Universal Studios Hollywood opened their new $500 million Wizarding World of Harry Potter this past week. It was part of a major expansion to this famed California theme park that focuses on movie making, films, and movie characters. The new addition took five years to construct and represents one of their biggest expansions ever.
I passed up the press opening, and instead attended with my two grandsons, 8 and 11, who’ve seen most of the Harry Potter movies and read most of the books. That way I was better able to gain an appreciation through their eyes, since they better fit the demographic that the park is designed for.
The Harry Potter section sits near the back of the park. You enter through an archway to Hogsmeade, the small Scottish town that looks just like the sets in the Harry Potter movies, except instead of facades, they’re complete buildings, housing an assortment of stores selling Harry Potter merchandise, souvenirs, and food.
The kids were most impressed by how authentic everything looked and the attention to detail everywhere. While it’s all new construction, each brick and feature looked well-aged and made out of authentic stone from Scotland. They pointed out the Harry Potter music playing in the background and the sound of Moaning Myrtle heard in the bathroom, which corresponds to one of the stories.
Looming ahead as you enter the town is the 200-foot high Hogwarts Castle, a foreboding spired-top castle that houses the park’s latest adventure ride attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The castle is as breathtaking as the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, carefully detailed everywhere you look. Visitors will likely spend quite a bit of time in and around the castle, winding their way to the ride through classrooms with animated characters and dark, scary corridors.
We arrived at 9 a.m. when the gates opened and rushed right to the castle, and had only a 30-minute wait. But as we left the castle about 50 minutes later, the line was snaking down the main street with a 2-hour wait. Clearly, it’s the number one attraction at the park.
The ride, unique to this location, consists of a series of cars, each holding 4 people side by side. It simulates an adventurous free-flight broomstick ride led by Harry Potter and his friends. 3D simulation with glasses gives you the feeling of flying through the air, quickly moving over castles, under bridges, and through a forest, past a fire-breathing dragon, and finally back home. The ride is full of ups and downs, twists and turns. Both grandkids loved it and thought it was awesome, but one of the parents felt a little queasy. The kids rated it as among their top five rides ever.
The village has a second, much shorter ride, the Flight of the Hippogriff. It was a small roller-coaster that was good for younger kids, but much more ordinary.
Among the attractions in the cobblestone-paved Hogsmeade Village are Ollivanders Wand Shop, where you can buy a wand for $50; the railroad station, where you can have your picture taken in the Hogwarts Express train carriage compartment for $20; a cart where you can buy Butterbeer; and the surprisingly good Three Broomsticks restaurant.
Our eight-year old grandson bought a wand and then was able to wander within the village performing “magic” with its special powers. When he came upon a magic portal or window, he waved the wand in a special pattern to create a reaction. For example, at the candy shop, the wanding would make the chocolate frog croak and at the bookstore, papers would fly about.
While Harry Potter’s World is getting much of the focus, visitors should not overlook the many other attractions that have been added over the past few years, including rides based on “Shrek,” “Despicable Me,” “Transformers,” “The Mummy,” and “Jurassic Park.” Each ride is arranged like a story where the visitor is immersed in the adventure.
A major highlight of the park is the tram ride, a one-hour journey through the studio’s movie lots that lets you experience both the original movie sets and actual scenes from some of Hollywood’s famous productions. Experiences include a sudden flood, a San Francisco earthquake, and scenes from “Psycho,” “War of the Worlds,” and “Jaws.”
At the end of the day, I asked my grandkids to tell me what they liked best. My oldest said, “I loved Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but I also loved the tram ride. It’s a great attraction for people of all ages, not just for kids.”
My youngest said, “I rate Harry Potter World as excellent, and I want to go back to do more wanding.”