I’m walking deep inside a gloomy castle when an old man with a tall cap and long gray beard
beckons to me from his book-lined office.
“There comes a time when each of us must make a choice between what is right and what is
easy,” says Dumbledore, Harry Potter’s headmaster, as embodied by actor Michael Gambon.
“Here’s hoping you choose correctly.”
At 10 feet away, he looks so real that I’m tempted to try him with a spitball.
This isn’t just my fantasy – its author J.K. Rowling’s and that of the millions of fans of her books.
I’m inside Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, one of the rides at The Wizarding World of Harry
Potter, for an exclusive first look. Part of the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida, the 20-acre
attraction officially opens June 18.
Americans love their theme pars, and The Wizarding World – erected only 13 miles from where
Walt Disney World opened 39 years ago – is the latest, greatest iteration. It took five years and
some $265 million to build, and the stakes are as high as the turrets of Hogwarts – which, by the
way, soar 15 stories into the air.
As a J.R.R. Tolkein freak who grew up near Orlando and as the father of two Harry Potter fans, I
fall squarely into The Wizarding World’s target market.
Just walking through its arched gate was enough to stop me in my tracks. I’m standing in the
village of Hogsmeade, a place I’ve seen many times in the movies, and I feel like I’ve stepped
into the real thing (save for the fake snow and fake owls roosting at the Owl Post).
I stroll past the red Hogwarts Express locomotive while I munch on fish, sausage, and gravy
Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans (they taste ickily real) from Honeydukes sweets shop.
Two of the park’s three rides are clearly visible: the Dragon Challenge, a high-speed pair of
intertwining roller coasters; and Flight of the Hippogriff, a family coaster.
But The Wizarding World’s centerpiece is the massive castle that is Hogwarts, the wizarding and
witchcraft school Harry attends, which also houses the Forbidden Journey ride.
Back in 2005, initial brainstorming sessions for the attraction focused on coming up with never-
before-seen thrills and on scripting a Potter adventure for fans to travel through. A team of 25
artists, writers, architects, and engineers at Universal Creative in Orlando spent a year poring over
the thousands of pages of Rowling’s books and 12-plus hours of films, picking out the most
familiar elements and figuring out, as lead designer Thierry Coup says, “how to bring them into
So they asked themselves the question: What makes a killer attraction? The answer: great
characters, spectacular action, and magical moments. They assessed all of their Potter fodder
through this lens, so soaring alongside Harry while playing Quidditch, the game played on
broomsticks, was a must. So was a visit to the scary Forbidden Forest.
After choosing their key scenes, Universal Creative’s team – which included Steve Kloves, the
films’ screenwriter – drew hundreds of storyboards covering every detail of the Forbidden
They next built a “white model,” a mini Styrofoam-like set that lets creators manipulate a ride as
easily as kids playing with LEGOs. Located in a back-lot studio at Universal Orlando, the white
model is set on waist-high platforms with a path cut in the base – big enough for designers to
poke their heads through and inch along.
“This gives you the best sense of what it’s like to be in the ride before it’s made,” says Mark
Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. The ride was then simulated in a computer program
and fine-tuned. Construction began in late 2007 and will continue right through the opening of
The Wizarding World next month.
Although I was the only Muggle – Potterese for non-magical being – there, I could imagine the
throngs of tourists cramming into Hogwarts for the ride. And, as any parent knows, standing in
line with antsy kids for an hour or more is a scarier prospect than facing bad guy Voldemort’s
So the ride’s creators turned the dreaded wait into part of the Journey. “It gave us the
opportunity to use it as a storytelling element and immerse people in the fiction,” Woodbury
The premise of the ride is that Hogwarts, for the first time ever, is opening its doors to Muggles,
so you go through the castle on a tour while you make your way to the ride. It’s a clever idea. I
feel anticipation mount with each step knowing I’m approaching the Journey.
The dank dungeon and ominous statues look eerily familiar – it turns out that Alan Gilmore, art
director on the Potter films, oversaw every detail of the ride’s design, from the shape of the
wands to the angles of the rafters. “We took what people see in the films and made it real,” he
Following a welcome from Dumbledore, I enter a long room lined with skulls, armor, and brass
instruments. It’s the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, where pupils learn to fight evil
Suddenly, on the balcony at the far end, Harry, Hermione and Ron (portrayed by the actors from
the films) appear from behind an Invisibility Cloak. Like Dumbledore, they seem to be standing
there in the flesh in front of me.
Universal Creative spent seven years developing this special video-display technology. The effect
is wow-worthy -3D glasses not required. I’ve seen plenty of holographic ghosts in my day, but
nothing like this.
Harry suggests we ditch the tour and play Quidditch with him, and I walk through a few more
rooms before reaching the actual “ride.” Visitors take a seat in an old-fashioned, wooden-
looking, four-person bench, Hermione dusts us with the Floo powder necessary to fly, and we’
Thanks to advanced robotics, the benches have an amazing range of motion, swooping fluidly
up and down. Unlike other amusement-park rides that can propel you only in a single direction,
this one gives you a sense of 360-degree movement.
The ride whisks you over Hogwarts’ grounds until you catch up with Harry and Ron. Assorted
creatures, powered by robotics, pop up, including a fierce dragon that Ron and Harry must
The fight, alas, sends them – and you – plummeting into the Forbidden Forest full of crawling
spiders. Without spoiling the end, the Journey culminates in a game of Quidditch and an
encounter with some familiar – to Potter fans – and terrifying foes.
As I exit the castle, even though I’m old enough to know I wasn’t actually soaring over
Hogwarts, I feel like I’ve experienced the very next best thing. (Younger children – they must be
at least four feet tall to be allowed on the ride – may think they really are there.)
Like the most memorable attractions, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter takes you to a place you
could previously only go in dreams, and you get to bring home a bag of awesomely gross Every
Flavor Beans as a souvenir.
The verdict from one important Muggle still remains a mystery:
J.K. Rowling. As of early May, she hadn’t yet visited, but she’s been very hands-on, down to
approving the exact flavor of Butterbeer (a beverage that foams like a Guinness and tastes like
But I imagine that when she does take the Journey, she won’t be thinking about all the
technology and labor that brought her fantasy to life. She and the other Muggles will simply be
engrossed in the experience and waiting to see what happens next – just like kids again.
“Technology is a means to an end,” Woodbury says, “and the end is to take people on a journey
that is going to blow their minds.”
|Bringing Harry Potter's World to Life
Books and Wands
|Parade's Sneak Peek at the Potter Park
Universal Studio's theme park in Orlando, Florida opens their new attraction, The Magical World of
Harry, on June 18, 2010. Here's a sneak peek as published in Parade Magazine, article by David
|"Lightning Over New York City" photography by Christopher Imperato.
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