The Seattle Times’ movie critic pays a visit to the newest Potter land, opening April 7 in Los Angeles.
LOS ANGELES — They had me at the owl droppings. Within the bustle of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the brand-new addition to the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, there’s a quiet area called the Owlery, where visitors can rest on shady benches, gaze upward at owls softly hooting, and step gingerly to avoid getting guano on their shoes — before realizing that the expertly rendered whitish-gray droppings aren’t real.
In those few seconds, as you’re stepping out of the way, magic resides.
The world of Harry Potter, created by British author J.K. Rowling, delicately balanced magic with real life throughout seven novels, which begat eight movies and a generation who dreamed of being sorted into Gryffindor. Its heroes — brave Harry, clever Hermione, loyal Ron — had supernatural powers but were very genuine kids, with squabbles and crushes; you believed them, first on the page and then on the movie screen.
All surprisingly natural
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Walking through the “Wizarding World” (which officially opens Thursday, April 7, but welcomed visitors in March for trial runs), you’re struck by how real all of its un-realness seems. It’s a relatively small area of about six acres, anchored by Hogwarts Castle, which hosts the 3D-HD ride “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” and which looks surprisingly natural — or, rather, as natural as anything looks at Universal Studios — in the photogenic Los Angeles sunshine. (The hills of L.A. can, if you squint, feel like the Scottish Highlands. Well, maybe.)
Nearby, connected by cobblestone walkways, are the “Flight of the Hippogriff” roller coaster, the Three Broomsticks café and pub, and Hogsmeade Village, an assortment of shops where you can buy Hogwarts uniforms and T-shirts, adopt a (puppet) owl, and send actual mail from the Hogsmeade post office. Some of the shops are just facades, with fanciful windows, but many have detailed interiors to explore. The buildings, with their peaked roofs and tilting chimneys, seem like they’ve been there forever; snow on the rooftops sparkles in the sun.
Similar (though not identical, a Universal rep told me) to the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios Orlando, which opened in 2010, the Potter land is a meticulous translation of the world depicted in Rowling’s books and movies — as Rowling herself reportedly insisted. (The design was masterminded by Stuart Craig, production designer for the “Harry Potter” movies.) Visit the restroom (excuse me, “public conveniences”) and you’ll hear Moaning Myrtle; stand in line for “Forbidden Journey” and pass the car Ron and Harry crashed into the Whomping Willow on their return to Hogwarts for Year Two; visit the tailor shop Gladrags Wizardwear and see gowns worn by Hermione and Cho Chang to the Yule Ball (the latter is the actual costume from the film).
Flying over Hogwarts
Those who visit theme parks solely for the rides will move through quickly here, as there are only two. The outdoor roller coaster, which looks charmingly as if Hagrid constructed it from wicker, is family-friendly (read: unexciting) and over so quickly that it’s hardly worth waiting in line for.
But “Forbidden Journey” is great fun. In line, you’ll progress through the castle, visiting Dumbledore’s office, the Fat Lady portrait (she’s dismayed at seeing so many people in line) and the Gryffindor common room. Once attached to a four-person tram, you fly at what feels like a breakneck pace over Hogwarts and the Quidditch field, feel (quite literally) a dragon’s hot breath, and narrowly escape Dementors and the Whomping Willow before safely arriving, to cheers, in the Great Hall. (Visit before lunch; you get tossed around quite a bit. And allow time to get back in line and do it again, because you’ll want to.)
Speaking of lunch, the Three Broomsticks provided a tasty if pricey meal, with three of us consuming a turkey leg, two chicken salads, a lemonade, an iced tea and a pint of beer ($10.99!) for a total of about $57. (Diet Coke addicts, beware: “There is no soda in The Land,” a polite cashier informed me. They speak that way, as if it’s capitalized.) Sitting at a table, you fully expect a suitcase-laden wizard to brush past you, looking for a room upstairs for the night.
Butterbeer, which tastes like a melted and chilled Werther’s Original (this is not, for the record, necessarily a good idea), is available both in the café and from carts throughout The Land. One sip was enough. Harry, Ron and Hermione, apparently, have quite a sweet tooth.
Allow plenty of time to wander the streets and shops, observing the intricate detail. Look up, in Gladrags or the school-supply store Dervish and Banges, and see backstock piled on the store’s second level, looking dusty and settled-in. Notice how the walls and counters look a little dingy and the floors feel worn, and how the leaded-glass windows seem to have just a bit of frost around the edges. Visit the Hogwarts Express train, by the land’s front entrance (a conductor will cheerily welcome you, in perfectly British tones) and note that the train timetable posted on the wall warns that “broomsticks, wands or other wizarding artefacts are left unattended entirely at the commuter’s own risk.”
And watch, as a little girl in a denim miniskirt expertly waves a newly purchased wand at a shop window — and jumps up and down when her spell is successful, causing a witty cascade of paper. The wands, available at Ollivander’s (in an elaborate ritual, staff will help buyers choose just the right one), interact with 11 magic windows throughout The Land. If you don’t want to buy one, just hang out by one of those windows (marked with metal medallions in the cobblestones) and wait for an excited young witch or wizard to pop by.
Hogwarts in any language
Despite the crowds and the relentless commerce (one particularly shameless bit: an interior train car from the Hogwarts Express is set up as a photo op — at $24.95 for one print), it’s uncanny how “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” can sometimes seem intimate. Look for magic there and you just might find it: in the eyes of a young couple I saw wearing Hogwarts robes (surely terribly warm, but they looked happy), or a miniature redheaded Ron Weasley look-alike practicing his wand technique, or in the many languages you’ll overhear, reminding us that Hogwarts is understood everywhere.
Before leaving, I lingered near the train in the late-afternoon sun, which cast shadows on the quiet platform. A cart sat there, laden with baggage that looked as if it had survived many journeys: a leather trunk, a few smaller cases, an empty bird cage. Someone must have left it there, I thought; perhaps they’ll be back soon. And then I remembered it wasn’t real. Funny how magic sneaks up on you.
If you go
“The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” is part of Universal Studios Hollywood, which is both theme park and working movie/television studio (since 1912). Once you leave Hogwarts, don’t miss the Studio Tour, a longtime attraction that takes you through the back lot and past such sights as the Bates Motel from “Psycho,” the “Jaws” set, the “War of the Worlds” plane-crash scene, and 3D explorations of “King Kong” and “Fast and Furious”— good fun for movie buffs. Numerous other attractions, including rides based on “Jurassic Park,” “The Simpsons,” “Despicable Me” and “Transformers,” are on hand, with signs clearly spelling out wait times (during my March visit, none were longer than about 40 minutes).
Adult (meaning, age 10 and up) one-day passes to the park are $115 most days if bought at the gate; buy online in advance and save $10-25 per pass. Online prices vary, but are highest during school vacations (note, though, that the park is often open longer hours during those times, so your money might go further). The lowest rate currently available on Universal’s site is $90, for weekdays beginning in mid-September. (Not surprisingly, ticket prices have risen sharply at Universal in the past two months, in advance of new “Harry Potter” crowds.)
If money is no object, splurge on Front of Line passes, which begin at $179 and whisk you to the front of the line for every attraction (once per ride). Or consider the VIP Experience, beginning at $299, which offers unlimited rides, a private tour guide, and access to areas off-limits to most visitors. For info on all tickets, see store.universalstudioshollywood.com.
I was puzzled, throughout the park, by signs reading “Child Switch” outside each attraction. (Can you really trade your kid for another one? Some parents with crying children looked ready to do so.) Now that I’ve read the fine print, it’s actually a good idea for families: For each ride, any child unable to participate (most rides have height requirements) can wait with an adult in the Child Switch area while the rest of their group rides. When the others return, they can switch with the waiting adult, who then doesn’t need to wait in line again but can board straightaway.
The Sheraton Universal and the Hilton Universal City are both adjacent to the park (there’s a shuttle, but it’s an easy walk) and offer hotel/ticket packages. Several other nearby hotels offer free shuttles; see universalstudioshollywood.com/hotels.
Forgot your broomstick?
Burbank Bob Hope Airport is easier to navigate and closer to Universal Studios than busy LAX; Alaska and American offer nonstop flights there from Seattle. A cab ride to Universal was about $20 before tip.