If you're looking for a The Wizarding World of Harry Potter preview full of cynicism about the commercialization of a beloved book series, or one full of cheap shots at the plastic fantastic nature of Orlando attractions, move along. There's nothing for you here.
Where I live, this is serious business. I have an "almost" 9-year-old, you see. And that child has read the first three Harry Potter books.
She eagerly anticipates diving into the fourth, although I'm not looking forward to her reaction when you-know-who gets zapped on the orders of You-Know-Who. Point is, I don't have the luxury of being snarky.
My daughter doesn't care what a bunch of jaded journalists think about the place. My daughter wants to know one thing, a question she asked repeatedly when I came back from a sneak peak of the park in May and told her that yes, there really is a giant Hogwarts castle:
"What else do they have there?"
I assume if you are reading this, you've got a kid who wants to know the same thing. Or you want to know yourself.
So, I'll keep the criticism to two broad points and one paragraph. First, the place really isn't all that big, although Universal is calling it "a theme park within a theme park," with the larger theme park being Islands of Adventure. Second, it's sort of weird trying to get into a "Harry Potter" mood when it's 90 degrees outside, even if there is fake snow on the village roofs.
There. All done. What else do they have there? Read on.
HOGSMEADE VILLAGE. This area makes up the bulk of the park. It's simply a village street running between shops, restaurants and a few attractions. Hogsmeade is the village students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry visit during the school year, so it makes sense that looming at the end of the street is a giant replica of the school castle. If you're a sucker for the "faux" look of theme parks, particularly at night, standing in the street and looking toward the castle is going to be a nice moment for you.
HOGWARTS EXPRESS TRAIN ENGINE. You can't climb on or in it, but engine 5972 provides a nice photo opportunity right inside the front gate to the park. Check nearby to see a complete train timetable (one of many little details in the park that are nicely done, if you take time to find them) and warnings about leaving broomsticks unattended.
ZONKOS. The witches running this shop will greet you with a "Welcome to Zonkos!" From research conducted during a recent visit, everyone will then search for items they saw in the book. You'll be happy to know there are sneakoscopes available, as well as nose-biting teacups and Harry Potter-related chess pieces. As you stand near the cash register, make sure you look up for a little surprise.
HONEYDUKES. You'll know this place from the chocolate frog display out front. Yes, you can buy them, and yes, they contain wizard cards - the four founders of Hogwarts: Salazar Slytherin, Godric Griffindor, Helga Hufflepuff and Rowena Ravenclaw. It gets even better inside, where you'll find cauldron cakes, rock cakes, pumpkin tarts and a selection of fudges and other sweet delights. There are also Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, available in specially designed boxes or bags.
THREE BROOMSTICKS. Oddly, I found this restaurant to be among the best in the park, if you factor out the patio, where you have a magical view of the Incredible Hulk rollercoaster. Inside, there are large fireplaces and many tables. Look up to see a crazy hodgepodge of stairs, doorways and walkways (you can't go up there, unfortunately). On one end of the restaurant is the Hogshead Pub, where adults can enjoy a pint of beer brewed specially for the park. The restaurant menu has the usual kid fare, but also British staples such as shepherd's pie.
OLLIVANDERS. Your enjoyment of this will depend largely on your taste for being in a large crowd in a confined space. During the tour in May, patrons were brought in about 25 at a time. One from the group was picked as "the one," and then participated in a "wand picking" ceremony much like the first time Harry entered the store in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." After the correct wand is chosen, the entire group is moved into another room where you can buy a wand. The cool part is the wands come in a variety of styles, all named after characters in the series.
OWL POST. No, the owls aren't live (this was one of the first questions asked me by a group of second-graders after my visit). But there is an owlery outside the post office adorned with fake owls and, far cooler, you can mail people cards that will have a Hogsmeade postmark. Make sure to check out the howler letter, too.
FILCH'S EMPORIUM OF CONFISCATED GOODS. Kids, this is the gold mine, so don't hit Mom and Dad up too hard for the goods until you get to this place. It's wall-to-wall Potter paraphernalia, from clothes and coffee cups to stuffed animals and (my favorite) the "evil corner," where they sell Lord Voldemort dolls and "I Served Time In Azkaban" and Death Eater T-shirts. Elsewhere there are Gryffindor swords, chess sets and tumblers emblazoned with the crests of all four Hogwarts houses. You get the picture: It's Potter merch heaven.
DRAGON CHALLENGE. Of the two roller coasters, this one's the bad boy. The entrance is designed to remind you of the dragon challenge in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." It's festooned with signs urging on the four competing champions: Cedric Diggory, Fleur Delacour, Viktor Krum and, of course, Harry. Once inside, the line winds past the Tri-Wizard Cup, the Goblet of Fire and an area with candles suspended overhead, just like in Hogwarts' Great Hall. There are two roller coasters, the Chinese Fireball and Hungarian Horntail. I rode the fireball. It's excellent if you enjoy twists, loops, corkscrews and sudden acceleration.
FLIGHT OF THE HIPPOGRAPH. For the younger kids, this coaster is gentle enough, although it goes into a fairly wicked series of circles. The view of the castle from the top of the coaster is one of the best in the park. But the real fun for fans is the Hippogriff itself, which bows to the riders near the beginning of the ride.
HARRY POTTER AND THE FORBIDDEN JOURNEY. This is the park's centerpiece ride, but they weren't letting us ride it in May. However, we did get to travel along the ride's queue, which is one of the coolest features of the place. As you pass into the castle, the winding line guides you past all manner of objects from the series - the mirror of Eristad, the phoenix outside Albus Dumbledore's office, paintings that speak to each other and (yes!) the Fat Lady who guards the entrance to Gryffindor tower. The "wow" stuff comes in Dumbledore's office and the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, where holographic cast members from the movie talk to people in line. That's all I'm giving away, sorry, kids.
There's more, of course. You can drink butterbeer (like cream ale with a foamy top, try it frozen) or pumpkin juice. You can listen to the choir that roams around, featuring frogs singing bass. You can take a picture in front of the snowmen in Hogsmeade, or check out Hagrid's house on your way to the Hippogriff roller coaster.
And that's what else they have.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
WHEN: Grand opening 9 a.m. Friday
WHERE: Universal's Islands of Adventure; 1000 Universal Studios Plaza, Orlando
COST: $79 for adults, $69 for children for one-day ticket, which provides entry to all of Islands of Adventure