A Forbidden Forest Experience: A Bit of Hogwarts Comes to Virginia

Last August, for my birthday, my daughter and her husband got us tickets for A Forbidden Forest Experience, which opened on Halloween in Leesburg, VA, about 30 minutes outside Washington D.C.  One of four such venues worldwide (the others are in Cheshire, UK; Groenenburg, Belgium and Westchester, NY), it is an outdoor Harry Potter experience, a lighted trail about a mile long, with piped-in music and snippets of Forest-related dialogue from the movies, along with multiple scenes of fantastic beasts and other visuals that might be encountered in the wilderness surrounding Hogwarts castle.

Our visit was on an unseasonably warm night (70 degrees in November!) but with rainstorms expected and literal flood warnings in the facility. I traded my usual Ravenclaw colors for a Hufflepuff yellow slicker and felt a bit more like a Maine lobster fisher than a witch. I also wore hiking boots, expecting mud and puddles.  Fortunately, we finished our tour shortly before the downpour started. The trail was wide and graveled with some slight hills, so comfortable shoes are a must, but tennis shoes would have sufficed. There were plenty of visitors in robes and Quidditch jerseys, as you would expect at any Wizarding World event.

The first impressive aspect was the size of the event. My son acknowledged he was expecting something like corn maze/pumpkin patch/ hayride type of place; instead we were met with a parking lot that was more theme-park sized and which was largely full. The decor was, in a word, lavish. Thousands and thousands of LED lights illuminated trails and trees and allowed nighttime passage with no need for flashlights. If you are the type who appreciates the detail of the decor that you see while waiting in line for Universal Studio rides, you’ll appreciate this experience. This is not a trail to rush through; attention to details will show you unexpected treats like glowing Dark Marks and Deathly Hallows emblems adorning the trees, along with other iconic emblems.

While many of the scenes are purely for looking at or taking selfies, others are more interactive. The first of these was an opportunity to bow to Buckbeak (FF Buckbeak), who then had the choice of whether or not to bow back. Buckbeak accepted me and my son, but rejected my daughter, for unknown reasons. The longest line was the Patronus-casting station, which we chose to watch rather than participate in. Visitors could point a wand at a suspended screen and a cavorting white image would appear. Familiar ones included Herimone’s otter, Luna’s hare and Ron’s terrior; there were also some new ones like a badger and a cougar. Perhaps the most impressive was the dueling station, where a Priori incantatem effect is created with a long neon tube. See here (FF duel) for my duel with my son.  Unlike at Universal, you don’t have to pay big bucks for an interactive wand to participate.

There were plenty of other things to purchase, of course. There are refreshment areas at both the start and midpoint of the trails, where you can get butterbeer (of course!), other beverages, snacks and a selection of British pub food like fish and chips and bangers and mash. Though it was not especially appealing on this balmy night, the mid-trail stop included a fire pit at which marshmallows could be roasted (for a price!) I could see that being a lot more popular on a more typically chilly night. Note to organizers:  you could create some goodwill among your families with small children if you would let them bring their own.  We did not sample any, as we had enjoyed a nice restaurant dinner before our 9 PM arrival, but there were plenty of people enjoying and, had we come at dinnertime I would have loved sampling the pub fare.

Perhaps the spookiest segment is Aragog’s lair, which has warning signs and an alternate route for arachnophobics.  You enter an an enclosed area and multiple huge spiders descend from overhead. This was certainly fun, though I was a little disappointed by Aragog himself, who didn’t really emerge from his hole and was visible only as a few hairy legs. I was also a little surprised they did not play his “I cannot deny my children fresh meat” warning from the film. Overall, the trigger warning seemed like overkill. As a whole, the venue was, for the most part, not scary and quite family-friendly.

This is not a place to go to see your favorite characters. As I recall, there was only one human present, Hagrid, and he was depicted with his back to the visitors. While the cynic in me suspects this was a way of avoiding having to pay royalties to Robbie Coltrane for the use of his image, it had an especially poignant twist given the actor’s recent death. It is Fang’s mournful face that looks back at the visitors, as if he wants to follow his master but can’t. It is an unintentionally touching image, with Fang apparently joining us in bidding our Hagrid farewell.

The Forbidden Forest trail is one of several such Potter attractions springing up this winter. Others include Harry Potter: Magic at Play in Chicago,  Yule Ball Celebrations in Houston, Mexico City, Milan and Montreal and Harry Potter: The Exhibit in Atlanta and soon to open in Vienna. The demand for more Wizarding World venues is apparently international. While these exhibits are intended as temporary attractions, it will be interesting to see if any are made permanent, or if they continue on multi-city tours.

As this Variety article explains, these events are targeted at the original young Generation Hex generation, who are old enough searching for ways to share the experience with their own children.

“The generation that grew up with Harry Potter, they’re parents now, and you never grow out of Harry Potter,” she said. “So it’s an opportunity for them to introduce the franchise to their kids on a level where they’re prepared for it — even if they’re not familiar with the stories, which a lot of 6-year-olds probably aren’t. But we didn’t want to alienate the older audiences — we wanted fans of all ages, which is hard.

If you read my review of Wizarding World Orlando, you will recall that one thing I thought was lacking was more child-friendly attractions. It seems that others have noticed that gap, as well. It is also not hard to imagine fans of all ages who are weary of Rowling’s crusade against transgender rights seeking to reconnect with the pure magic of the wizarding world. Of course, this is a movie-centric event, incorporating cinematic imagery and music, but there are a few touches (Skrewts, puffskeins) that evoke the books. No sign of Newt Scamander and colleagues, other than a Niffler or two in their treasure-filled dens.

One hint to organizers:  There were a few nargles in last night’s showing, in the form of a brief power outage that was not too surprising, given the amount of electricity required and the proximity of severe storms. But, during the 15 minute or so delay, the staff did not seem to know what to do with us, Our guide finally got some help from some fans who handed him a cell phone linked to a site with some corny Harry Potter jokes to tell over his microphone, but having a plan:  some trivia questions, or even just being able to talk about Harry Potter and chat up the crowd to ask people how they met the Boy Who Lived would have given a better impression. And, if any of the Leesburg staff would like to sponsor a speaker, it would be a perfect venue for my “Harry Potter and Nature” talk. The only honorarium I would charge is a cup of butterbeer, and perhaps an order of bangers and mash.

The event seems to be hitting its target demographic. At the restaurant, I saw a young girl of about 10 in  Gryffindor scarf, and remarked that she must be planning to go the same place I was. The couple parked next to us in the mammoth lot had an infant in a carrier seat with them. Overall, despite the lack of small children to take with us, my family (me, my husband and three Generation Hex grown children) enjoyed the evening and I’d recommend the experience to any and all Potter fans.


  1. Fascinating, Louise! I for one had no idea that Warner Brothers-Discovery is taking the Wizarding World theme park experience on the road in such dramatic fashion. Each of these events, — the Forest, the Yule Ball, and the Exhibit — represent remarkable investments of time, treasure, and talent, and, frankly, risk taking.

    What you describe as “Rowling’s crusade against transgender rights” has caused the Gender Theory Extremists among Potter-philes to act out — and I have to think these events make extraordinary targets for such terrorists. Was security a big deal at the Virginia ‘Forbidden Forest’ venue? Hats off to the creative crowd who designed this three dimensional story-experience and to the deep pockets behind it for their courage in going forward with these projects in the face of a petulant and frankly unhinged minority’s virtual and verbal violence.

    My heart-felt concerns that such events, like the theme parks, especially in combination with Rowling, Inc.’s Barracuda Barristers attacking non-credentialed fandom meet-ups and festivals, will mean only the very expensive, pre-packaged experiences are allowed certainly survive. Your review of the Forbidden Forest walk, though, at least provides substantial evidence that the family-friendly packaging of the Hogwarts Saga to maximize profit via fan-servicing can be fun and tasteful, which is very encouraging.

    My only disappointment with the post, which has moved me from the position of outright resistance to curious-to-the-point-of-purchasing-tickets, no small feat, is that the .mov files came through only as audio files after I downloaded them. Is that a function just of my computer or have others had a similar downer post downloading?

    Thank you again Louise for sharing both your thoughtful review of the Virginia ‘Forbidden Forest Experience’ and the great family pics!

  2. Louise Freeman says

    No signs of any security concerns or any real security presence, apart from the usual staffing you’d expect at such an event. None of the bag searches or metal detectors that have become a staple of airports and theme parks in the post 911 world. There was one police car assisting with traffic control from the highway, which is clearly much higher than usual.
    I’d be shocked if any such disruption ever happened.
    If the critics you describe as “gender theory extremists” were plotting “terrorist attacks” the permanent theme parks and retail outlets are much more salient targets, I haven’t heard of a peaceful protest happening in those locales, let alone a violent one.
    It’s a lot more effort to leave one’s couch to protest at a venue than it is to name-call on Twitter, and the more thoughtless of Rowling’s critics probably won’t take the trouble. It.s the same reason only a minority of critics bother to write well-reasoned, civil and evidence-based responses to her position.
    The .mov files were uploaded on the media library in the same way as the photos were, so I’m not sure what the issue is there.
    And, if the combination of theme parks and the global pandemic has not put the Leaky-con, Queen City Mischief and Magics and Chestnut Hill conferences out of business, I doubt the Forbidden Forest Experience will either. Indeed, I can more easily imagine synergy, such as Leaky Con’s work with Universal to create the “Open at the Close” after hours experience for con attendees lucky enough to snag a ticket. Could that be why the next Leaky-Con is scheduled for Chicago?

  3. I’m sorry to read about Rowling’s war against human rights for transgendered people who, by the way are human! When I read the first part of this article, I wanted to bring my grandchildren for a grand adventure. I can’t support this whole Harry Potter endeavor while now knowing the position of anti humanitarianism by Rowlings.

  4. Louise what a treat! Thanks for sharing the videos and family pictures! I especially enjoyed the interactive Buckbeak and a priori incantatem experiences. I’m afraid the Hagrid and Fang scene would’ve been very bittersweet for me, but maybe mostly sweet as Hagrid is a timeless gift of loyalty and bonhomie. I’ve never been to a HP venue or experience but am glad they exist.

  5. We just got back from this tonight and it was wonderful! I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd and it was myself and 2 of my adult children. We took our time and it was about 90 minutes or so, which included a break of about 20 minutes to get something warm to drink and a small snack. The food was probably the only let down of the experience, but still, the people who were working everything from checking you in to concessions to parking attendants, were all very friendly. Money well spent for a fan of the books OR movies.

  6. Very interesting movie i can watch again and again,for the peaple that acted in this movie that pass away iam saying rest in peace to you all.thank alot

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