I’ve never been a theme park enthusiast, but ever since it opened, I’ve been very curious about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Last week, we ended up on a trip to Disney World / Orlando with a group of extended family who’ve never read Harry Potter, so our family peeled off from the crowd and seized the opportunity to head off to Diagon Alley for the day. For anyone who hasn’t yet made the journey through the Orlando version of King’s Cross Station, I highly recommend the trip.
I wrote last year about the Harry Potter compromise I struck with my oldest reader (then 6 ½). Eager to immerse himself in the wizarding world he’d heard so much about, we decided to get onboard at Platform 9 ¾ and head off to Hogwarts. It was a huge hit and felt perfectly pitched to where he was as a reader right then. However, we agreed that we’d wait about 6 months between installments. We read the second adventure in the fall, and while book 2 ratchets up the fear factor with whispery basilisk speak echoing through the walls and enormous spiders lurking in the woods, the 6 months between books has felt about right.
Because of that staggered schedule, though, my 7 ½ year old entered the wizarding world without a comprehensive understanding of all the references. Especially since the two halves of the theme world are divided between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade (the latter of which is not discovered until book 3), I wasn’t sure whether the knowledge gap would be fun or frustrating. The great thing was that it couldn’t have mattered less. The production values are astounding, so a sense of marvel and wonder pervades the whole experience from beginning to end, meaning that a little mystery doesn’t feel like such a bad thing. I actually discovered that he loved the little sneak peeks into later adventures—eagerly bookmarking them for later discovery. And, of course, my 5 year old had no frame of reference at all, and had the best time anyway.
So what was it like to immerse ourselves in the literary magic kingdom? First thing, we plumbed the depths of the Gringotts vaults, in a dazzling ride that punctuated dramatic dragon action and fun character moments with dizzying spins through darkness. (Adult verdict: Fun! Kid verdict: Absolutely terrifying!) Then we headed to the money exchange where we exchanged our dollars for “wizard money,” which was really just printed out pieces of paper with the dollar amount printed on the front. Not exactly as exciting as knuts and sickles in my book, but my First Year did enjoy paying for his wand with his own wizard money.
Sure, the wand’s a $55 gimmick, but the wand choosing process at Ollivander’s was a delight, and the wands are designed to interact with a number of the store fronts in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, so the kids get the thrill of doing real magic along the way. The spells were a bit harder to execute than you might expect, but they were pretty fun. The best ones in my book were the Metelojinx rain spell and the Revelio chocolate frog hide & seek. These elements really did take the experience one step further, to truly make kids feel like they’re a part of it all. Similarly, the lines for the rides take families through incredibly elaborate, beautifully detailed sets filled with mechanical elements, holograms, videos, and more. Although the kids declined to take any more Harry Potter rides with us after their Gringotts scare, they actually loved the hour long line we took through Hogwarts itself to get to a ride my husband and I wanted to go on. The talking paintings room was a hoot!
Of course the crown jewel of any Harry Potter experience is supposed to be the mythical Butterbeer. Sadly, my kids and husband all unilaterally hated it. Drinking all of it myself was no big hardship, but they all decidedly turned their noses up at its buttery, cream soda taste. Well, you can’t win ’em all. But by turning J.K. Rowling’s imagined realm into an interactive, fully immersive wonderland, this whole world gets the details pretty darn right.