Theme park magic in Orlando has a new home: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Written by Robert Niles
ORLANDO - The signature attraction in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a twisting, tilting dark ride through and around Hogwarts castle.Tweet
The first sign of a good theme park ride is that there is no sign. As you walk up here, you're not approaching another attraction in a theme park - you really feel like you are walking up to Hogwarts castle. Working with the design team from the Harry Potter films, Universal Creative has developed an edifice that surpasses even Disney's Cinderella's Castle.
The story is that Dumbledore's opened the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to Muggle tours for the first time, to the disgust of Salazar Slytherin, who'll let you know that in the castle's Portrait Hall. Yes, the portraits move and speak to another, just as in the films, in an effect that is completely believable.
You've probably seen attempts at moving pictures in theme parks before. The Wizarding World has several others throughout the land, relying (as is typical for this sort of thing) on video screens. But the portraits within the castle don't look like TV screens embedded in a frame. They look like moving paintings - as simple and profound as that sounds.
The queue through the castle would merit a recommendation on its own. But as a pre-show? Universal Creative sets expectations almost impossibly high, with elaborately detailed recreations of Dumbledore's office and the Defense Against the Dark Arts Classroom, enhanced with filmed appearances from Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Michael Gambon, reprising their roles as Harry, Ron, Hermione and Dumbledore.
The Hogwarts headmaster has arranged for Professor Binns to present a lecture "of just a few hours" on Hogwarts' history, but Harry and his friends arrive in the classroom to rescue us from that deadly boring fate. Instead, we're off to the Room of Requirement, where Hermione will enchant a bench for us to ride on, then blow us into the Floo Network for the trip out of the school.
We end up at the top of the Astronomy tower, where we're to follow Harry and Ron, on their broomsticks, over to the Quidditch pitch. But a dragon intervenes, setting up the ride's first stunning encounter with an animatronic figure.
Imagine an Omnimover dark ride, such as Disney's Haunted Mansion. But instead of riding in cars that move only in one dimension, rotating on a stable axis, imagine a riding on a robot arm that rotates and elevates along three axes - left and right, up and down and tilting diagonally - as it moves through the show building. Then think about Universal's Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and how it blends movie screens with physical props in a three-dimensional dark ride space.
Creative Director Thierry Coup has surpassed his work on Spider-Man with Forbidden Journey. Here, richly detailed animatronics add to the mix of narrative tools, along with a clever use of on-ride photography.
Together, the ride and show elements deliver several of the most dynamic, iconic moments from the Harry Potter series, while placing you into that action in relation with the characters themselves, as Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury said this morning. You'll face that dragon, along with massive spiders and dementors, on the most action-packed day of hooky since Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Eventually, of course, Harry gets the snitch, the wizards save your bacon and everyone exits happily into the gift shop.
After 10 years, we, at last, have a ride that exceeds Spider-Man, a rousing journey through a pop-culture icon that thrills riders with unique experiences at every turn. About 15 years ago, a mom on the dole in Scotland created a story about a boy wizard that inspired a generation of children around the world to embrace reading like no other generation before. When media scolds complain about kids' short attention spans, I laugh. Kids who queue up at midnight to buy and read 750-page books have no problem with their attention spans. Jo Rowling's creation inspired those kids (and many adults) to embrace literature. And now it's inspired a creative team to build the most advanced and engaging attraction in theme park industry history.
Forget fairies or wizards. That is magic.
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