Having experienced the fine details and incredibly quality of USJ (and other Japanese theme parks) in the past, we couldn’t wait to see what the Japanese rendition of Hogsmeade would deliver. I’m happy to report that Universal Japan delivers a top-notch experience with their Wizarding World, which opened in July of last year.
But this Potterville isn’t a mere copy of the land built at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. To paraphrase another movie: They got the same stuff over there that we got here, it’s just a little different. Below is a list of the little differences that make the USJ Wizarding World unique.
Timed Ticket Entry
Via a combination of Osaka’s subway and JR trains, we arrived at USJ at about 8:30 a.m. – 90 minutes before the official opening time – on a Monday morning. Based on our previous Japanese theme park experiences, we knew that arriving early is even more important than it is at U.S. parks. When purchasing two one-day passes (7,200 yen, including tax – the equivalent of about $61), I was handed a leaflet explaining that we might not be allowed access to Potter’s realm right away. Depending on crowd numbers, the park might close off the Wizarding World, forcing guests to queue up for timed tickets (think Fastpass) for later in the day.
Having done our research, and knowing this was a possibility, we planned to hop on our broomsticks and zip over to Potter World as soon as we entered the park, making any timed ticket nonsense unnecessary. At 9:45, when the gates opened, we busted our Dumbledores to go to the exact same place just about everyone was headed and slipped into the Wizarding World before it was barricaded (although park workers were already preparing the gates as we entered).
I’ll pause to remind you this was a non-holiday weekday with morning temperatures in the 30s, more than seven months after the Potter land had opened. I can’t make an exact one-to-one comparison with Orlando’s version, but we visited it on a weekday about a year after it opened and were able to stroll right on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey with nary another muggle in the proximity. No wonder USJ is set to break its all-time annual attendance record.
Once through the makeshift gates, you instantly notice the first change to the Wizarding World: you enter through the Stonehenge-like Stone Circle (also known as the Sundial Garden), seen in two of the Potter films – and represented at the entrance of Orlando's Flight of the Hippogriff. Even with a marathon of visitors jogging through the area, the size and detail of this formation sets the perfect tone for the magical, mysterious world that lies ahead.
The anticipation only builds from there, as guests take a rather long, winding path through the forest, as the Potter movie music swells from hidden speakers. Following signposts, and the wreck of the Flying Ford Anglia, we eventually came to the Hogsmeade gate, with the Hogwarts castle towering above the village. Although the size, scope and detail of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts are equally impressive in both the Orlando and Osaka parks, the anticipatory journey at USJ makes the reveal more spectacular. It’s simply better than stumbling onto the castle from Jurassic Park and a testament to how USJ was able to make the most out of their limited space. Plus, as the forest trail is the only way in and out of the Wizarding World, it sets the Harry Potter universe apart from other neighboring lands (this just isn’t the place for Hello Kitty).
Another unique feature is USJ’s addition of the Great (or Black) Lake that is placed between the left side of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts. The tree-rimmed lake lives up to both of its nicknames, appearing fairly huge as well as deep and dark. You can take a walkway to get a little bit further out on the water, where bubbles intermittently rise to the surface. Could this be evidence of merpeople or a certain giant squid?
The lake adds plenty of sinister atmosphere, even if you can eat your Three Broomsticks meal on a lakeside patio. But it also works as a natural-looking barrier between the school and the town, making Hogwarts only look more imposing in the process.
At USJ, the Hogsmeade branch of Ollivander's wand shop has migrated from the right side of the village to the left side. I’m guessing the reason for the switch is due to the space needed to build an additional “showroom” in this version, resulting in more “the wand selects the wizard” shows and shorter lines (just as with the newer Ollivander's in Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida).
Unlike the Hogsmeade Ollivander's in Orlando, there is a listed wait time for those eager to get into the wand boutique (which was as low as 10 minutes and as high as 45 on the day we visited). Also unlike the U.S. Ollivanders, the wizard inside the shop used a mixture of English and Japanese when conducting his “show.” Considering that my wife was selected – as two of, perhaps, a dozen white people in the whole park, we stand out – this made the show enjoyable for both the prime participant and the other observers. Otherwise, the show is the same (things go wrong until they go right) and you are given the privilege of purchasing your wand at the end of the experience (3500 yen or just under 30 bucks).
The Ollivander's wizards aren’t the only characters who speak in a mixture of Japanese and English at USJ’s Wizarding World. The Hogwarts prefect that hosts the Tri-Wizard Spirit Rally is bilingual, as were other people found throughout the village, including Frog Chorus participants and the Hogwarts Express conductor. While these people seemed to be expats speaking in (real or fake?) British accents, most of the workers are Japanese – although nearly all had a solid command of English and couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and helpful.
Signage was displayed most prominently in English (the same for the entire USJ park), but most audible language was Japanese – from Moaning Myrtle in the lavatories to the bickering portraits inside Hogwarts. The Forbidden Journey attraction is completely overdubbed in Japanese, a circumstance that, as an English speaker, made me glad I had first experienced the ride in the U.S. It’s not that you can’t figure out the rough idea of the attraction’s plot, but the finer points of floating benches get lost. And it’s just not as fun to listen to Dumbledore or Harry, Hermione and Ron in the queue when you don’t know what they’re saying. I should make it clear that this is not at all a complaint, just an observation. The overwhelming majority of the people who attend this park are Japanese and the attractions should be in their language.
As with the Ollivander's show, the Forbidden Journey experience is the exact same – language aside – and might even be slightly improved by the overabundant enthusiasm of Japanese riders. As such, it’s immensely popular. We jumped in the queue just as the ride began to operate after park opening and waited about 30 minutes. By noon, the posted wait had jumped to 220 minutes. We squeezed in an additional ride in the late afternoon (the park closed at 6pm), and were boarding after about 25 minutes, even though the posted time was an hour. So, traditional rules for high-demand attractions apply: go early, go late, or be prepared to wait.
Cold Weather, Hot Butterbeer
Because Osaka experiences cold temperatures somewhat akin to a Hogsmeade winter, USJ’s Wizarding World might occasionally be covered in actual snow, and not just the pretend stuff permanently affixed to the village roofs. For a few months out of the year, the icy temperatures lend an extra air of authenticity to this version of Hogsmeade. When we witnessed a few flurries on our day there, we had to make sure Ron hadn’t accidentally conjured a snow spell.
Plus the perfect match for cold temperatures is piping hot Butterbeer. The latest twist on the Wizarding World’s signature drink has also been introduced to the Florida park, but I can’t imagine the warmed version being quite as satisfying in Orlando’s mild weather. Hot Butterbeer (which is the version the gang drinks in the books) isn’t merely the regular version warmed on a hot plate, but has a distinct flavor and feel of its own: thicker, more robust and spiked with cinnamon and ginger. It’s sort of a hearty hot cocoa, only with the chocolate replaced with butterscotch.
Although we found it to be the perfect antidote to a blustery day, some visitors didn’t seem to enjoy it quite as much. During the afternoon, we saw about a dozen cups half- or mostly full sitting on top of a trash can. Certain Butterbeer addicts – cough, Mr. Niles, cough – might have had to restrain themselves from others’ leftovers.
If you do have a Butterbeer monkey on your back, it will cost you a bit more to feed him at Japan’s Wizarding World. A hot Butterbeer will set you back $4.99 in the States, but the same drink will cost you 700 yen (close to $6) at USJ. The items on the menu at the Three Broomsticks also came with an upcharge. The Fish & Chips platter in Orlando is $9.99, while the identical dish in Osaka costs 1,750 yen (about $15). The good news is that the food was reliably solid (though not spectacular) English pub fare found in a country where this kind of grub is not the norm.
However, any look at the cost difference between food items should also consider the admission prices of the parks. We might have gotten upcharged on Butterbeer, but each of us still paid about two-thirds of Islands of Adventure prices ($96 for a one-park, one-day ticket) to get into USJ. Between an armload of Honeydukes goodies, a hearty lunch and plenty of Butterbeer, we probably still broke even.
No Dragon Challenge
One of the biggest alterations from the Orlando Wizarding World to the Osaka edition is the loss of the Dragon Challenge roller coasters. The copious amount of track needed for Chinese Fireball and Hungarian Horntail to soar simply could not fit within USJ's limited confines, so the dueling inverted coasters have been left out.
The smaller, and much tamer, Flight of the Hippogriff did make the transition, along with Hagrid's hut and an animatronic Buckbeak. The line for the family-friendly and fairly short coaster swelled to over an hour in the afternoon on the day we were there.
This is not intended as a slight to anyone who works at Orlando's Wizarding World. My experiences with workers based in the land has been nothing short of fantastic, and certainly head and shoulders above what is provided by the average Universal Studios worker. But comparing the competence and enthusiasm of Japanese theme park service to its American counterpart is like pitting Gryffindor against Hufflepuff – it's just not a fair fight.
For those who've read my previous posts on USJ, remember that this is the park where costumed characters made a beeline to have their picture taken with us. Our second go-round with the Osaka park reinforced our feeling that it's one of the best-staffed parks in the world, second only to the awe-inspiring service found at the Tokyo Disney Resort. It's not easy to manage the hordes of people who visit Harry's world every day, but the USJ employees make it look easy, keeping lines orderly and preventing shops from reaching critical mass, always with a smile on their faces.
Workers stationed throughout the Wizarding World were nothing short of ebullient, engaging constantly with kids and adults, recommending treats at Honeydukes, teasing visitors with toy owls and more. The woman who assisted with our wand purchase at Ollivander's was nearly as excited for my wife being chosen and my wife was about being chosen. She giggled as she led us to the display of different wand materials and making sure we read about the special qualities of the wand that had “chosen” my wife.
And then, something happened that I've never before experienced in a theme park, Japanese or otherwise. I was taking a snapshot of my wife by the Hogwarts house flags when a member of USJ's cleaning crew approached. She set aside her broom and dustpan and asked, with a beaming smile, “Would you like picture together?” Stunned, we could only nod our agreement and hand over the camera. After she gave the camera back, said goodbye and went back to searching for the rare bit of trash on the park grounds, we marveled that even a USJ street sweeper was committed to making sure guests had a fantastic experience. As for us, we couldn't have had a better one.
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