The setting couldn’t get much more surreal. I’m standing in 35 degree heat wearing shorts and sandals but the small thatched cottages up ahead seem to be covered in snow and the person greeting me is wrapped up in a thick coat. A huge castle towers in the distance and smoke puffs out from a sparkling steam train even though it is rooted firmly to its place. Next I expect a director to leap out calling ‘cut’ and there is good reason for this because I am in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a full-size mock up of the fantasy world from the best-selling books. If you have ever wondered what it is like to walk around the set of a hit movie then this is the place to be.
The Wizarding World is part of Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando and it is no coincidence that it looks exactly like the sets in the movies. Harry Potter creator and author JK Rowling gave strict instructions to Universal’s very own theme park design wizards. She had a hand in everything from the layout to approving the recipe for the park’s signature Butterbeer, a non-alcoholic drink which tastes like cream soda and butterscotch.
Fans of the films and books will be enchanted by the details whilst anyone new to the series will feel like they have been transported back in time to a Dickensian village. The Three Broomsticks restaurant sells traditional British food such as fish and chips and shepherd’s pie. On peering through the windows of the snow-capped cottages, there appear to be cramped dimly-lit shops inside. Much of it is clever visual trickery which theme parks are famous for and on stepping through the doors the shops are in fact bursting with colour.
The merchandise they sell isn’t the typical plush toys and postcards usually found in theme parks. Instead, replicas of famous objects from the films is on offer and if you have got children in tow it can get expensive. In Honeyduke’s sweet emporium you can buy delicacies such as Chocolate Frogs and Fizzing Whizzbees and the Owl post office comes complete with its own stamps and owlery.
The highlight is Ollivanders where, with the help of some special effects, one child inside is ‘selected’ by a magic wand. Guests are then channelled into the gift shop next door where the wands are on sale for $30 each. The cost is surprisingly easier to bear than the queue to get it. Only around 30 people are allowed in Ollivanders at the same time which can lead to waiting well over an hour just to get into the shop.
One queue that is worth the wait is the one for the Wizarding World’s flagship attraction: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The ride itself is truly spellbinding but guests get a sense of awe long before it starts moving. Universal anticipated that the ride would attract huge crowds so it packed special effects into the area surrounding the queue.
First the line snakes past talking animated paintings of historic figures from Harry’s school, Hogwarts. They are in fact computer monitors which have an oily sheen and texture to make them look like paintings and the effect is eerily convincing. You then enter the vaulted office of Hogwarts’ headmaster Dumbledore where a spectacular projection makes him come to life in a 3D holographic-like image which miraculously seems to change perspective when viewed from different angles.
The same effect is used to make Harry and his fellow pupils Ron and Hermione appear in a balcony above the queue. They tell guests to join them on an adventure and then cast a spell which makes snow (actually a fine foam) fall from the ceiling. The effects change randomly which is a cunning trick to keep guests occupied when the queue is long and if it is short it means they have to come back to see everything. The queue makes an impressive buildup but the ride lives up to it and then some.
You sit upright in a typical roller coaster-style seat mocked up to look like a church bench which, according to the story, is said to be enchanted.
It has an over-the-shoulder harness as although the ride doesn’t go upside down it moves at angles which none of its rivals can copy. The ride begins with a video of Harry saying that the benches can be a bit “dodgy” but that doesn’t prepare riders for what lies ahead.
Ingeniously, the seats are attached to a robot arm which itself is moving on a roller coaster track hidden under the floor. This allows it to stop in front of huge projection screens and move in synchronisation with the action on them. It gives the impression that you are climbing, swooping and diving with Harry as he flies around the castle on a broomstick.
It is a dream come true for Potter-loving kids whilst adults are left stunned by the technology, particularly when the ride moves from the screens to rocketing through real sets. It is hard to tell what is real and what is virtual as it smoothly glides from one to the other. At one point riders are tilted on their backs and an actual model tree seems to narrowly miss falling on them before they zip through what appears to be fire but is actually smoke illuminated with a red light. It’s not for the faint-hearted but that goes to show how well it reflects Potter’s adventures.
The ride passes by in a blur but you might think twice about getting back on immediately. The queue can last for nearly two hours at peak times and the waiting in line is a dramatic change of pace after flying through Harry’s world on the ride. Universal’s hotel guests get to enter the parks an hour before they open to the public which is the best time to make round-trips on the Forbidden Journey.
The illusion at Universal’s hotels is just as convincing as in the parks. At its flagship, the Portofino Bay, guests are immersed in an experience that tries to convince them they are in Italy. Old Italian posters adorn the exposed brickwork in the lobby, Vivaldi is pumped in through hidden speakers and Vespas are lined up around the harbour. Corridors to the rooms are even mocked up as city streets with faux star-scenes on the tall ceilings and porcelain plaques, which would usually have a house name etched into them, now show room numbers.
Guests of hotels inside nearby Disney World get similar early-bird access benefits to its four theme parks and the place to stay to be in the middle of the action is the Dolphin. It is run by Sheraton but bears little resemblance to any of the other hotels in its collection. The Dolphin is a 27-floor coral-coloured triangular structure which looks like it would be at home in an undersea kingdom. Two huge statues of dolphins appear to be leaping out of its sides and a huge fountain in front of the hotel cascades water down five giant clamshells. They face its sister hotel, the Swan, which has waves painted on its walls and two huge swan statues ‘sailing’ atop.
The hotels are littered with tiny details which fit the aquatic theme. The railings lining the walkway from the Dolphin have a wave-like design to represent the flow of water which then hits the Swan, hence the waves painted on its walls. Waterfalls line the entranceway to the Dolphin’s tent-like lobby and its flagship restaurant fittingly serves top-notch seafood.
Disney’s science-themed park, Epcot, has a private entrance just a few minutes walk from the Dolphin and it is where the most intelligent thrills are found. The park has roller coasters themed to car test-tracks and a glider simulator with seats swaying over a huge screen as scents are pumped in to match the film. There are intricate touches in the park for parents too with fibre optic lights making swirling patterns in the floor and a huge fountain dancing to carefully-choreographed music.
A short complimentary boat ride from the Dolphin is the Hollywood Studios park which is home to Disney’s answer to Harry Potter: Toy Story Mania. Sitting in a ride car you don 3D goggles and take control of a light gun which appears to shoot everything from baseballs to custard pies at on-screen targets themed to the Toy Story movies. Unlike most rides, this one fights back and crack shots get blasted with bursts of air cleverly timed to 3D projectiles hurled from the screen.
To take some movie magic home, visit the film store at the entrance to Hollywood Studios which sells rare memorabilia and original posters. If it’s designer gear you’re after, there’s the upscale Mall of Millenia with boutiques from Burberry, Hugo Boss and Cartier as well as branches of New York favourites Macy’s and Bloomingdales.
After days of hotfooting it around the parks and shops it’s fortunately easy to relax in the evenings. Avant-garde circus troupe Cirque du Soleil has created a unique show which plays at Disney World and it is a must-see. The surreal show starts with a breathtaking performance from an acrobat crossing a high-wire on a unicycle. When you think it couldn’t get any more daring it does and he crosses again whilst another acrobat performs a handstand on his head. Forget the myth that theme parks are for children; this is an adult’s fantasyland.