Final Round-Up: A Hogwarts Professor Visits Universal.

After a week of reflecting about the trip, I wanted to come back and summarize some final thoughts.

Do I recommend Universal as a pilgrimage destination for Potterheads? Merlin’s beard, yes! The Wizarding World attractions are amazing, and they are, of course, only part of a much larger theme park, which has some incredible rides, especially if you like the 3D and 4D type. Favorites of ours outside of the Wizarding World included the Hulk rollercoaster and the Transformers 3D ride.

Having experienced the park for a single evening on my own in 2014, I was particularly happy to share this multi-day adventure with my family. In a way. I felt like the fictional parents of the Wizarding World, beaming with pride at seeing my son purchase his wand at Ollivanders and learn to cast spells. Judging from the number of families who were enjoying the park together, I’m not alone. As the earliest child-readers of the series grow up and have their own families, I predict the park will only grow in popularity.

More random thoughts after the jump!

I wound up enjoying the interactive wand gimmick, with some caveats. At $52, the things are overpriced, and I feel sorry for families with multiple children who may feel pressured to buy one for each child. Some “spells” are easier than others, and the more challenging ones tend to be found in Hogsmeade. This can frustrate small children; I heard one family complaining that for something so expensive, they should work better.  But, there is something about being able to turn on a water fountain with Aguamenti and then take a drink that makes you feel especially immersed in the world. One of the most satisfying moments was when I got to whisper one of the “secret” spell locations to a grandmother there with her grandchildren.

If and when I make a return trip, I probably will not choose a year when a “Big New Ride” opens. It was an amazing experience, and I will admit there is something cool about being to say you got to ride in the first month it was open. But, taking out a multi-hour block of time to stand in the line is only practical if you have a multi-day pass; in two years, the ride lines will presumably be more reasonable, like the Escape from Gringotts is now. There are some Acromantula-sized bugs still to be worked out, judging from all the downtime, and unplanned shutdowns and mid-afternoon “at capacity” notices can make it a frustrating experience for people with more limited time.

I also appreciated the “story” nature of the rides. The amusement parks I visited as a child often had pop-culture-themed rides such a Batman roller coaster, but it was just a basic roller coaster with Batman graphics added. I appreciated the creativity and faithfulness of the writers who came up with the stories and dialogue:  Arthur helping Hagrid multiply bikes, the Trio seeking to spare you from Professor Binn’s boring lecture, and Bill Weasley disguising himself as a Muggle tourist to sneak out of Gringotts at the height of the Wizarding War.  There was a definite feel consistent with the movies, characterization was spot-on, and of course, seeing the original actors again is great fun.

The shopping was amazing, and I would strongly urge visitors to visit all the shops. Many are specialized, and have items that can’t be found in other places. I felt I showed great restraint by coming back with only one shirt, a Ravenclaw Head Girl pin, a Marauder’s Map scarf, some Fizzing Whizbees and Peppermint Toads, (which were a big hit at work) and a pack of postcards, most of which were mailed out from the Owl Post station at Hogsmeade. There were certainly more items I wanted. Stores that should not be missed include Borgin and Burkes, Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, Madame Malkins (where you can buy high-end robes and a replica of Hermione’s Yule Ball gown) and the Magical Menagerie.

As for food, the British themed food at the Leaky Cauldron or the Three Broomsticks is a nice change from typical park food, and is well worth a stop. Everyone should sample a frozen butterbeer (the white foam topping is especially good!) and a Tongue-Tying Lemon Squash, and Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream is delicious.

So, is this a park for movie or book fans? Obviously the visuals are movie-inspired, with replicas of buildings, multiple original actors and actresses featured in the rides, and merchandise— including the striped scarves and ties, which the book never mentions– matching the film versions. I selected my t-shirt because it was one of the few whose Ravenclaw bird looked more like an eagle than a raven. But book fans can find plenty of details that did not make the films. A few examples: Blast-ended Skrewts, Madame Pudifoots, the Weasley family ghoul, Professor Binns, Gornuk the Goblin, Bill Weasley working as a curse-breaker, and “Wit without measure is man’s greatest treasure” graffiti scrawled on a castle wall. Two of the best shows: Celestina Warbeck and the Fountain of Fair Fortune puppet show, where inspired from book material. I was amused to see several kids schooling their parents on some fine details

Speaking of kids, that was the one big gap I perceived in the Orlando set-up: not enough child-friendly attractions. All of the rides are relatively intense and have height restrictions, and could well be overly frightening for pre-teens. Only the Hogwarts Express is suitable for small children– or people with back or neck trouble, and that one requires a two-park pass.  A few more rides for little ones: a magical creatures carousel, Ford Anguila kiddie cars, Hagrid’s first-year boat ride, etc. would be an improvement. It will be interesting to see if Generation Hex demands that kind of adjustment as they start having families.

One final quibble: the posted wait times for all of the park rides were highly accurate…  everywhere except the Wizarding World attractions, where they tended to be underestimated by 15-30 minutes. This happened not only on Hagrid’s Motorbike, but on others as well. Either the wizard’s time-keeping is not so good, or they consider you to have “entered” the ride when you get to the first explanatory video, which is typically at least 20 minutes before you board.  Other non-wizard rides had similar video intros, though, so I don’t think that is the explanation.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip and would happily return. Now I am curious about how the Hollywood venue differs.

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