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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Universal’s Islands of Adventure

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 Reviewd By: Lance Hart
 

 

    Welcome back to the second half of my review of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In Part 1 I covered all of the aspects of the Hogsmeade village shops, themeing and unique food and beverage items. Passing through Hogsmeade, just a short distance down from Ollivander’s, the road will make a sharp left turn and it is here that you will first encounter the massive Hogwarts structure itself.

    Now I had seen Hogwarts under construction for months, both on the web and even in person, but what I saw upon rounding that corner made me stop dead in my tracks. Not only does Hogwarts look as huge as it does in the films to the naked eye, but standing there before it, seeing it in person for the first time, it was just stunning. Frozen in my tracks, the only thing I could do for a few seconds was utter an astonished, “Holy crap…” under my breath.

    Hogwarts castle, for all purposes, looks real.  As impressive as the themeing is elsewhere in Islands of Adventure, it still just screams “Theme Park” to your brain. Hogwarts does not… it looks and feels real… or real enough that my brain accepted it as such. Perhaps it is best to really compare it to Disney’s own castle down the road.  I’ve stood next to the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom more times than I can count, and never was I as awestruck by that structure as I was by Hogwarts itself.

    Approaching the castle, you come to a large gateway entrance with the famous flying boar icons of Hogwarts flanking it on either side. To the side the ride’s name, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey”, is illuminated as a twinkling fiber optic sign built into the stone. Following the path takes you up right next to the rock walls with the castle itself looming high overhead. Upon entering the structure, you can venture deep inside right away, or if you need to stow your gear, the locker storage facilities are immediately to your right. Passing the doorway to the lockers, I moved deeper into the underground cavern pathways under Hogwarts, and here you will begin to encounter a series of objects and things that fans of the books and films will likely immediately recognize. I have to admit here that I’ve never read any of the Potter books myself, I’ve only seen the films, and most of them on DVD for some reason, so forgive me if I passed by something and didn’t recognize it immediately.

    Your queue experience continues here and actually exits back into the outside world again on the other side of the castle, where you go around to the back of the Greenhouse and through a series of turnbacks, taking you up to the next floor at the top of the greenhouse. Here you will enter the actual castle halls and begin to encounter a number of objects and statues that you’ll recognize from the films. After a few corners you will come across the first in a series of living picture frames. At first the characters just silently move around, but upon entering the next larger room you’ll encounter four particularly famous living pictures featuring the four founders of Hogwarts: Godric Gryffindor, Salazar Slytherin, Rowena Ravenclaw and Helga Hufflepuff, who have actually never been seen in the films before. While passing through this room you’ll hear the four engaged into various arguments and discussions, most of which stems from Salazar demanding to know why there are “Muggles” being allowed into Hogwarts.

    From here you’ll journey into Dumbledore’s office, filled to the brim with special artifacts and magical items from the Potter-verse. A very well done projection effect brings Dumbledore to life, courtesy of a performance from Michael Gambon, who gives you some sagely words of advice and sends you on your way. Next up on your travels will be a stop into the Defense Against The Dark Arts classroom where Harry, Ron and Hermione make a sudden appearance out of thin air with the aid of a Cloak of Invisibility. The trio insists that it would be in your best interest to ditch the class along with them and go see the Quidditch match outside. You’ll need a little magical aid from your new friends to get out there, but they’ll help you out along the way.

    You exit the classroom and proceed past a few more talking portraits, including one of The Fat Lady from the books, who I believe is the guardian to the Gryffindor dorms. Shortly after you’ll come to the point in the queue where the regular and single rider lines combine, where they also have a test seat where you can see if you’ll fit onto the ride or not. (Note: There is one other test seat outside which is more of a simulated seat, while this one appears to be an actual recreation of a ride car. The fitting issue of the ride is a whole other issue I’ll touch upon later.) All park guests are encouraged to visit Hogwarts and see the castle tour itself, so anyone who has no intention of riding can actually exit the queue at this point and head back outside.

    Beyond here, you are almost to the ride itself, but you’ll have to get past the Sorting Hat first, who gives you some safety advice before you pass on by. Around the next corner is the entrance to Hogwarts’ Room for Requirement (with a roof full of floating candles) which also serves as the load/unloading area for the ride itself. The station itself reminds me of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, complete with a moving walkway to aid you getting on and off the ride, while the vehicles never stop moving. The trick here is that the moving walkway in this case is a quick one… in fact I believe it may have been two side-by-side moving walkways, one slower one for when you first step down and the second even faster, moving in sync with the ride cars.

    The ride cars are themed as ‘Flying Benches” which hold four riders each, sitting side by side, with each person having their own Over the Shoulder coasters style restraint bar to pull down. What remains hidden here however, is any sight of the massive Kuka robot arm that your bench is attached to the business end of, nor the moving platform that the Kuka arm is attached to, which shuttles you around the ride building itself. Once everyone is locked in the ride ops step back and off you go into the darkness for an adventure of a lifetime.

    For the sake of those who still want to be surprised, I will not go into an in depth breakdown report on what takes place, scene by scene, during your adventure through the Forbidden Journey.  So this review should be spoiler free for the most part. What I will tell you is that as amazing a leap forward as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man was a decade ago when Islands of Adventure first opened, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey represents just as big of a leap ahead once again… if not even more so. As good as Spider-man was, and still is, Spider-Man really was just the ultimate mixture of popular well-proven amusement technologies: an EMV ride experience combined with 4D projection and effects. Meanwhile Forbidden Journey really breaks a lot of new ground with an unproven ride system that really has shattered the mold for what you can experience in a dark ride.

    From what I could tell there really is very little that can’t be done with this amazing new ride system. At times you’ll experience the same kind of projected flying sensations that you get from Disney’s Soarin only to turn a corner and come face-to-face with a horrific real world creature set on harming you. This kind of pace continues throughout the 4 minute long ride as you constantly switch between projection and real-world effects, or a mix of both, each used to perfection to move the story along. And trust me… this is one wild story line that will set you on a collision course with all of your favorite locations and the most popular people, beasts and creatures from the Potter-verse before returning you back safe and sound.

    Exiting the ride you’ll travel downstairs and into Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods… otherwise known as the ride’s gift shop. The shop is named after Argus Filch, the caretaker of Hogwarts, known for an ill temper and handing out punishments and confiscating items from the students.

    From here you’ll exit back out into the open air, still under the shadow of Hogwarts above. Across the pathway you’ll find the Flight of the Hippogriff family coaster, formerly known as the Flying Unicorn before the Wizarding World came to be. The Potter themed conversion of this little coaster has improved the area quite a bit, as you now pass through a well themed queue, past Hagrid’s home where he teaches the Care of Magical Creatures class, on your way to the coaster station. You’re instructed here on the proper way to greet a Hiffogriff (you bow) since you’ll pass by Buckbeak who is resting in a nest at the base of the lift hill. The coaster train has an all new look now, where it has the appearance and texure of being made out of wicker.

    The final experience in the Wizarding World is the former Dueling Dragons coasters, now renamed as Dragon’s Challenge. As I mentioned in Part 1, the entrance to this ride is actually back near the entrance to Hogsmeade, just past the Hogwarts Express. The pathway you take to the old Dueling Dragons castle itself is pretty much the same, though the ride is now themed to the Tri-Wizard Tournament and you’ll pass by various fan banners for the contestants in the Tournament along the way. You’ll also come across Ron’s flying car crashed into the bushes just before you cross the castle drawbridge. As a fan of the old Dueling Dragon’s queue and storyline, I’ve just got to say that what they’ve done from here on in is such a shame.

    Dueling Dragons had, hands down, one of the most atmospheric queues ever built… right up there with the massive queue for the Indiana Jones Adventure in California. Room by room, scene by scene, you would experience the carnage left behind by the battles with the Fire and Ice dragons. Now the queue you experience has had all of the charm and gothic elements stripped away, leaving behind only the most generic scenery after you pass through the first two rooms and the Tri-Wizard Cup. The room full of frozen knights in their armor has been scrubbed clean, and made to be like a mini version of the Great Hall with candles floating above. The old cavern once filled floor to ceiling with the bones of the dragon’s victims (and the sounds of their ghost like whispers) has now been made to look like a generic cavern without any decoration. The same goes for the dungeon corridors below. No long will you be asked to, “Choose Thy Fate – Freeze or Burn,” at the end. Instead you simply choose between one of two dragons, a Chinese Fireball or a Hungarian Horntail, and enter into the final room to climb on board the coasters. Now the projection effects added to this final boarding room are interesting, as you see the silhouettes of dragons flying over a semitransparent roof above you. At one point a dragon sits on the roof for a little rest while you look up and wonder if he will hear you down below. As for the ride itself, nothing has changed other than the crew costumes, which is a good thing. Dragon’s Challenge is still the awesome coaster it always was and will continue to be for years to come, no matter what name they call it.

    That’s a wrap, I’ve covered about almost all the aspects of the Wizarding World, other than the live entertainment options that come and go throughout the day. You’ll encounter various characters in costume passing through the Wizarding World, always in character, and they are a hoot. You’ll also see various characters performing, such as the Frog Choir, Beauxbatons (Ribbon Dancing) and Durmstrang (tumbling / combat staffs) These acts perform at various times throughout the day, so if you see them, pause for a moment to watch, as they’re all quite good.

    Finally I did promise to talk briefly about the seating problems on the Forbidden Journey ride. Many have heard already, but even if you have I’ll go into a bit more detail. They require that the Over the Shoulder restraint (OTS) come down and click three times to ensure you are locked in. With the restraint down, the seats quite snug, especially when compared to every other ride in the Orlando area. While there is no 100% accurate ‘size guide’ I can give you due to the fact that everyone’s body type is different, I will say that if you fit into the normal (single belt) Hulk or Dueling Dragon coaster restraints, you really shouldn’t have a problem fitting onto the Forbidden Journey.  (Editor Note - Since the writing of this review in June 2010, Universal had begun to modify the restraints on the ride cars in September 2010 to allow for bigger riders to safely enjoy the attractions. So far the program has been a success.)

    If you require the use of the modified “double belt” seats on these coasters, be warned that there is a chance you will not fit. While I hate to throw out numbers, I’ve heard it said that on an average overweight male body type, you are likely to start using those double-belt seats around the 260+ pound range. This does not mean all hope is lost however as you really wont know for sure until you get into the actual seat (or the inside test seat) and see how it fits. Know this however, due to the build of the seat, it’s virtually impossible to ‘suck it in’ and pull down on the OTS yourself harder to make three clicks if you didn’t get it the first time. So you’re either going to need the assistance of a friend to give it a good shove or a helpful ride op willing to give it a try. I’m not sure what the policy is now, but the ride ops were aware of the issue and were helpful at trying to get everyone locked in during the grand opening.

    As for myself, I’m a big guy too. I’ve been fighting with my weight for a number of years, which resulted from having established poor eating habits. Last year, when my daughter was born, my weight hit an all time high and soon after I knew I was running out of time to do something about it, so I’ve made significant changes in my lifestyle since then and have finally seen the weight begin to work off. For me, the opening and chance to ride, knowing full well that my size was going to present a problem, made this experience truly a Forbidden Journey of it’s own. During the grand opening, I was lucky enough to ride Forbidden Journey once. Just once. At the time I successfully had just lost over 20 pounds, but still needed the double-belt seat on the coasters. During the grand opening VIP night event the test seats outside were blocked by a stage, so I never did try them out. I just walked right into the ride along with the crowd, passed right by the inside test seats because they were not stopping anyone, and walked right onto the ride.

    Upon approaching the flying bench, I took the left-most seat (the far right seat, when seated) and I’ve heard later that for whatever reason, there is a popular believe that this seat on some of the cars may be slightly more accommodating for some reason. Sitting down I pulled down the OTS and got only one click, so I knew I was in trouble. The helpful ride op came right over and gave it a shove and got the second click with no problem. He asked if he could push again to get the third click, I said sure, so he pushed and while I didn’t hear the actual third click, it must have clicked, because the little green light near my head came on and off I went onto my own wonderful Forbidden Journey.

    Now you’ll recall that I said I rode it only once, which a bit later I came back to try it again seated on the opposite side. This time however, the helpful ride op from before must have been on break, and the one that was there was not able to get that important 3rd click. Upon taking my walk of shame, I was asked if I had already just ridden it to go around and try it again (middle seat this time) but no luck either.

    Knowing I was lucky to get that one ride and having heard from so many others who were not able to ride at all, I’ve continued my personal weight loss program, hoping that by the time I visit again, I’ll be able to fit more comfortably. Now while I fully admit my weight issues are my own fault, I do believe that the restraint system on Forbidden Journey is a bit too restrictive. This is not the same OTS restraint system used on a generic ‘Robocoaster’ ride which uses the same Kuka robot arms. The standard Robocoaster OTS restraints are far more accommodating of larger riders, while performing more intense aerial stunt maneuvers. While I know you can’t make a restraint system that is going to fit everyone, I do feel that Universal could have tried to make the size envelope on Forbidden Journey more in line with the standards they’ve already set with their coaster restraints. Given the amount of press they’ve received over this particular issue, I think there is a good chance this issue may be addressed down the line, after they’ve have the time to properly break-in this new ride system.

    No matter the case, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has been a huge success story for Universal. They’ve had lines of people wrapping around the entire park just waiting to get into the land itself on the days following the grand opening. There have been reports that the demand to buy magic wands has been so high that the shelves are often empty by nightfall. The masses have been craving Butterbeer so much upon leaving the park that people are creating their own home-brewed versions and sharing their recipes online. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a rabid fan reaction to a theme park attraction launch anywhere before this. This really is a one of a kind phenomenon, and I’m so grateful that Universal Orlando invited me down to take part and witness it all first hand.

If you missed it, go read: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Part 1

 

 

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