is truly impressive. I have yet to check out the shops. Even today, there were lines averaging an hour per store just to get inside. Considering that I had no intention of shopping, it seemed rather foolish to wait in lines just to look at merchandise. Will save that for another visit.

There are a few areas of disappointment that I must share, as well. For starters, Universal is rather barren of decent "shows". This is one area where Disney shines over Universal dramatically. The Harry Potter addition provided a prime opportunity to start turning this around. There were so many possibilities for fantastic shows that could have and should have been considered for the area. In terms of rides, there are three, but this is nothing to get to excited about. One of them is a double coaster that has been a part of the park all along as the Dueling Dragons. Two coasters, known as the fire dragon (on a blue track) and the ice dragon (on a red track), swirl and intertwine through each other on what appear to be crash courses. This ride, lazily enough, was simply renamed ("Dragon Challenge") and thrown into the center of WWOHP.

Another ride, a "family-coaster", is The Flight of the Hippogriff. This was once known as The Flying Unicorn. They put decorative aspects of a new animal on the ride cars and voila - a "new" ride! This is good news for Sierra, who LOVED The Flying Unicorn, but again - seems like a lazy attempt at much ado about nothing to me.

The highlight of Hogsmeade is, without a doubt, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - the one truly NEW ride within WWOHP. I'm ashamed to say that I cannot really share much detail on this ride. The wait wasn't extreme, all things considered - only 75 minutes, but as we entered the castle (which contained the ride queue), I realized that this is one of those rides that require all riders to place all personal belongings into storage lockers. I get rather cranky in crowds. Combine this with the fact that people generally appear to be too dense to figure out how to maneuver the locker usage without pandemonium (and everything was chaotic in Potter land anyway) and I just decided it wasn't worth the hassle. Again - will do this soon enough. Gino and Tony decided to ride, though. I took the opportunity to run around Hogsmeade, photographing everything. After they emerged, I asked for a full report, but immediately regretted it. I still have no idea what kind of ride it is. Gino summed it up by saying that it's not like any other ride in existence and can't be truly explained. The ride cars are basically like those of a roller coaster, with over-the-shoulder harnesses and no floor or side wall enclosures. The ride vehicle moves on an overhead track, similar to a coaster. However, Gino and Tony claim it is NOT a coaster. You "fly" through a sort of simulation, with movie screen surrounding you, basically placing you in the movie. They said that it has elements similar to both the Spider-Man and The Simpsons attractions. I'm completely confused trying to figure out how all of this really plays out! According to Gino, the queue is so well-themed and interesting, that you actually enjoy being in line! There are talking/moving pictures, audio-animatronics that put Disney to shame, snow in the line (indoors) and so much more. Probably still not worth the frustration of tackling the lockers, but next time, I think I'll leave my purse at home to avoid the whole issue altogether.

Overall, I have to say that I am quite pleased and impressed with the new addition to my neighborhood theme park. It was worth the wait and I look forward to exploring more freely once the crowds cool to a simmer. The whole attraction has made me consider watching the movies and learning a little more about the series. After all, that could only serve to enhance my Harry Potter experience, right? Nice job, Universal!