Off to See the Wizard

Harry Potter’s world is, indeed, magical, but will it do the trick for Universal?

Standing in the restroom at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I distinctly heard a female voice.

It turned out to be Moaning Myrtle who, as all good Potterheads know, was killed by a serpent while taking care of business in the powder room.

The voice of the spectral Myrtle can be heard in both the “Boys” and (I’m told) “Girls” facilities in the latest “island” at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure. And her ghost is far from the only spirit haunting this Wizarding World.

Harry’s new island—based on J.K. Rowling’s novels and the Warner Bros. films they’ve spawned—is also haunted by a silent spirit of uncertainty. Built for a reported $265 million, the Wizarding World, which officially opened June 18, represents a major gamble by Universal Orlando.

Attendance at Islands of Adventure was down 11 percent in 2009 from the year before, as compared to an economy-related attendance drop of 5 percent for Central Florida generally, according to a recent New York Times report.

I’d say that an exorcism is in order.

Talk to the folks at Universal Orlando and you might get the idea that technology is the answer. Thierry Coup, creative director for the Wizarding World, told me that “the newest of the cutting-edge technology” has gone into this island, including “just about every trick in the bag.”

And while I have no reason to doubt him, the real charm of the place is its fresh, immersive approach: Most theme parks attempt to carry their themes into their gift shops and eateries, but the Wizarding World goes much further.

You would, for example, expect a Harry Potter-branded gift shop to sell magic wands. And, indeed, the Wizarding World’s Ollivanders (“Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.”) does just that. But buying a wand there is less like a simple shopping experience and more like an elaborately theatrical one.

After a group of visitors has entered the store, an aged and dignified “wandkeeper” explains, “Here at Ollivanders, it is the wand that chooses the wizard.” With a patient, if slightly put-upon, air, he then subjects a volunteer to a series of tests (some of which fail in cleverly comical ways) to help that person find an ideal wand.

Only after this ingenious demonstration does the actual purchasing of wands commence.

Similar entertaining touches are sprinkled throughout the entire faux-snow-capped village of Hogsmeade, the fictional setting of the Wizarding World. I found them in, among other places, the sweets shop (a croaking chocolate frog), the restaurant (moving shadows on a wall), the gift shops (a growling book) and, as I say, the restrooms.

The overall effect is more encompassing than I’ve ever experienced at a theme park. Totally magical, you might say.

There are only three official rides in the Wizarding World, including two repurposed roller coasters. The only really new ride is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is housed in Hogwarts Castle, the wizards’ prep school that Harry and his friends attend.

In keeping with the Wizarding World’s immersive approach, the ride kind of began while I was waiting in line for it. Along the way, I encountered headmaster Dumbledore in his study, where he (actually, a realistic image) welcomed visitors. Later, Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, appeared in a similar way.

Just before I boarded Forbidden Journey, a sorting hat (a wizard’s pointed hat that spoke through its folds) offered final instructions. Then I took my seat in a conveyance that lifted off the ground, leaving my feet dangling.

As the ride continued, Harry, on his broomstick, led me on a fast-paced trip through the castle and its environs. Along the way, a dragon blew hot smoke at me and spiders squirted me with an unidentified arachnid liquid. (Ick!) I also caught sight of a Quidditch match and encountered some of Rowling’s wraithlike dementors.

Overall, the ride struck me as an exhilarating blend of Epcot’s Soarin’ and an old-fashioned haunted house, but experienced at breakneck speed. Somehow, Forbidden Journey managed to feel both intimate and intense.

Will all this be enough to justify the expense of the new island? And will the popularity of its opening days continue to be strong enough for long enough?

If so, then the Wizarding World’s fresh approach might be a game changer for the theme-park business. If not, I suspect that poor Myrtle won’t be the only one moaning at Universal Orlando.

Morse Update

“It was a giant jigsaw puzzle,” John Griswold told me when I asked about the Daffodil Terrace, currently under construction at the Morse Museum.

    Since May, Griswold—of Griswold Conservation Associates LLC of Culver City, Calif.—has been spending a lot of time at the Winter Park museum and its warehouse, leading the effort to rebuild the 18-by-32-foot terrace, which had been part of Laurelton Hall, artist Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Long Island, N.Y., estate.

    At the Morse, the Daffodil Terrace will be supported by eight 11-foot marble columns, each topped by a bundle of translucent yellow daffodils made from (what else?) Tiffany glass. A focus of the museum’s $5 million expansion, the terrace will incorporate original artifacts with replicated pieces that replace ones that were lost.

    So if the project is a jigsaw puzzle, it’s a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. With luck, they’ll all be filled in by February, when the entire renovation project opens to the public.

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