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TravelMail joins Emma Watson and Robbie Coltrane for a sneak preview of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida

May 20, 2010 @ 12:16pm · 0 comments
TravelMail joins Emma Watson and Robbie Coltrane for a sneak preview of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida

The biggest opening in Orlando for years, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, an attraction based on JK Rowling's novels and subsequent films, will open its doors on June 18th. TravelMail writer Matt Fortune managed to bypass security and spend a day exploring Hogsmeade along with some of the film's stars. Here's his verdict...

After its epic journey from Platform 9 3/4 at London's King Cross, the Hogwarts Express steam train stands proud and imposing, billowing with steam clouds at the entrance gate.

Ahead, the alluring Honey Duke's sweet shop, with world renowned Every Flavour Beans, and Dogweed and Deathcap's exotic plant store, replete with shrieking Mandrakes, are just two of several fully operational shops on the eerily authentic, snow-covered streets of Hogsmeade, the fictional setting for JK Rowling's hit novels.

Owls from the local postal service twitter nearby and on a street corner at the far end of town pupils from overseas wizarding schools perform for passing visitors. In the distance, looming large above this enchanting town, is the breathtaking Hogwarts School.

The scenes described above come not from one of Rowling's books but from the moment I was ushered through a locked gate in Universal Studios’ Islands Of Adventure theme park to see the brand new - and keenly awaited - Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction.
It feels as though I've landed straight inside JK Rowling's mind. Potter fans are going to love it. In fact, so too, will those who haven't even seen one of the films.

'I've basically built a film set,' beams Alan Gilmore, the brain behind the aesthetics of the park and Art Director on several of the films. 'I believe you could film scenes here if you wanted.'

He's right too, the attention to detail is astounding. Exact replicas are common place but in some instances actual props from the films have been used.

Harry's Nimbus 2000, the broomstick used by the boy wizard in the book's TriWizard Tournament, takes pride of place on the rebranded Dragon Challenge ride - formerly Duelling Dragons, and the flying car that featured in the Chamber of Secrets film can also seen.

Time after time during my sneak peak tour, which was also enjoyed by stars of the films including Emma Watson and Robbie Coltrane, I was left gob-smacked by the level to which the design team have dissected Rowling's books. It is incredibly authentic.

The original remit was to recreate a world in which the young wizard lives, as opposed to a park themed on Potter's adventures. There is no great branding push along the walls and the only image of Daniel Radcliffe's character is found in the Gryffindor Common Room as part of the queue for the Marquee Coaster ride - very much the main attraction - at Hogwarts school.

In Zonko's joke shop, visitors can purchase a variety of typically British toys as well as the majority of comedy goods which appear in the films and books. A personal favourite were the sticky trainers which, it is suggested, allow you to walk up walls and were first seen in the Half-Blood Prince at the family-run Weasley Wizard Wheezes.

Honey Duke's sweet shop next door has made the bold commitment to reproduce Bertie Botts' Every Flavour Beans (all except vomit and snot...thankfully) as well as bringing to the US the very British humbug and lemon drop-style confectionery.

I did, though, question the lack of traditional stalls in the Wizarding World. The games and fairground attractions so often found in thoroughfares of other theme parks are nowhere to be seen.The answer? It wasn't in the book, so it isn't here.

However, store staff are as engaging as any I've seen anywhere. In Ollivander's Wand Shop, the interactive performance given by Mr Ollivander himself was superb. Like the films, the room was small and intimate, stocked as high as young eyes can see with thousands of multi-coloured dust-covered boxes.

Picking me out from our group, the eccentrically dressed gentleman led me through a series of magical mishaps in a bid to find the wand to which I was best suited. The performance was greeted with applause by the adults in the room; one can only imagine what the reaction will be from children.

This is a theme park though and after my encounter, I was led through to a merchandise store where wands (about $25) and other goods could be purchased.

The creative team have avoided temptation to plonk a till in the middle of the Wizarding World and churn out fast food. Instead guests are invited into the charmingly decked-out Three Broomsticks Hall where once again the authenticity is never compromised.

Head chef Stephen Jayson, who has worked for Universal Orlando Resort since the park's opening 20 years ago called the entire experience, from menu testing to final product, the most exciting and rewarding of his time there.

Classic English dishes - all of which have mention in the books - such as shepherd's pie, fish and chips and Cornish pasties can be bought for around $10, and for families, Jayson and his team have gone the extra yard.

In keeping with a recurring theme of Potter's time at Hogwarts (the traditional first and last days of term), a Great Feast can be purchased for $49 to feed a group of four. The meal of chicken, ribs, corn on the cob and roasted vegetables is ordered at a counter but bought to your table on a silver platter.

Every aspect, including desserts such as strawberry and peanut butter ice-cream, is produced to an exceptionally high standard. It remains to be seen if the kitchen staff can maintain that quality when they have more than just a hungry press pack and a few Hollywood stars to satisfy.

One thing is for certain, the drinks menu is certain to please. The much-hyped, greatly-protected, and of course JK Rowling-approved butterbeer was delicious, and tasted suitably buttery with hints of shortbread and caramel too.

Ric Florell, Universal's senior vice president in charge of food and beverages, revealed the decree of secrecy surrounding its creation is such that different components are made at separate locations to avoid more than a select few knowing the exact contents of the non-alcoholic drink. He labelled it 'magic' and after a mug or two, I'm inclined to agree.

Fit to burst, we made our way to the piece de resistance, the Hogwarts ride.

A quite mesmerising creation perched at the top of the Wizarding World, it is visible from the motorway en route to the park, and up close is a joy to behold. Good job, too, because queue times at opening are expected to approach the six-hour mark!

Although the ride itself remains a closely guarded secret, we did experience the entertainment put on for those in the queue in the form of moving portraits, again true to the original literature and four never seen before characters.

With Rowling's input, faces have been given to the four founders of the Hogwarts houses. Helga Hufflepuff, Salazar Slytherin, Rowena Ravenclaw and Godric Gryffindor interact to great effect, and laterally more familiar characters do the same in a novel way of explaining ride safety.

The entire Hogwarts queue experience is a captivating one as you stroll through darkened corridors, and even a 'floating candle hall'. The vision of Harry, with his two best friends Ron and Hermione, is the undoubted highlight. Using the latest technology to all but convince you that the three mega-stars are in the room, 3D holograms encourage you to continue on the journey, following the trio on a special adventure and, ultimately, to the ride. Alas, the three young wizards put on invisible cloaks and disappear, the doors of the main attraction still firmly shut for now.

Back outside, the last of the three coasters, the Flight of the Hippogryph, is the most child friendly and we do get to enjoy a ride.

Heading for exits, and by now wearing a smile as broad as that of art director Gilmore, I can't help but feel bowled over. In one afternoon I have been thrown back to my first day in a big city - kicking my feet, ambling slowly down the streets, soaking up every drop of wonder.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is exactly that, a new experience, unrivalled anywhere. Those who question the value of magic may think differently after a visit. [Source]
Posted by Jade in Emma News
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