'Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod,' yelled a 13-year-old from Dallas, jumping up and down as the actual Harry Potter cast zipped by in the half-minute Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster. 'This is a dream come true.'
If you discount the sneak soft openings and VIP visits the past couple weeks, the official Wizarding World of Harry Potter was just ten minutes old. The girl already had a $10.50 souvenir cup of 'Butterbeer' ('it's super -- like cream soda but creamier'), saw the real-live Daniel Radcliffe and the gang, and was of the first in to the Forbidden Journey, a four-minute ride with dragons, spitting spiders and enough motion-simulation to make crusty travel writers a bit queasy.
In many travel experiences, there's no resisting the charms of being around the genuinely passionate -- and on opening day at Orlando's 20-acre Wizarding World (just the back corner of Islands of Adventure park), I joined a charming crew of Potter worshippers, many of whom were young collegians who grew up on JK Rowling's books and films. Many came at grew personal expense (from Cornwall, Tokyo, Cincinnati), staying at the cheapest hotels far from the park and coming in by Orlando's LYNX public bus system. And they didn't let the 95-degree heat keep them from wearing Potter ties, school outfits, or even robes.
At Ollivanders Wand Shop on the impressive Hogsmeade's main street, visitors squeeze into the dark shop with floor-to-ceiling stacks of wands and participate in a reenactment of the scene from the first book/film where Harry goes for his first wand. The clerk (one of only a few staff dressed up in full Potter attire in the park) slowly begins a diatribe of the towering wand boxes, before jerking forward to one guest. 'You're here for a wand aren't you?' In my visit, a shy girl shook her head, 'No. I just came with my friend.' The clerk said, 'Ah, I knew it was one of you!' (After a half-hour wait, it felt a little flat to me -- a mic and better sound effects might help.)
The tiny Owl Post next door is even tighter than Ollivanders -- and it's the only place you can buy a wand. It's bruising just to sneak in. Looking for one for my 17-month-old daughter (for future brownie points), I asked a 17-year-old kid with a look of wide-eyed glee and a bundle of wands in his hands for advice. I chose wisely. Jarret from Melbourne, Florida, was buying ALL the characters' wands, and immediately had the answer for me. Pulling Hermione Granger's wand off a nearby shelf, he said with confidence, 'This is it. It's the nicest looking, and Hermione's the smartest. Your daughter will be happiest with this.' And I paid the $29.95.
Butterbeer, meanwhile, is the funnel cake of the Wizarding World. A sweet tempteur, found no place but this carnival of wizardry. And as I could find no one who described it as anything but 'awesome,' 'delicious' and 'fantastic,' I lined up at the giant barrel keg on the main street -- offering plenty of time to admire the lovely scene of slanted rooftops, detailed shops with fun windows to peek in, and slow-moving lines into candy shops and the restaurant. After 47 minutes' wait I got my mug, gave it a handful of polite sips, then dumped the rest in the bathroom sink.
Two rides are repurposed from Islands of Adventure (staff were literally begging passer-by to ride it: 'there is NO WAIT, NO WAIT'). Beyond the Butterbeer and wands, WWoHP's clear highlight is the third ride: Forbidden Journey, housed in the dramatic reproduction of Hogwarts Castle that looks like a Transylvanian cast-away. There's a 'individuals line' that trims about 30 minutes' wait -- but stick with the full line, at least the first time. The ride's remarkable (lots of jerks, animation, giant robotic creatures trying to hurt you), but the line is almost as rewarding, with rooms leading past talking paintings and animated characters pulling you into the storyline as you shuffle through the line into the depths of the castle.
Despite the many waits, and limited scope (again, it's not a park -- just part of a park), it was hard not to leave impressed. Or wanting to watch all the films. As one fan said, 'I feel like I'm in the movie -- what I've always wanted.'
Never a Potter fan beforehand, I did try to at least watch some of the films before coming -- just to be able to feign some expertise. But mostly I wanted to be able to justify my admission. Particularly regarding one post I saw in a Potter chat room. It came from a girl in the Philippines who wrote, 'When I heard they were opening the park, I cried. I'm so sad I can't see it. I will cry on June 18.'
These Potterheads mean it. I can't wait to watch the final Potter film on opening night with them.
The park is included in admission for the Islands of Adventure. In the first days, a line wrapped around the park's lake, as much as 1.5 miles long -- or a five-hour wait. Once inside, visitors waited 60 minutes to get into the restaurant or Ollivanders -- or up to two hours to ride the Forbidden Journey. I didn't find one Potterhead that didn't say it was worth it.
Members of the cast at the opening: