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Hogwarts or hogwash? Will The Wizarding World of Harry Potter live up to the hype?
|April 27, 2010 @ 8:31am · 0 comments
Hogwarts or hogwash? Will The Wizarding World of Harry Potter live up to the hype?
It's the most keenly anticipated arrival in theme park land for years but will The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Resort Orlando justify the £134million it cost to bring it to life? Jane Fryer boards a plane to Florida for a sneak preview...
My first glimpse of Hogwarts is from the lush tropics of nearby Jurassic Park.
I am standing behind a gift shop piled high with plastic dinosaurs and fridge magnets and trying to avoid the 45-minute queue for Duelling Dragons — a terrifying rollercoaster that slams your head about like a dead chicken’s — when I look up and catch sight of Harry Potter’s famous school looming above me in all its Gothic, turreted, mullion-windowed glory.
And I’m not the only one. The crowd around me erupts. ‘Oh MAN! It’s Harry Potter’s castle!’ yells Alex, a chubby, 14-year-old and from California.
There’s the Big Hall. And all the towers. It’s just like the film. It’s massive!’
‘Look, Dad. Look! Can we go? It looks way better than Jurassic Park,’ screams his brother Jake.
‘Mum? Mu-uum!? We’ve got to find a way in — it’s Harry Potter land.’ And he’s right. Well, almost.
It’s actually part of The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter, a brand new 21-acre site shoehorned between Jurassic Park and an artificial lake at Universal Studios’ Islands Of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Florida.
Today, I am being given a sneaky peak by a very enthusiastic guide called Meara.
As well as Hogwarts towering above us, there’s also the wonky-chimneyed, crooked- roofed, cobble-stoned village of Hogsmeade, three state-of-the-art rides and more Harry Potter merchandise than you could shake a wand at.
Or there will be when it’s finished.
Because after three years, several delays, £134 million — and a lot of chomping at the bit by Harry Potter fans — the Wizarding World is finally due to open in a lavish, star-studded ceremony on June 18.
What’s more, the whole thing has been sanctioned by Harry Potter author J K Rowling — hardly surprising, given that she’ll reportedly receive more than £10 million a year in licensing payments to add to her existing fortune of about £600 million.
For now though, Hogsmeade remains a building site.
Which means that behind an officious-looking sign that reads ‘Proclamation — Ministry Decree No. 01 — Magic at Work. Your Patience is Requested’, hard-hatted contractors are working round the clock to get it finished on time.
The High Street is rumbling with the noise of JCBs, big blue skips are overflowing with rubbish and the whole area is swarming with workmen-painting chimney stacks, sanding-window frames, making final adjustments to thick blankets of sun-proof snow in the 80 degree heat - and dealing with over-excited tourists who are clustered round the perimeter fence yelling helpful things such as. ‘Hurry up! Can’t you use your wand? Ha ha!’ and, ‘Aren’t you finished yet? Use a bit of magic’.
It’s not finished yet and Meara already loves everything about Wizarding World. And I mean everything.
‘It’s just brilliant. It’s my absolute favourite thing,’ she says, as we approach the main entrance - a vast crenellated archway with huge metal gates and sign that reads: ‘Hogsmeade. Please respect the spell limits’.
‘Look, look! Immediately on your right is the Hogwarts express - puffing with real steam - that’s a really cool photo opportunity. We wanted everything to be exactly as it is in the films.’
And, er, presumably, the books...?
‘Well, the film was based on the books, so this is based on the films. Very closely based on the films.’
So closely that Alan Gilmore, the films’ art director, has been intimately involved, and cast members — Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and co — have been specially filmed to pop up like holograms and surprise visitors standing in the anticipated hour-and-a-half-long queues.
Gilmore even moved his family to Orlando two years ago and has been ‘on site every single day since’, supervising each tiny Potteresque delight.
Such as recreating Dumbledore’s dusty office, Zonko’s joke shop - crammed to the rafters with extendable ears, chattering teeth, fanged flyers (rubber frisbees with fangs), Honeydukes sweet shop - which sells chocolate frogs, ‘every flavoured beans’, cauldron cakes and treacle fudge - and the Hog’s Head pub which serves Butterbeer and pumpkin juice and ‘traditional Scottish fayre, like Cornish Pasties and Fish and Chips’.
There’s even an Owlery where you can sit on benches, post letters with a Hogsmeade postmark to friends around the world and, naturally, do a bit more shopping...
‘You can buy lots of lovely owly merchandise here,’ says Meara, her eyes wide. ‘Stuffed owls, stationery sets - it lends itself brilliantly to merchandise.’
The attention to detail is staggering. Hogwarts stands a few hundred feet high, but is cleverly designed to look several thousand feet higher - thanks to a good smattering of moss and lichen really does look hundreds of years old. Even the snow is perfect, gleaming in the heat.
‘I can’t talk too much about the snow,’ confides Meara, conspiratorially. ‘It’s a trade secret of ours. All I can say is Alan Gilmore wanted to make sure it glistened nicely in the Florida sunshine.’
It's not just Gilmore who needed to be satisfied. Everything has to be approved by J K Rowling - right down to the recipe for the Butterbeer sickly-sounding concoction that tastes of shortbread biscuits and butterscotch.
'Our culinary team had to go over to in Scotland and have her taste it, and fortunately she loved it,’ says Meara, ‘But don’t ask me to tell you recipe, because it’s totally a trade secret.’
While Rowling is yet to visit the Wizarding World - presumably she’ll be jetting in for the grand opening ceremony in June - teams of Universal planners have been traipsing to and fro across the Atlantic with plans for approval.
‘We’ve collaborated with her loads and she seems pretty happy so far.’
The project to recreate Hogwarts has also provoked feverish excitement among millions of Harry Potter fans around the world, particularly when it comes to the ‘top secret’ main attraction where visitors will apparently ride an ‘enchanted bench’ through a quidditch match, meet dragons and hide from dementors - the soulless creatures that suck happiness from their victims.
One fan site recently claimed that Universal would be allowing visitors to dress up as house elves and encourage them to fall from a tower - just like Dumbledore did from the Astronomy Tower - and instead of dying be transported to a limbo area between life and death, just like Harry did at the end of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows.
‘When we read that, I had heart palpitations,’ says Meara. ‘I thought, ‘What are they thinking? What are they talking about? Then I realised it was an April Fool! I couldn’t believe they’d joke about something so important.’
So none of it’s true? You can’t be a house elf?
‘It’s not to say we’re not going to do some of that stuff in the future, but for now we just want to focus on getting it open.’
Much has been made of the delayed opening. Today the high-tech rides are still being programmed and groups of dancers in blue robes are rehearsing in the sunshine — but Meara’s having none of it.
‘We said spring and if you want to be a stickler, summer here officially starts on June 20th. So if we open on June 18th we’re still in spring, just. We’re on target.’
At the moment the only bits that look completely finished are the myriad gift shops.
‘The merchandise is very important – some of the stuff is truly extraordinary. There’s Dervish and Bangs, a shop where we’ve got everything for sale from quidditch equipment, triwizard jerseys, duvet covers, pyjamas and pillows to broomsticks and cauldrons. And Olivanders — don’t forget the wand shop.’
Which is a vast, dusty room with boxes of wands stretching from floor to ceiling where children (and persumably adults, if they feel the need) can re-enact a scene from the first Harry Potter film (sorry, book) where Harry is ‘chosen’ by his magic wand.
‘It’s brilliant. It’s an interaction with one of our entertainment team who’s the master wand-keeper. So he’ll ask a series of questions, give you a wand to try in the shop and things will happen.’ What sort of things?
‘I can’t tell you that. But it’ll either be a complete disaster or it’ll be “the fit”. And when it’s “the fit” you’ll know it. It’ll be very similar to that moment when Harry got his wand. It’ll be amazing, absolutely amazing! And you can buy your own wand!’
And, er, how much is the wand? ‘I don’t think we’ve released prices yet. But it’s really, really cool!’
I’m beginning to worry about the visitors’ wallets. Tickets for the whole Islands of Adventure Park will cost around £50 per adult per day, only slightly less for a child (under nine years).
According to Meara, the whole Wizarding experience will take about half a day, ‘unless you’re a ‘superfan’, in which case you could be here ‘for days.’
And finally, what about the fact that, as everyone knows, Muggles (the name given to non-magical humans) aren’t allowed into Hogsmeade?
‘Oh that’s easy,’ grins Meara. ‘The Ministry of Magic has decided to allow everyone entrance for one special day!’
How, er, ‘convenient’.
It’s odd seeing Hogsmeade sweltering in the Orlando sunshine. It certainly looks wonderful — so long as you’re a Harry Potter fan and like queuing and waving wands and, of course, shopping — and the attention to detail is amazing.
But it does seem a teeny bit of a shame that something as utterly British as Hogsmeade should be recreated in the baking heat of Florida — next door to Jurassic Park. [Source]