Wizarding World of Harry Potter Review - Universal Studios Hollywood

Edited: April 3, 2016, 10:16 PM

Note: This is a review I posted to Facebook the day after I visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood. While I ordinarily wouldn't bother to post such a comprehensive review of an attraction that has technically existed for years and received plenty of coverage, I figured I'd share my take as this was my first exposure to the land and I'd already written it out. Hopefully some will find this informative, particularly those considering a visit to USH to experience the land for themselves.

In the theme park industry, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is potentially the biggest game changer of the past decade. When the original version of the land opened at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida in 2010, the park was met with crowds beyond anything ever seen before. Naturally, Universal capitalized on the success of the land and duplicated it elsewhere. In 2016, the third version of the land, located at Universal Studios Hollywood, is scheduled to open. While the official opening isn’t until April 7th, the land has been opening semi-regularly since Presidents’ weekend and I was able to attend a passholder preview on March 30th.

While some of my family members have visited the land in Florida, I have not gotten a chance to do so yet. The California version is similar to the original land in Florida, though it lacks the Dragon Challenge roller coaster. The land is themed like the wizarding village of Hogsmeade, with numerous shops and a restaurant directly out of the books and films. At the far end of the village lies Hogwarts Castle, the famous school of witchcraft and wizardry seen in every installment of the franchise. A small section of the Hogwarts grounds is recreated as well, with space for a couple live performances and the Flight of the Hippogriff junior coaster.

The main attraction in the Wizarding World, however, is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Located inside of Hogwarts Castle, this is a dark ride unlike anything seen before. The attraction begins with a queue that takes riders throughout the castle, beginning in the dungeons and proceeding through the greenhouses before reaching several recognizable sets from the films. As riders make their way to Dumbledore’s office, the story of the ride is set up: Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts, has invited muggles (non-magic folk) to visit the castle for a special lecture about the history of Hogwarts and magic in general. Once in the classroom, however, Harry, Ron, and Hermione appear and invite riders to ditch the 3 hour lecture and watch a Quidditch game instead. Guests then board enchanted benches that take them on a wild ride throughout the grounds of Hogwarts. I won’t spoil exactly what riders encounter, but I will say that the general theme park attraction storyline of “something goes terribly wrong” applies here.

How is the ride? In a word, outstanding. The attraction itself is very good, with a mixture of screen-based sequences and full practical sets. While the ride lacks the advanced animatronics found in Disney attractions, there are still a handful of fairly impressive creatures, such as a dragon and the Whomping Willow. The screen sequences are great and sync perfectly with the movement of the vehicle, though I could take or leave the 3D element (it wasn’t bad, it just didn’t add anything). If you look for it, you can tell when the screen and set switch, but it is a very good blend that doesn’t stand out. However, the thing that impressed me most about the attraction is the ride system. On this ride, you are seated on the end of a robotic arm mounted to a track. The arm moves along the track at a constant speed, but due to several different joints in the arm almost any comples movement is possible. The ride actually feels like you are flying, and while the motion is not overly intense it is often unexpected and just forceful enough to get a good reaction. I rode the attraction a total of four times and didn’t experience any ill effects, but those prone to motion sickness may want to avoid this one. Honestly, my biggest issue with this ride is probably that it is more of a “best of” attraction featuring sequences from the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th movies than a completely original ride with new scenes, but it is an excellent ride nonetheless. I would still consider Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland my favorite dark ride, but Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is absolutely in the top five.

After the ride, the other main attraction in the Wizarding World appears to be interactive elements scattered throughout the land. Visitors can purchase an interactive wand at Ollivander’s Wand Shop, then use the wands to cast spells throughout the land. Most of the interactive elements are hidden in shop windows, and by performing the right motion with a wand and saying the correct incantation guests can make a variety of events occur. While I opted out of participating in this attraction on this visit (I’ll do it next time, when I’m there with friends), I did watch others trigger several of the elements and I think this would be a lot of fun for Potter fans of all ages.

Lastly, dining and shopping is a big part of the land. Many items from the Harry Potter universe can be purchased at various shops scattered throughout the land, which could get dangerous for the wallets of serious Potter fans. Dining at the Three Broomsticks, a famous wizarding tavern, is also likely at the top of everyone’s list. The food itself is mostly British pub fare and is good but not great, but the restaurant does offer several items directly out of the franchise. These are mostly beverages and include Pumpkin Juice, Firewhisky, and the signature Butterbeer, a butterscotch cream soda that is very, very good (though a little too sweet for me to get addicted).

Overall, the land itself is great, and Harry Potter fans will likely enjoy it a ton. For those who are not Potter fans, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is likely to impress all and the detail of the land is immaculate, but a lot of the finer points may be lost. I will, however, caution visitors to remember that this is not “Harry Potter: The Park,” this is just one land inside a larger theme park. It is a fairly immersive land (especially for Universal), but it is pretty small and you will be able to see other parts of the park from certain areas.

Now for the big question...should you visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? This question does not have a yes or no answer and depends on several factors. First off, if you have visited the Harry Potter attractions in Florida or Japan, I would recommend not visiting the California version as everything here is represented elsewhere. After that, it depends whether or not you are a local or non-local. If you are not a local, it would be worth a visit as part of a larger California trip assuming you want to visit Universal Studios Hollywood in general, but if you’re going just for Harry Potter you’d be better off going to Florida. For locals, however, a visit to the land makes a lot more sense, but again it depends whether you’re going just for Harry Potter or for all of Universal Studios Hollywood. I like the park, but I personally consider it the most overpriced theme park in California, and while Wizarding World of Harry Potter is good it is not worth a $115 admission ticket just to check it out. There are some discounts available (I used a $95 season pass purchased at Costco, but if you get that your first visit must occur before Memorial Day and return visits are restricted mostly to off-season weekdays), but the park is still expensive. Therefore, I would recommend this: If you’ve been considering a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood and are a Harry Potter fan, I’d go for it. If you’re not really a Harry Potter fan or visited the park in the past year or two, I’d probably wait until more has been added. The park is adding a Walking Dead haunt maze this summer and, while I won’t list them here, the park has new attractions planned every year through 2021, so there will be plenty of reasons to visit for years to come.

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