Dispatch: A Harry Potter addict gets his fix

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My name is Ken and I’m a Harry Potter addict. That’s right … I’m 41 years old and I dig everything that has to do with an entertainment franchise aimed primarily at preteen consumers.

I’ve read all seven books at least twice, and I own copies of all six films. I’m not alone in my passion, judging by the crowds of fellow adult fans (some accompanied children) swarming into the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando.

I jumped at the chance to fly to Central Florida to partake in a media preview of Wizarding World. I assumed we journalists would have the run of the place for a couple of days before the official June 18 opening to the public. Boy was I wrong.

Although it’s gone unpublicized, Universal Orlando has been offering guests staying at the resort’s three hotels sneak-peek access to Wizarding World for at least a week now.

FLA-HogwartsCastleOpenClutching Harry Potter passes more precious than the Golden Tickets of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (because they’re REAL), waves of excited guests slipped past security guards and other envious theme park customers into Hogsmeade Village at about noon on Thursday, just after the press conferences in the Three Broomsticks restaurant wrapped up.

I saw grown men actually jumping up and down in excitement. And I’m not just talking about myself.

They all made a beeline for the castle, home to the main attraction: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Because I arrived a day late for this press preview, I missed the opportunity to sample the ride with other journalists and staff the night before.

Attached to a group of reporters on an obligatory tour of the shops and eateries that comprise the High Street of Hogsmeade, I despaired of getting on the ride before I had to head back to the Loews Royal Pacific Resort to remotely host Travel Weekly’s "How to Make More Money Selling Theme Parks" webinar from my hotel room.

The tsunami of excited humanity washed past me as I was instructed on the intricacies of all the animatronic window displays in Hogsmeade and the plentiful Potter-themed goods for sale in shops such as Owl Post, Honeydukes Sweetshop and Zonko’s Joke Shop.

Wondrous as it all was, my longing eyes were drawn back to the soaring pinnacles of Hogwarts peeking just over the shop rooftops. So close and yet so far.

FLA-UniversalHarryKenandRonBut I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Hogsmeade portion of Wizarding World, where I spent the morning, is indeed a wonder. The ingenious creative minds at Universal — working closely with author J.K. Rowling and the producers of the film series — have replicated the tiny Scottish wizard’s village adjacent to Hogwarts down to the minutest detail, in life size.

From the steep rooftops and crooked chimneys of the buildings to the merchandise on sale within, the attention to detail is impressive. I found chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans in Honeydukes, Sneakoscopes in Zonko’s and all manner of Potter-related merchandise, including $300 broomsticks in Owl Post.

In Owl Post, visitors can mail letters and cards to be postmarked "HOGSMEADE" instead of "ORLANDO." And yes, there’s Ollivander’s, although technically that wand shop is supposed to be located in London’s fictional Diagon Alley.

No matter, Potter purists will likely forgive the breach of locale once they see the interactive spectacle inside. More than one Potter insider was as impressed as I: Actress Bonnie Wright, who plays Ginny Weasley in the films, remarked in a morning press conference on how true to J.K. Rowling’s vision Universal has hewn.

(After the event, I managed to snag autographs from Wright and her on-camera brother, actor Rupert Grint, a.k.a. Ronald Weasley. The charming Rupert posed for a photo with me, as well.)

The famished can grab something to eat or drink at the Three Broomsticks, Honeydukes or an outdoor Butterbeer stand. The general verdict among my fellow journalists regarding the magical brew: the blended, frosted version is better than the just plain chilled.

FLA-UniversalHarryOwlPostTo get specific, the stuff tasted like cream soda, but creamier, with a curiously hearty and frothy head on top that delightfully stays firm until you drain the last drop from your souvenir mug.

Butterbeer grew on me, mug after mug after mug. Another Potter-inspired beverage on sale, pumpkin juice, was spicy, sweet, rich — and less to my taste. It has its fans, though. Plenty of people in the park were toting the pumpkin-topped bottles.

Now, back to the Forbidden Journey, which looked as if it were forbidden specifically to me. Having slipped away from the Hogsmeade tour, several attempts to jump the ever-growing queue with the aid of our media badges availed a conspiring colleague and I nothing.

So we hopped on Flight of the Hippogriff, the smaller and slower of two pre-existing roller coasters at Islands of Adventure that have been re-imagined and repurposed for Wizarding World.

The other, Dragon Challenge, is a double coaster once known as, of all things, Dueling Dragons, but it has been refitted with the backstory of the Triwizard Tournament, found in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

I inspected the new trappings, which include a mystifying and true-to-fiction Goblet of Fire, but skipped the ride itself, which I’ve ridden (and enjoyed immensely) many times before in its previous incarnation.

Clock ticking and webinar approaching, I convinced my equally desirous colleague to give Forbidden Journey one more shot. Luckily, we found a sympathetic Universal staffer just outside Hogwarts who heard our plea and honored our media badges.

We were escorted up several back staircases and whisked, somewhat but not completely unfortunately, through groundbreaking animated Hogwarts displays designed to entertain and amuse impatient would-be riders, and deposited in a four-person car that shot off into the inner recesses of Hogwarts for the ride of a lifetime.

Earlier in the day, back at the Three Broomsticks press conference, Wizarding World’s creative director, Thierry Coup, had described Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in the same vein as Island of Adventure’s Spiderman ride — but a decade on in technological development.

FLA-UniversalHarryStarsAlignI’d say it’s more like a century, a drop in the hat only to 650-year-old wizards like Nicolas Flamel (Potter fans know who that is; the rest of you, get the books). The phrase "will wonders never cease" came to mind.

In fact, the ride was so packed with action, events and surprises that I almost felt overwhelmed and most certainly lost track. Forbidden Journey definitely bears repeat riding; it was likely designed with that in mind. I’m going to try to get on it again on Friday, after the official opening.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that the most beloved Harry Potter characters all have at least one cameo and scenarios from many of the movies, if reshot and slightly re-imagined, are included.

I played Quidditch, I dodged Voldemort, I was seared by dragon’s breath and I soared over Hogwarts. I also had my soul sucked out by a Dementor, only to have my own face float in the air before me and stare back, startled at its own mortality, as a smoky apparition. How they do it, I don’t know. But I’m glad they did.

One final note: Later in the day, Forbidden Journey completed and webinar wrapped up, I wandered the rest of Islands of Adventure. A thunderstorm rolled in, and damp, disappointed crowds wandered from shuttered ride to shuttered ride.

Passing through the now seemingly passé Jurassic Park "island," I encountered a group of young people gathered at the barred gate to the adjacent Wizarding World.

Ticketless, teary teenaged girls, and their equally rapt but dry-eyed male counterparts, were intently listening, as if entranced, to a Universal Orlando guard describe the wondrous attractions that lay within.

Intrigued by their interest and emotion, I drew closer to have a listen. Then they noticed my Wizarding World media badge. The girls shrieked and ran over, excitedly asking if I’d been inside. I said I had, and that I had a photo of me and Rupert Grint on my digital camera. Would they like to have a look?

As I scrolled through the press conference photos of the Harry Potter stars for them, two of the girls grew visibly more shaken and even weepy, to the point of near-hysterical sobbing.

Now uncomfortable, I decided to wrap things up quickly. "I love you," one said as I turned off my camera, looking me straight in the eye through streaming tears. Wow, is all I could think … well, that and therein lies the difference between Harry Potter fanatics of 14 and 41.

For more video and photos from the grand opening celebration, click here.

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