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Potter attraction is magical even for Muggles

The American Statesman

Original Article »

June 11, 2011

Muggles are everywhere. Lined up at the wand shop. Climbing aboard the steam train. Standing in line for a taste of butterbeer.

And here and there among the crowd are the young Harry Potter look-alikes in their robes and rounded glasses, lightning-bolt scars drawn on their foreheads, their eyes large, shining in wonder.

Walking into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios Orlando, they find their favorite story come to life.

By now, of course, everyone knows the basics of the Harry Potter series: A young orphan living unhappily with his aunt and uncle finds out at the age of 11 that he is destined to be a wizard. He heads off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he and friends Ron and Hermione and school headmaster/top wizard Dumbledore do battle with the evil wizard Voldemort.

The books and subsequent movies have created legions of loyal fans. For them - including my friend Anne, who joined me on this trip - a visit to the Harry Potter theme park can stir up emotions.

"I'm not …" Anne says, as she gazes at the just-as-she-pictured it incarnation of Hogwarts, "going to cry."

All around are people with much the same reaction. It's as if they have been allowed entrance into Harry Potter's actual world.

The Potter park, which opened in 2010, has quickly become Universal Orlando's biggest draw. Even though the park didn't open until June 2010, Universal Orlando still saw its attendance for the year jump by 20 percent, the company said.

Even for Muggles (that's Potter-speak for nonmagical folk) like me, who aren't as familiar with the Harry Potter series, Universal Orlando's creation of the boy wizard's world is enchanting. Everywhere you look are spires and turrets jutting into the sky, rooftops tipped with snow (fake, of course) sparkling in the sun.

The centerpiece of the park is Hogwarts Castle, which is both an interactive tour and the theme park's signature ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

The walk through the castle takes you through Dumbledore's iconic office, and past one of the park's neatest features - the moving, talking portraits. A regular feature in the Potter books, the animated photos are worth the long walk through the castle all by themselves.

Of course, the Forbidden Journey ride is the biggest draw, letting you soar on a broomstick, escape from a dragon, giant spiders and the Whomping Willow, a giant tree intent on crushing anyone who comes too close.

From the castle, we strolled into Hogsmeade, a real-life version of the village from the books. Some of the village was facades, but you could peer into the picture windows and imagine yourself going inside the shops to buy the latest flying broom or magical spellbook, or to pick up supplies for your next quidditch match.

In Hogsmeade, you can also step into Ollivander's wand shop to be "chosen" by one of the wands inside in an interactive show that draws cheers from the crowd. After the show, of course, you're herded into the attached souvenir wand shop, where all the kids were giddy with excitement to try out - and buy - wands of their own.

Of course, you couldn't step into Harry Potter's world without sampling his favorite beverage - butterbeer, a nonalcoholic drink you can order at the Hog's Head Pub.

Thick and frothy, butterbeer tastes like an extremely sweet cross between cream soda and butterscotch. You can also order pumpkin juice - another common drink from the books. It's actually mixed pumpkin flavor with other juices, like apple juice. Anne and I shared a butterbeer - it was too sweet for us, but probably perfect for kids - but neither of us cared much for the pumpkin juice. In fact, we gave it away to a group of women passing by, so as not to waste it.

At the front of the Hog's Head is the Three Broomsticks tavern, which serves lunch fare. We tried a platter of ribs with potatoes and corn, but you can also order British specialties like shepherd's pie.

Though the park is obviously geared toward fans of the books, my visit showed me that even the uninitiated can enjoy stepping into Harry Potter's shoes.

With its soaring rides, the talking portraits and the gothic architecture, Universal has created an entertaining world where it's cool to wear robes and round glasses, and where, like magic, you might suddenly find yourself wanting to read all those boy wizard books after all.


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