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.

A Ravenclaw’s Round-Up: Louise’s Nearly-Annual Report from the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Academic Conference

As I do almost every year (save my college reunion years that end in 8 and 3:  it’s usually the same weekend! ), I attended and presented at the Annual (in this case, 11th) Harry Potter Academic Conference. Though I attended online the last two years (my talks can be seen here and here), this was my first time back on the beautiful campus since 2019, given that the College was responsible enough to move the conference online for the worst of the COVID pandemic.

I’m happy to report that the conference is still going strong, despite the triple threats of COVID, the demise of the fan festival the helped launch the conference, and the concerns of many scholars, including myself, whose concerns about J.K. Rowling’s public anti-transgender rhetoric have caused them to rethink the wisdom of promoting her writing. But, conference founders and organizers Drs. Patrick McCauley and Karen Wendling report that the Colllege’s new president is enthusiastic about the conference and wants it not only to continue, but to expand, so I am optimistic that the HPAC is here to stay.

Onto this year’s highlights after the jump.

[Read more…]

Farewell to our Beloved Keeper of The Keys–Robbie Coltrane

As book people, we here at Hogwarts Professor sometimes find ourselves at odds with the movie people when texts are adapted for the screenRobbie Coltrane, Hagrid in Harry Potter, Dead at 72. Casting is a frequent bone of contention, as we sometimes disagree with the way a film company plans to depict a character (although, unlike Anomie, we are strictly non-violent and limit our dissatisfaction to snarky comments). Yet, there are other times when a character is so perfectly cast as to align exactly with the image many of us had in our heads when reading the book. While good makeup and costuming can certainly transform an actor into a fitting vision of the character on the page, there is more to becoming a perfectly cast actor. Sometimes, something truly beautiful happens, and an actor truly embodies the literary character in a way that is nothing short of magical. Robbie Coltrane, who passed away October 14, was just such a brilliant fit. While he had an impressive career and garnered many awards, he is most widely known and beloved as Rubeus Hagrid in the Harry Potter film adaptations, and he will be sorely missed. [Read more…]

Jim Kay to Pass On Illustration Baton

Jim Kay the Kate Greenaway Medal winning illustrator of the Harry Potter series is to step down after the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on 11th October. This latest edition will see Jim Kay joined by guest artist Neil Packer, winner of the Bologna Ragazzi Award 2021.

“When I received a phone call back in 2013 with an offer of an illustration job, I could never have anticipated the impact it would have upon my life. I am extremely lucky to have been involved in a franchise that has meant so much to so many people across the world. After 10 years of working with Bloomsbury, it is with great sadness that I have to step down from illustrating Harry Potter. I have been struggling with mental health illness for some time, and it would be wrong to try and continue when I can no longer give the fans and the series the full commitment and energy it deserves. 

“What comforts me is the knowledge that Bloomsbury will continue working with and supporting other artists to make the remaining books both beautiful and inspiring for a new generation of young readers. I would never have travelled this far through Harry’s journey without the constant support and patience of Bloomsbury and J K Rowling. I must thank them both for giving me 10 years of happy scribbling, and for the opportunity to meet so many Potter fans from all walks of life. We’ve all found inspiration between the pages of Jo’s books; for myself, it’s that intangible moment between reading words and creating pictures that I enjoyed, and shall miss, so much.”

Jim Kay The Bookseller 07 October 2022

Our friends at The Rowling Library are collecting supportive messages to send as a gift to Jim, which you can contribute to here. The illustrated editions have given fans of the series a valuable visual cue, unconnected to the films. I can imagine they are a much loved possession for new readers, sumptuously illustrated as they are, and it is to be hoped that any new illustrators continue in Jim’s tradition.

P Wayne Stauffer – Starting Harry Potter

P Wayne Stauffer, English Instructor at Southeast Houston Community College has written a Guest Post – his review of the new Wizarding World initiative to engage first time young readers in the stories. Today is the birthday of both Harry Potter and his creator, so what better time to refresh our memories on the series publishing history, and what this new initiative can bring for the young.

[Read more…]