“I’m addicted to butterbeer”: a hardcore Harry Potter fan experiences the theme park
By Whitney Milam
HollywoodNews.com: The first sip was heaven. Frothy, creamy, butterscotch-y, Rowling-approved heaven. As I sat at a wooden table in the back of the Three Broomsticks drinking butterbeer and eating British wizard delicacies, looking around at the growling hog’s head on the wall and the self-sweeping brooms in the corner, there was really no other word to describe the experience: magical.
I’ll be honest: the first time I walked through the gates of Hogsmeade (“Please respect the spell limits!”) to stand directly in front of the Hogwarts express, with the castle itself looming in the distance–bedraggled and sweaty after a two-hour-long wait, but shaking with excitement–I sobbed shamelessly. People stared, but I took no notice–this was it! After a lifetime of dreaming and three years of planning, I was finally in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and no Muggles were gonna bring me down.
Over the next four days, I gorged myself on all that the glorious brand-new theme park had to offer (literally–eight butterbeers later, I was officially an addict), rocking a Hogwarts house tie (who we fightin’ for? GRYFFINDOR!) and a trusty magic camera…and now, one week later, having been forced to leave my true home and return to the Muggle world, I’m here to give my fellow witches and wizards some tips and tricks (well, no tricks, just treats) on navigating those winding cobblestone streets of Hogsmeade for themselves. Hang on to your cloaks, kids, ’cause it’s one crazy ride. Speaking of…
Let’s talk about those rides.
- Flight of the Hippogriff is a nice, breezy little kiddie coaster for visitors who find themselves about to succumb to heat exhaustion (trust me, it happens–Florida humidity is truly the work of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) to relax on. The best part is the queue, featuring Hagrid’s hut (he didn’t answer when I knocked on the door, unfortunately) and everyone’s favorite hippogriff, Buckbeak, just chillin’ near the entrance.
- Dragon Challenge presents two options for you, Triwizard Tournament champions: be spun around in circles by a Chinese Fireball or hold on for dear life on the back of a Hungarian Horntail. Those are dragons, dear readers. They are also intersecting, parallel-running rollercoasters, and they are terrifyingly awesome (or awesomely terrifying). I suggest choosing the super-intense Horntail (blue) coaster, mostly because I couldn’t walk in a straight line afterward. Be warned.
- And finally, the highlight of the entire park: The Forbidden Journey. Located deep within Hogwarts, with a queue that lets you explore the corridors of the castle itself–from the Gryffindor common room to Dumbledore’s office to the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom–it’s a completely immersive ride that legitimately lets you experience the sights, sounds, and sensations of Harry’s world. You’ll play Quidditch, veer a little too close to the Whomping Willow, escape Aragog’s venomous spider children (FYI: the ride photograph is taken at this point, in case you have some clever photo ops planned), take a little detour to the Chamber of Secrets (complete with a hovering Dark Mark and rotting basilisk bones), outfly a dragon, and almost be kissed by an army of dementors (if you pay close attention, at one point you can actually see a projection of your terrified face as a dementor tries to suck your soul). It was so fantastic I nearly cried again (only partially out of terror…parents of young children may wish to exercise caution with this one, since the stuff of dreams can easily become the stuff of nightmares for younger guests). The 70-90 minute wait is more than worth it, and the single-rider line typically takes no more than 20 minutes to navigate.
And what about the shops?
- Most of the lovingly-detailed shopfronts are only magical facades–while spectacular to look at, you can’t actually walk inside them to purchase a cauldron, spellbooks, dress robes, or Quidditch materials. However, the park does feature four actual shopping attractions: Zonko’s (the wizarding joke shop–be sure to check out the extendable ears, sugar quills, and decoy detonators), Honeyduke’s (the $10 chocolate frogs are complete with moving famous wizard cards, and the $4 chocolate cauldrons are to kill for), Dervish & Banges (an all-purpose supply shop, with everything from Hogwarts robes to character wands), and Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods, located at the end of The Forbidden Journey and a virtual merchandise mecca–your one-stop-shop for exclusive t-shirts and souvenirs and fabulous $40 Marauders’ maps. Mischief managed.
- Ollivander’s (makers of fine wands, of course) is an attraction in itself. If you’re willing to wait 2+ hours to enter the shop, you’re rewarded with a special presentation featuring the wandkeeper and one lucky guest out of every 25, who is selected to try out different wands (with hilarious, disastrous results) before finally finding one that is the perfect fit. Everyone else in the group can then proceed through to Dervish & Banges, where they can find a perfect fit by themselves. The park offers two kinds of wands. The more expensive ones ($35) correspond to birthday woods, just as the wands of Harry, Ron, and Hermione do in the books, while the slightly cheaper ones ($25) are beautiful replicas of wands used by characters in the movies. My new Ginny Weasley wand–black, heavy, delicately-wrought, 13″–has done excellent spellwork thus far.
- The Three Broomsticks (which connects to the Hog’s Head bar) features some truly delectable $12 fish and chips, a mind-blowing Great Feast option for large groups, and some very affordable kid’s portions that guests of all ages can take advantage of. While sitting inside the huge, bustling restaurant is an experience that obviously can’t be missed, the outdoor tables in the back overlooking the Great Lake by the castle are equally lovely. You can order your butterbeer cold or frozen in a special souvenir cup. Debating which type of butterbeer is best is a conversation I never thought I’d be able to have, but for the record: frozen.
Okay, but the atmosphere…just how ‘magical’ is it, really?
- I was flailing throughout. The entire park doesn’t seem like a theme park at all–it truly does feel as though you’ve entered a different, three-dimensional, fully-realized world. Nothing is cheap or fake-looking; it all looks very real. The continuous soundtrack music soaring behind you as you run toward the castle contributes beautifully to the feeling, and all of the park workers are wonderfully in character (I got lots of hate from the Slytherin students in Forbidden Journey–“Oh, Gryffindors“). Devoted fans of the books will be delighted at several surprising little details and easter eggs throughout, and added touches like Sirius Black screaming at passersby from a moving wanted poster, a frog choir singing “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” or acrobatic dance performances by the visiting students of Beaubaxtons and Durmstrang are brilliant.
- I also have to strongly urge everyone to witness Hogwarts at night–lit up in lights, it’s absolutely breathtaking. As an attendee at Harry Potter conference Infinitus, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Night of a Thousand Wizards, an after-hours park event in which 1,500 convention-goers were let loose on the park into the wee hours of the morning, sipping free butterbeer (about that addiction…) and starting a dance party in front of the Three Broomsticks as only hardcore Harry Potter fans can. Surrounded by fandom friends and fans I loved and admired, all ecstatic to be having all of our wildest dreams coming true, it felt for that one night that the Harry Potter theme park had been made just for us. But whatever your level of Harry Potter obsession, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a uniquely stunning opportunity: it’s the chance to make actual physical contact with a fantasy, to strengthen our connection to the series, and to have a world that has captivated us like no other finally be brought to life.
To see some of the park’s highlights for yourself, check out my video coverage of the experience.
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