From the moment you walk through the archway that reads "Hogsmeade" and spy the snowcapped buildings and steaming Hogwarts Express engine at Platform 93/4, you will feel just like Harry did when he discovered a magical world. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter looked exactly as I imagined it would ...and should.
That's no accident. Harry Potter creator and author J.K. Rowling had a huge hand in creating Wizarding World, from designing the layout to approving the recipe for the park's signature Butterbeer, said our park tour guide, Reuben Jefferson.
Everything you've read about the new theme park, which opened in June inside Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure, is not enough to prepare you for reality. Wizarding World is more than a 20-acre theme park; it's a testament to the power of imagination. Even those unfamiliar with Harry will be enchanted by the experience. The diehards (many sporting wizarding attire) will squeal like a Mandrake at many of the park's details.
What started in the mind of a mother looking for a story to help put food on the table has become a franchise that has inspired millions, first by book, then by movie and now by a real place. From the moment you enter, you are transported to another land.
The crowning achievement of the addition to the Universal park is Hogwarts, the magical castle where Harry learns his craft. Starting with the robed greeters who welcome "Muggles," you will know you are in for an authentic treat. The castle, topped with towering spires, serves as the waiting queue for the Forbidden Journey ride. As you enter, light from amber lanterns punches holes in the darkness, allowing you to focus on the details ahead.
You'll find Dumbledore's office, where the headmaster welcomes you to Hogwarts. Technology makes Michael Gambon, the actor who plays him in the later movies, come to life in a 3-D holographic-like image. You'll see the founders of each house (Slytherin, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff) have a spirited conversation from their moving portraits. They don't look like video screens but oil paintings come to life. Harry, Ron and Hermione greet you in a Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom and try to talk you into ditching class and joining them on an adventure. Check out the dragon skeleton overhead. And wait for the snow or the thunderstorm.
Insider's tip: Don't rush. You'll catch glimpses of the Sorting Hat, the portrait of the Fat Lady, the mirror of Erised and more. And you can tour the castle without riding.
Interesting note: When the park opened, there were reports of three-hour waits for Hogwarts. During our September trip, the longest wait I saw was 60 minutes, and several times I saw 20-minute waits (it takes that long to get through the castle).
The Forbidden Journey
A ride unlike any you've ever seen, the Forbidden Journey takes you into the excitement of Harry's world. You magically fly, zipping by Hogwarts, narrowly avoiding a dragon but not his mist of warm steam, escaping the Whomping Willow, dodging acromantulas (giant spiders) that spit on you and facing Draco Malfoy on the Quidditch pitch. Your seat zooms, dips and launches you through the scenes, which are both animatronic and on-screen.
Insider's tip: Take a good look at the outside of Hogwarts before you enter. You'll be seeing many of those places on the video portion of the ride.
Interesting note: The height requirement is 48 inches, but some overweight guests have had trouble riding. There are sample seats to make sure you can fit comfortably.
The roller coasters that make up the Wizarding World are actually pre-existing ones tricked out to fit the theme. The Dragon Challenge pits a Chinese Fireball against a ferocious Hungarian Horntail, passing a mere 12 inches apart, and looks more intense than any coaster in Six Flags, thus the 54-inch height requirement. The Flight of the Hippogriff is more kid-friendly and takes you on a quick, swirling journey past Hagrid's Hut and - you guessed it - Buckbeak, the Hippogriff.
Insider's tip: Bow to the Hippogriff as Harry learns in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," and you might earn rousing applause from the workers and those waiting in line.
Interesting note: The actual Ford Anglia that Ron and Harry flew in the films sits outside the entrance to the Dragon Challenge.
Ollivanders Wand Shop
Groups of 30 or so enter every five to eight minutes for a mini-show in the dusty but quaint wand shop, which is bursting at the seams with narrow boxes.
Inside, Mr. Ollivander chooses one kid to be matched with the wand. "The wand chooses the wizard," he reminded the chosen boy in our group. After several misfired tries (shelves broke), a light shines, wind blows and music pipes: The right wand has been found. Everyone was then rushed into Dervish & Banges gift shop, where helpful workers made my sons feel like they were having wands chosen especially for them. It wasn't the "wand experience" the chosen boy gets, but it was a good substitute and fairly worth the $30 wands.
Insider's tip: Dress your child in a Harry Potter shirt or - even better - a wizard robe so he'll be more likely to be chosen for the experience.
Interesting note: Jefferson says getting into Ollivanders can be the longest wait in the park. Even on our September visits, afternoon waits were well over an hour. Go first thing in the morning, especially if you are staying on site and can get into the park an hour before the general public.
As you enter Hogsmeade, to the left you'll find two wonderfully colorful but too-cramped shops: Honeydukes sweet shop and Zonko's Joke Shop. Zonko's offers Sneakoscopes, Extendable Ears and Screaming Yo-Yos, all magical instruments from the books. At Honeydukes, the main draws are the chocolate frogs and the Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans (jelly beans of all flavors - even rotten egg and rubber). You'll also find an owlery where you can mail postcards with the owlery postmark and a Gringott's Bank (an ATM). The Hogwarts frog choir sets the mood, singing "Something Wicked This Way Comes" from the films.
Insider's tip: Check out the rest rooms, where you'll find the distinctive sound of Moaning Myrtle.
Interesting note: Jefferson says Rowling asked that a nifty water pump be installed just outside the Hog's Head so that guests could rinse their sticky Butterbeer fingers and mugs. Most people don't notice it, but it works and the water is drinkable.
A nonalcoholic version of Butterbeer, the signature drink Harry and his friends enjoy in Hogsmeade, is available at four places in the Wizarding World: drawn from kegs at two outdoor carts, in the Three Broomsticks restaurant and in the Hog's Head pub. The ingredients are secret, and it tastes like cream soda and butterscotch. You can get Butterbeer frozen ($3.29) or served cold ($2.29) with a frothy topping of butterscotch-flavored cream ($2.29). It is as good as it sounds.
Another delicious treat is pumpkin juice ($2.29), a base of apple juice blended with pumpkin puree and spices. It's a little tart and a lot sweet and perfectly refreshing on a hot day at the park.
Insider's tip: Buy your Butterbeer at the Hog's Head pub; there's rarely a line.
Interesting note: The Three Broomsticks sells traditional British food such as fish and chips and shepherd's pie.