A Disney Girl in a Wizarding Worldby Lisa Stiglic, contributing writer
Author J.K. Rowling changed the Muggle world in which we live almost 19 years ago when she introduced us to her heroic, young wizard, Harry Potter. Since then, fans have been longingly searching the skies for any signs of owl mail and have tried endlessly to guess in which Hogwarts house the Sorting Hat would place us. There are quizzes upon quizzes to determine which patronus we may secretly harbor and even rules on how to play Quidditch. Needless to say, we have marveled at the magical journey Rowling created and selfishly yearn for more.
So, when Universal Studios brought The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to Hollywood earlier this year, I knew as a Potter fan (or Potterhead), it was a must see. But, coming from everything Disney with the show stoppers and magical pixie dust which make Disney what it is, I wasn't sure how high to set my expectations for my inaugural trip to Hogwarts Castle. The last time I visited Universal Studios Hollywood, the E.T. Adventure and Backdraft! were the main attractions. This time, I brought my 13-year-old daughter who likes Disney but hasn't read the Potter series—someone objective. My first impression was Universal Studios hasn't changed much over the years other than updating the shows with more current, contemporary icons such as the The Minions from and The Simpsons. We spent the morning experiencing some of these interactive sets then headed off to Hogwarts.
Like all of Southern California, Universal Studios is confined by land size, or lack thereof. The park is divided into an upper lot and lower lot with the upper portion housing most of the attractions including The Wizarding World. What this means is The Wizarding World was smaller than expected and even Hermione's strongest engorgio charm couldn't make it larger because there just isn't any more land mass. Albeit smaller than I anticipated, the show element itself was enchanting. The entrance scene is set for guests to walk into the village of Hogsmeade on a late winter's day with snow glistening on the rooftops of the buildings.
The town was bustling with visitors of all ages, many dressed in their wizard robes and brandishing wands. Hogwarts Express was stationed for a photo op either outside with a conductor or inside with a Hogwarts view (for a fee). After a few minutes of absorbing the spectacular sights, my daughter and I began to wander throughout the village to peruse storefront windows.
At several windows, prospective witches and wizards were trying to cast spells with their new wands. It seems wands are the big ticket item in the land of Harry Potter. The line to enter Ollivanders—Harry's favorite wand store—was out the door, but I did manage to inquire about said wands. Visitors can purchase an interactive wand for $49.99, which comes with a map directing the witch or wizard to the 11 interactive windows throughout Hogsmeade. A non-interactive wand option was $10 less. Sadly, Gringotts Wizarding Bank was nowhere in sight so I was unable to secure enough bank notes for a wand. Besides, I was saving for my first taste of butterbeer.
Honestly, the butterbeer is really why I wanted to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I've been longing for a taste of it since I first stepped through the pages into Harry's world. It did not disappoint. The sweet concoction is available in a frozen and a non-frozen variety. We went with the frozen and although not as sweet as I expected, it was perfect for a warm day and went down smoothly. My daughter declared it delicious and I had to agree. The foam is the sweeter part of the beverage, so it adds more overall when mixed into the drink.
As we sipped our frosty delight, we continued walking through Hogsmeade toward Hogwarts Castle taking in the magical experience. Everywhere I looked, a little bit of Harry's world peeked through.
We made our way to the castle, which is where the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction is housed. The wait time was only 20 minutes so in we went to join Harry, Ron, and Hermione on a daring adventure thoughout Hogwarts.
This experience by far was the highlight of the Wizarding World. As we followed the queue throughout the castle, we watched portraits come alive (but alas, no moving staircases), then investigated Professor Dumbledore's quarters complete with Fawkes the phoenix. As Ron would say, "brilliant!" We quickly made our way onto the ride, which simulated a flight on our own broomsticks as we followed Harry on his quest. We were dipping, diving, turning, and twisting amid dragons, death eaters, spiders, and even the Whomping Willow. This ride was definitely the equivalent of a Disney E-ticket attraction. The other ride in the land is Flight of the Hippogriff, a coaster built around Hagrid's hut and adjoining pumpkin patch; we skipped it and opted for lunch instead.
Off we headed to Three Broomsticks Restaurant that offers typical British fare such as bangers and mash, shepherd's pie, and fish and chips—our selection. Although the lunch was expensive and small in portion, I was impressed again with the atmosphere and setting. My daughter described it as "goth" but the inside of Three Broomsticks looked like it was straight out of the set design from one of the Harry Potter movies, plus the John Williams score was playing in the background. After lunch we popped into Honeydukes to pick up some Exploding Bon Bons or Chocolate Frogs, but the crowds were continuously swelling so we grabbed the closest portkey and journeyed back to Universal Studios Hollywood.
Overall, we both decided it was fantastic fun and would definitely call it Disney-worthy in most aspects. There were a few missing elements along the way beside the overpriced lunch and the crowds. We stumbled a bit on our journey through Hogwarts castle when instructed to lock our bags in the available lockers. Employees directed us to the area, but it was a mass of people trying to get to selected lockers. Some line stanchions or at least an employee nearby to direct the crowd would have been helpful.
Also, the Wizarding World was lacking in character interaction, which is a constant at Disney parks. There was no sign of Professor Snape, Hagrid, or even Dumbledore wandering throughout the village. How fun would it have been to see Harry and his arch nemesis Draco Malfoy spell-dueling or even Gilderoy Lockhart preening in his hand mirror? The closest option was the Triwizard Spirit Rally, which is a stage presentation of Beauxbatons and Drumstrang students performing.
I truly do miss the excitement and wonder of the release of each Harry Potter book and its subsequent movie but now I can enjoy a day as a Hufflepuff or Gryffindor student. Even with the magic of the Wizarding World at Universal Studios Hollywood now nearby, I know that my patronus is still a mouse. Expecto Patronum!
For more information about visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, go to universalstudioshollywood.com.