Hogwarts Goes Hollywood
There’s more magic coming to Universal Studios Hollywood’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter this summer, when a new nighttime light show will illuminate Hogwarts Castle with designs from its four houses – Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin.
The show, which debuts June 23 after limited advanced previews, will play several times a night and be accompanied by music from the movies arranged by award-winning composer John Williams. Guests at the land’s grand opening in spring 2016 were treated to similar entertainment.
More than a year after the opening, the Wizarding World continues to attract crowds of muggles who want to walk in the footsteps of the boy wizard – or follow him on a virtual broomstick. In fact, theme park bosses recently reported that the park’s attendance in the first quarter of this year was up 60 percent over last year, and the park broke attendance records in early January when it reached capacity and closed its gates for the first time.
First-timers and repeat visitors alike marvel at the attention to detail in the snow-capped Hogsmeade village and Hogwarts castle, which houses the land’s signature ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
The biggest change in the past year was the recent removal of 3D glasses (or Quidditch goggles) from the ride and their replacement with “4K-HD” projections. While theme park aficionados speculated that the change might have been in response to complaints about motion sickness, park officials said they upgraded the film quality and clarity to create a more seamless immersive experience. (Those prone to motion sickness say the ride, which combines movement on an elevated track with projections and props, still can be dizzying. One seasoned rider counsels closing your eyes during the spinning floo powder vortex at the beginning and end to ward off some of the effect.)
But there is a reason Forbidden Journey remains atop many theme park experts’ list of “dark rides” as it takes you along with Harry and friends through a Quidditch match and past a fire-breathing dragon, giant spiders and Dementors, and more. Guests must be 48 inches tall to ride.
The line, while it can get long, is a major part of the attraction, taking visitors throughout a painstakingly detailed Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, from Prof. Sprouts’ greenhouse (watch out for the mandrakes!) past talking portraits and an animated version of the Daily Prophet to Dumbledore’s office. Hologram versions of Harry, Ron and Hermione give you advice for the journey in the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom (in which the desks and blackboard are actual movie props, among those hidden throughout the land), before ducking under an invisibility cloak.
The land’s other ride, Flight of the Hippogriff, is the park’s first outdoor rollercoaster. A short but zippy ride, it’s tame enough for young children, who must be 39 inches tall to ride. Other attractions include the Wand Experience at Ollivanders, in which a Wandkeeper chooses guests to be matched with a wand (which can be purchased upon exit), interactive windows which can be activated with “spells” cast with special wands (also available for purchase), themed restaurants and carts selling British pub fare and butterbeer (and real beer inside the Hog’s Head pub) and myriad shops selling Harry Potter-themed souvenirs, including Honeydukes, where you can buy a chocolate frog complete with wizard trading card.
While strolling Hogsmeade’s cobblestone streets, keep watch for other magical touches: catch a performance by the Frog Choir or Triwizard Spirit Rally, mail a letter from the Owl Post for an actual Hogsmeade postmark, have your photo taken in a replica Hogwarts Express compartment (adorned with movie prop luggage racks) and listen for Moaning Myrtle in the loo. Park employees do a great job staying in character. Mention Voldemort to one of them and see what happens.
If you’re planning to visit during potentially busy times – summer, school holidays and weekends among them – take advantage of the one-hour early entry into the Wizarding World, which is included with advanced online ticket purchases and select hotel packages. Paying additional for front-of-line “Gate A” passes, which allow you to skip the line once for each ride in the park, may also be worth it – but you’ll likely want to walk the entire Forbidden Journey line at least once and not miss out on too much of Hogwarts.
Elsewhere in the park, Universal has added a year-round walk-through maze based on The Walking Dead TV series, in which patrons brave enough can attempt to escape zombies in a post-apocalyptic landscape. And come September, guests will be able to walk through the Overlook Hotel in a maze based on the horror classic The Shining, as part of the annual Halloween Horror Nights.
The new attractions are the latest in a major makeover Universal is undertaking to bring more movie magic to life – and draw more visitors and compete with its larger Southern California rival, Disneyland. Additions in recent years include a Simpsons ride in a section of the park based on Springfield – where you can stop by the Kwik-E-Mart or pick up a giant Lard Lad donut – and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem adjacent to a water playground feature and Dumbo-like ride for little ones based on the film’s Super Silly Funland.
Next up is a Nintendo-themed area announced in November. The expected opening date has not been revealed.
Universal’s original ride, the Studio Tour, remains a great way to glimpse where movie magic is made and has been brought into the 21st Century with ride-type 3D sequences, including a finale that simulates a car chase from the Fast & Furious franchise.
Not surprisingly, Universal deftly merges movie storylines and imagery with either motion simulation or track rides in its other six rides, making the rider feel as if they are immersed in well-known movie universes, whether it’s being turned into a minion in the clever Despicable Me Minion Mayhem or riding along with the Simpsons on a virtual rollercoaster in Krustyland.
But those effects may be intense for some children, assuming they’re tall enough to ride. Three rides have minimum height requirements of 40 inches, while kids must be 42 inches for the Jurassic Park flume ride and 48 inches for the hair-raising Revenge of the Mummy dark rollercoaster. If your child wouldn’t be comfortable watching a loud battle scene in a Transformers movie, think about whether they’ll want to ride through it, in 3D.
Even the relatively mild The Simpsons Ride has the family on the run from murderous Sideshow Bob. If your child can’t or doesn’t want to ride, most rides offer Child Switch, in which an adult can get a pass which allows the other parent to enter the “Gate A” line.
The park also has several live shows, including one with “animal actors,” another revealing special-effects secrets (including lighting a stuntman on fire and seemingly sawing off an audience member’s arm) and WaterWorld, an action-packed show with thrilling pyrotechnics and stunts, including lots of fisticuffs and shooting. And kids of all ages enjoy seeing and taking photos with costumed characters throughout the park.
Outside the park gates, Universal CityWalk offers lots of options for shopping and eating, including the recently opened Margaritaville and a new outpost of Portland’s popular Voodoo Doughnut, as well as a state-of-the-art movie theater.
If You Go
Dated, advance tickets are available online for $105-116 depending on the day. Children ages 3-9 get $6 off. Undated online tickets and gate admission cost $120. A nine-month California Neighbor Pass, with admission any day for the first visit but blackout dates for return trips, is $129.
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
Now watch Happy Anniversary Wizarding World of Harry Potter!