for a taste of butterbeer

a visit to the wizarding world of harry potter

I am sitting on the Hogwarts Express watching the British countryside roll by. My friends and I laugh and talk across the narrow aisle of the compartment. We are almost at Hogsmeade and when, minutes later, the train chugs to a stop, we step out to see the snow-covered roofs of the town. Above them looms a castle, one that, until now, I have only imagined. I catch the flutter of a cloak out of the corner of my eye, and turn to see a child stowing a wand as she disappears into another snow-capped building. It is 85 degrees, we are in Orlando, Florida, and I still cannot apparate to the front of the lines for the roller coasters.

On May 31, 2007, my thirteenth birthday, and less than two months before the release of the seventh Harry Potter book, Warner Bros. and Universal studios announced their intent to build a Harry Potter theme park. Three years later, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in June 2010 and was immensely successful. Attendance at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the umbrella theme park, rose by over a third that year due to visitors to the Hogsmeade-themed attraction. By 2012, planning was underway for a second park located in the adjacent Universal Studios Florida. In July 2014, the Diagon Alley branch of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened its doors.

I never thought I’d get to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’d visited Harry Potter: The Exhibition in Boston 2010, which displayed props and costumes from the movies. It was immersive, and replicated the movies on a smaller, but very detailed, scale. I remember walking through rooms and past dioramas feeling like I was looking onto a one-room cutout of the wizarding world. For instance, I saw the Gryffindor common room, accurate to the last armchair but with clothed mannequins instead of people and with a very large number of objects left conveniently laying out. It felt at once very real and museum-like: lifelike, but posed, frozen.

In many ways, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the exact opposite. Its spellbinding power comes not from reproduction of detail but reproduction on a huge and interactive scale. Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, the Hogwarts Express: You walk inside and you are there. It is missing every scrap of the posed frozen nature of the exhibition and has replaced it with, yes, frenzied commercialism, but also vibrancy and life.

I recommend arriving at Diagon Alley first: Universal has set up a small section of Muggle London, with shops and flats and the entrance to King’s Cross complete with saxophone-playing buskers. The Knight Bus sits outside the entrance, its three purple stories alerting you to the fact that you’re close to Harry Potter World, but the Diagon Alley entrance is subtle enough that you’re not sure where to go until a park employee points you in the right direction. You walk around some brick walls and all of a sudden, you are there.  Gringotts, the wizard bank, looms in all its crooked glory at the end of a street lined with the colorful storefronts that you have been imagining and seeing on screen for years. A dragon perches atop its marble dome, breathing fire every ten minutes. People rush in and out of shops, carrying packages and bags. You are there.

It is crowded, but there’s enough room everywhere to move and experience. Ollivander’s sells interactive wands, so on your way past the (atmospherically spot-on, although measurably larger than in the books) Leaky Cauldron you walk past people waving wands and reciting spells at fountains and signs and walls. The interactive elements don’t respond every time, but are still satisfying to try, and definitely cool to see even if you don’t feel like paying the $50 for the special wand. There is a huge variety of stores—most every one named in the books has at least a detailed facade, and most you can enter.

A strength of the stores is that in addition to a lot of merchandise appropriate to the stores’ themes, they also display non-merchandise “stock”: Borgin and Burkes in the amazingly-recreated Knockturn Alley, for instance, carries most of the Death Eater merchandise, but also has inaccessible but visible upper balconies full of dangerous-looking spindly things and dark devices.

There are a number of experiences that are not quite rides, but are immersive all the same. Ollivander’s is one: in a group of 20 or smaller, you watch Ollivander pull a child from the group and help them find their first wand (including lots of interactive-wand magic). The Hogwarts Express is another. The train has a line and an estimated wait time, but it feels less like a ride and more like an experience from the books come to life. Though it really only takes you just to the adjacent park (in either direction, Diagon Alley-Hogsmeade or vice versa), the window shows the English countryside speeding by and through the compartment door you see shadows of and hear voices of Harry and his friends in the corridor.

The rides themselves are, of course, great. Universal boasts many rides more intense than even the scariest rides at nearby Disney, and its Hogwarts rides are among the best. Diagon Alley, with its smaller space and rather more shops, has only one ride: Escape From Gringotts. It is an indoor roller coaster with immersive 3D effects, replicating a heart-stopping bank-cart chase escape from the goblin-run vaults. The queue guides you through Bill Weasley’s Gringotts office, where you discover that this ride is concurrent with the Gringotts scenes in the seventh book. You also board a shaking elevator that “descends” into the depths of the bank. On the ride itself, Bill attempts to help your mine cart escape Gringotts. This already breakneck and halting journey is complicated by run-ins with Bellatrix and the Dark Lord himself, thanks to the Golden Trio’s break-in. Narrow saves by Bill and the Trio make the ride both less like a typical roller coaster and more immersive than a typical roller coaster.

Hogsmeade features three rides. The Flight of the Hippogriff is a fairly mild family coaster. The Dragon Challenge, themed after the first Triwizard Tournament task, features a pair of inverted roller coasters, which are both intense and exciting, particularly the red “Chinese Fireball” coaster, which my friends and I all preferred. Like most theme park rides, the Dragon Challenge had an elaborate queue line area, in this case a path lined by Triwizard banners followed by a cavern-like tunnel.

The Forbidden Journey is the best ride. The attraction combines a walk-through, moving recreation of Hogwarts with a fast-paced experiential/immersive sort of roller coaster. The walk-through has impressive effects, including moving paintings and interactions with Dumbledore and the Golden Trio, and it makes the second half of the wait time speed by. Still, the coaster is best.  Seated on “magic benches,” you are flung and spun through a combination of rooms and vividly real-feeling curved-screen projected scenes. The premise is that Hermione has figured out how to make you fly, and this feels real beyond an iota of doubt as you are whipped across the Hogwarts grounds. The ride turns dark—dragon “fire” and huge spiders seeming mere inches from your face as you hurtle into the Forbidden Forest—before you somewhat abruptly find yourself in the clear, soaring back out onto the Quidditch pitch. The transition between screens and rooms is a strength of the ride: by the time you’ve arrived, breathless, in the Great Hall full of cheering students, you’ve been to the Chamber of Secrets and past the Whomping Willow and very much feel like you have flown in a Quidditch match. I couldn’t resist stretching out my hands as if grasping a broomstick. One downside of the ride is the confusing multiplicity of the storyline, though. So many scenes are brought out so quickly that it’s hard to figure out when the ride is set. When dementors chased us into the Chamber of Secrets, my friend yelled, “What book are we even in?” The whole thing is breathtakingly fast. It made me realize that, without a doubt, I would never have been able to do any of the things that Harry and his fictional cohort accomplished. The wizarding world is a terrifying, awesome place.

        While I was in the park, a friend texted me to ask how it was. Does the magic come alive, she asked, or do the commercialism and the rides disillusion you? Well, a bit of both. The real Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are not packed with Muggle tourists, nor do they contain rides and movie merchandise. The snow there doesn’t clash with the 85-degree weather. The theme parks do carry a sense of artificiality, particularly when roller coaster tracks or long lines are visible, and the crowd can at times be overwhelming. But when it’s nighttime in Diagon Alley and you’re watching a wizarding puppet troupe present The Tale of the Three Brothers, or when a ride has you flying over the Quidditch pitch, or when you’re walking down the main street of Hogsmeade laughing and chatting with your friends, it’s mostly very easy to forget that none of this is real. It’s the Wizarding World, and you’re at Hogwarts, and butterbeer is exactly as amazing as you always hoped it would be.