Since it was announced in December 2011, residents of Los Angeles with an eye toward the magical have been waiting with Weasley-like excitement for the completion of a new addition to Universal Studios Hollywood:the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Fans have been able to visit the Orlando version for a couple of years now and experience its Diagon Alley treats and scary-ass ride tricks, but with considerably less space in California (because, after all, there’s an active and thriving movie studio that takes up a whole lot of the room), what can fans expect from this new version of the Wizarding World?
I got to check out the wonders of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts and I can tell you that I think fans will be mostly ecstatic (and beyond). The park has gone out of its way to make that stretch of ground feel as much like the popular series of films as is possible, and I think they realize it’s not as big as some people may want; hell, a whole park could be made around these movies. Most of it’s great, some of it maybe isn’t. But let’s dive in with the good first!
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with its replica of Hogwarts Castle, is now the centerpiece of Universal Studios Hollywood, being a beacon in the very center of the park’s upper level. And the same way the Simpsons ride is surrounded by themed shops and eateries, so too are the two Harry Potter attractions surrounded by a full street and a bit of (fake) snow-covered buildings that make you feel part of the films. It’s gorgeous craftsmanship, first of all, and the surrounding foliage really helps make it seem like you’re in England and not sunny California.
The main ride is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey which is located inside of Hogwarts. This will be the busiest thing in the park for the foreseeable future and I was curious how Universal was going to handle the line-waiting times. Disney Parks are always the benchmark for keeping people entertained and cool while waiting to ride a ride, and thankfully the Forbidden Journey follows in this path. After stowing your loose objects in the lockers, patrons walk through an exceedingly long line area (they’re prepared) which is almost entirely indoors. On the walls, you’ll find moving paintings that talk, a full portrait gallery, statues of wizards and griffins, and the closer you get to boarding, you even pass through Dumbledore’s office and get some advice from him, Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
The ride itself is a tremendous mixture of 3D screen motion simulation and animatronics, all while the four-person “bench” the rider sits in gimbles up, down, backwards, forwards, and even spins and tilts upside down. This truly isn’t for the queasy. It also isn’t for the faint of heart as most of the ride’s best moments are truly terrifying, with dragons, giant spiders, Dementors, and a Walloping Willow. If you’ve been to the one in Florida (which I haven’t) this is all old hat, but for new riders, be prepared to be very close to unpleasant things. It’s a truly wild ride that might be too much for younger riders. Just a word of warning.
After all that adventure, you’re going to need a hearty meal and maybe a stiff adult beverage, right? Luckily you’ve got The Three Broomsticks restaurant and Hogshead bar. The very reasonably priced (for a theme park) meals are all hearty Ye Olde English-type of foods. I had the Beef, Lamb, and Guinness stew in a bread bowl while my girlfriend had lemon herb chicken, potatoes, and a whole ear of corn on the cob. This food was not only incredibly filling, it was delicious, and will make you feel nice and warm in a good way. Also, if you ask for a Coca-Cola product to drink, the friendly worker will tell you they serve no “Muggle foods,” so you have to just have a Gilly Water or lemonade. Or beer! They have three different ones on tap. And if you’d rather a sweeter drink, outside they have two Butterbeer carts. I’d recommend the frozen one over the cold.
The other really great thing about the area is that, given it’s not very big, they want to make it as interactive as possible. There are multiple places to buy magic wands. You can buy just a regular replica, OR you can buy one of the specialty ones which allow patrons to access 11 different interactive stations—with the flick of this wand, you can cause the shops’ window displays to dance about or owls in the Owl Post to move around. It’s delightful, especially if you have kids. They’re going to get a kick out of it, as are they will the myriad shops full of stuffed owls, House clothing, and scarves (even robes!), and a full candy shop where you can buy chocolate frogs.
Now for the not so good parts. There aren’t many, but the big one is the area’s second ride, Flight of the Hippogriff. It’s Universal Studios Hollywood’s first outdoor roller coaster, but, again due to the small area of the park itself, this ride is really nothing. Once you get over that first hill, don’t blink because the entire coaster lasts about 20 seconds. Max. It was fine for zero wait time, but I can’t imagine people waiting in the sun for over 10 minutes for that.
The other downside is that it’s all over too quickly. If you’re a fan, you want to spend as much time as you can inside the Wizarding World but if—like when I went—it was relatively empty, you could conceivably get through everything in an hour or so. While Universal does have other great attractions, if you’re coming specifically to visit Harry Potter, you need to prepare yourself for a few hours at most during the busy season.
So all in all, everything in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was pretty terrific, I just wish there were more of it. Luxury problems, really. You are going to have fun, get scared, feel thrilled, eat well, and get to feel a little bit of magic.
Check out a full gallery of pictures below. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s grand opening is April 7, 2016.
Images: Kyle Anderson
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!