Universal Studios Florida may have been elevating expectations a bit too high for their own good by insisting that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is "a park-within-a-park" when it's simply the newest and niftiest portion of their Islands of Adventure attraction, in as rough proportion to the property as Jurassic Park or Seuss Landing or any other segment of the park is.
With that said, it is in fact a wholly impressive addition to IOA and about as convincing a rendering of J.K. Rowling's beloved world as fans could hope to find on this side of the Atlantic.
Hogsmeade: Guests immediately find themselves greeted by a boisterous conductor announcing the arrival of the Hogwarts Express. From there on out, you're faced with all manner of shops from the series, designed at appropriately tilted angles and covered in a impossible layer of snow. While TWWOHP may not be a park all its own, it does manage to be a uniquely immersive one; from most any other vantage point in the park, you can see across the lagoon to the countless other lands, but the only thing to distract from Hogsmeade once you're within its walls are the screams from a passing rollercoaster (and, of course, the view from said coaster once you ride it).
Employees mill about in character, complete with robes and suitable accents, while tour guides always refer to events by which of Harry's school years it happened during (as opposed to which 'book' or 'movie'). Other nice touches can be spotted all around: any owl perch has owl poop directly beneath it, Moaning Myrtle can be heard over the bathroom speakers (well, in the boys' room anyway), a Gringotts sign hangs over the nearest ATM (where's that vault-trip ride?), and there is no designated smoking area or brand-name soda sold in the vicinity. Butterbeer is the beverage of choice around here, a cream soda variant served in both liquid and frozen forms and topped either way with a vanilla cream. It's just right, not too rich, but more than two in an afternoon might make the prospect of another cup less than inviting.
As for the specific shops, we have:
- the connected likes of Honeydukes (filled to the brim with Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans and countless other sweets) with Zonko's (all manner of magic gadgets; my favorite is the boomarang fitted with two sticks of dynamite),
- the shared space of The Three Broomsticks (pictured above - shepherd's pie and such) and the Hog's Head pub (proper beer with real foam for the grown-ups, including a house brew that I failed to sample),
- the shared shops of the Owl Post (one can send mail with a Hogsmeade postmark from here; they also sell wands) and Dervish and Banges (everything from robes to broomsticks -- $300 flightless broomsticks),
- and, all on its own, Ollivander's (wherein one child is chosen from any given group of 25 guests and "tests out" a variety of wands before the right one chooses them and becomes a guaranteed sale to that kid's parents).
Dragon Challenge: Tucked away to the right as you enter is the entrance to this two-track rollercoaster, refashioned from its past life as Dueling Dragons into a Triwizard Tournament-themed ride, with golden eggs, floating candles and even the Triwizard Cup now adorning the indoor queue area, and with the slightly faster Fire and somewhat twistier Ice becoming a Chinese Fireball and a Hungarian Horntail, respectively. It's still fun from either end, although only one of the six times I rode this week saw the trains launch simultaneously as intended, so as to ensure a couple of close calls. Here's hoping that's merely a matter of opening weekend impatience on the operators' parts.
Flight of the Hippogriff: Just past the right end of Hogsmeade is the former Flying Unicorn, re-fashioned with close-up looks at Hagrid's hut and an animatronic Buckbeak, who bows to young riders as they climb the lift hill (and expects them to the same). It's surprisingly speedy for a "junior coaster" and well-complimented by its proximity to Hogwarts.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey: Speaking of the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, what's arguably the most impressive effect of Hogsmeade as a whole is how well it plays into the perspective of coming around a corner and seeing the towering frame of Hogwarts for the first time. Better yet, the interior wait area boasts plenty of terrific detail work, particularly in Dumbledore's office (no sign of his pet phoenix, though), while moving paintings on the wall are very convincing, with speakers slyly obscured by air vents and screens sufficiently made up to resemble canvas.
The ride, I'm happy to report, is an even more seamless incorporation of staged areas and simulation than the same park's The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man turned out to be, with the much-touted KUKA robotic arm system making for an astoundingly smooth and, yes, thrilling experience. Even the handle bars are cleverly designed so as to simulate holding a broomstick (even if you're ostensibly flying on a bench, thanks to Hermione's help). Things do get a little intense on the ride for younger fans -- dragons here, Dementors there, not to mention giant spiders and even the Whomping Willow -- although, for some larger fans, things may get intense before the ride when they're told that they won't be able to be accommodated (many other rides offer modified seating; this does not). Angry anecdotes abound, although some are taking this as a opportunity to get into shape and make this ride their ultimate goal.
Height is not an issue, as Universal is keen to point out that 6'11" basketball player Dwight Howard reportedly rode with no difficulty. The only advice I can offer is that my own waist falls in the 30"-40" range and caused no problems either of the two times that I rode; if your own runs much larger than that, you may have to consider the possibility of not being able to embark on the Forbidden Journey.
The ride ends in a gift shop, naturally, with Filch's Emporium selling pretty much anything else that the Hogsmeade shops don't carry.
Overall: There are few concerns to share in the end. No house elves were spotted (probably a matter of practicality), though neither was Snape (one can only guess at why Alan Rickman would want no part of this; he seems to be the sole hold-out). Also, there are only one set of bathrooms in Hogsmeade, and none at all in Hogwarts...
But beyond that, what's there works, works well even, and with any luck, Universal will make a point of expanding this section (they really might as well replace the rest of The Lost Continent while they're at it). Word has that the licensing contract stipulates further expansion after the last film comes out in 2011, so maybe we'll see more magical experiences yet. (My two cents? Some wand-wielding arcade-like effort along the lines of Disney's Toy Story Mania and Universal Studios' Men in Black: Alien Attack might prove fun...)
Seriously, though: from Butterbeer to Buckbeak, from Dementors to dragons, fans ought to be fairly happy with how Universal finally brought The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to life.
NOTE: Universal accommodated Cinematical for the extent of its stay.