The Times May 21, 2010
Read the books and seen the films? Now visit Harry Potter’s world
Professor Dumbledore is speaking to me in his study, the Hogwarts headmaster’s holographic projection so real that I feel I can touch it. The corridors of the school for wizards are lined with talking portraits, the final chamber filled with floating candles, and Harry Potter himself appears, urging me to follow him on a magical journey.
I am on a preview of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the latest attraction at Universal Orlando Resort, in Florida, which opens its gates to muggles, or those of us with no magical powers, on June 18. And from the minute that this particular muggle strolls through the village of Hogsmeade, I feel as if I am walking through J.K. Rowling’s imagination.
Although Rowling has not yet visited the Wizarding World she has been consulted on the finest details. With her input, people who created the films, including the production designer Stuart Craig and the art director Alan Gilmore, have spent three years translating them into an extraordinary experience. “Authenticity is paramount for us,” says Gilmore, pointing out that with the use of perspective, they have been able to make Hogwarts castle look even more imposing than its height of “several hundred” feet.
Although there are, perhaps disappointingly, only three rides in the 20acre park, the queueing system has been imaginatively designed to make it part of the enjoyment. It is a long journey through, and makes you wonder just how long the queues will be, although Universal says that they should be no longer than an hour.
So on the way to Dragon Challenge, a revamped ride previously called Duelling Dragons, I walk past both the original crashed Ford Anglia from the film and the Nimbus 2000 broomstick flown by Daniel Radcliffe and into the world of the Triwizards Cup tournament. Then I take my place on one of two intertwining rollercoasters where, at speeds approaching 60mph, we seem to come close to crashing before being flipped into mid-air.
The only part of the Wizarding World that I am not allowed to see is the final part of the signature ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which starts with the Hogwarts tour. Universal is keen to keep this under wraps for now because it uses a novel sequence of animatronics, robotics and the latest technology as riders fly over Hogwarts to a Quidditch match and an encounter with the happiness-sucking Dementors.
The ride and the park are due to open from May 28 — for the first three weeks exclusively to those booked with the Wizarding World’s official travel company, Virgin Holidays, which has also secured complimentary breakfast in the Three Broomsticks. It is in this atmospheric pub that I sip my first Butterbeer, the wizards’ brew that magically retains its froth until the last mouthful.
“It is a secret recipe; the formula is locked in a safe,” says Ric Florell, Universal’s senior vice-president, who is proud of the theme-park fare. At Honeydukes sweet shop, I sample a particularly nasty onion variety of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Bean.
Down the street, at Ollivanders (Hogsmeade branch), where wands are stacked higgledy-piggledy up to the ceiling, the wandmaker picks someone from the audience to help to enact the scene in which Harry Potter is chosen by his wand. The shop, though, can only hold about 30 people and you can imagine how devastated children will be if they are not the one singled out by the wandmaker.
You can buy a wand, a broomstick or a Sneakoscope to test for dark magic among an array of merchandise — though it will cost you a fortune — or just stare at the mesmerising shop window displays. You can also send letters with a Hogsmeade cancellation in the Owl Post.
In this magical land, even the toilets have been given a touch of imagination: echoing through them is the plaintive wail of the ghost of Moaning Myrtle, who haunts the Hogwarts girls’ lavatory.