Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida -- initially disappointed more than it delighted.
Upon our early morning arrival at the park's centerpiece ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, we were informed that it was shut down after having been operating only intermittently the two days prior and might not be functioning at all that day. The best we could do, we were told, was to continue checking back. To be greeted with such news following our lengthy personal journey to get there was discouraging. As a slight consolation, everyone was invited to tour the imposing Hogwarts Castle. The 30-minute walkthrough included glimpses of the edifice's famed living portraits as well as very realistic virtual appearances by headmaster Albus Dumbledore (played as in the more recent films by Michael Gambon) and the movies' starring trifecta of Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron). Alas, the tour ended just short of the still-closed Forbidden Journey boarding area.
We entertained ourselves while waiting hopefully for the ride to open by exploring the rest of Hogsmeade, the magical town ordinarily inaccessible to us "Muggles." The entire Wizarding World of Harry Potter (as the attraction is officially called) was meticulously re-created by a team led by the film series' Oscar-winning production designer, Stuart Craig. It is visually amazing, and the various shops and eateries within Hogsmeade contain as many fine details within as they do on the outside. These include audio-animatronic owls in the Owl Post Office, moving shadow figures that play on the tavern's walls, and a disturbingly vocal plant/baby being pulled from its pot.
To slake our thirst in the humid Florida heat, we drank signature drinks Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice. The former tastes like cream soda with a dollop of butterscotch, and is a bit tastier as well as creamier in its frozen incarnation. We also rode the tame, family-friendly roller coaster Flight of the Hippogriff, which features a very cool robotic rendition of the title creature. Every 20-30 minutes, I checked back to see if any progress had been made on reopening the Forbidden Journey ride. By the time I discovered it was indeed running, the line was 75 minutes long. Not to be dissuaded after already having waited approximately two hours, we joined the crowd.
My cousin and I are happy to report that the thrilling adventure was indeed worth the wait. My mother found the ride quite intense, as younger children are also likely to do, and barely opened her eyes once our enchanted bench began to fly. Those who do keep their eyes open will experience a mix of film footage; oversized, actual figures of a fire-breathing dragon, giant spiders and the evil Dementors; and an assortment of other dazzling special effects. The four-seat benches soar, swoop, and threaten at times to turn over backwards (a truly unsettling feeling) in synch with the visuals.
While Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey has been acclaimed by many since its debut as the most advanced and thrilling theme park ride in the world, I'm still partial to another pioneering attraction at Universal's Islands of Adventure, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, which features the added benefit of being in 3D. It is absolutely not to be missed when visiting the park and we were able to walk right onto it, which was a massive relief after our morning ordeal in Hogwarts. Three other attractions were either suffering momentary disruptions in their operation (Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges) or were closed for refurbishment (Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat), leading me to question the overall efficiency of Islands of Adventure's tech and maintenance departments. By the end of the day, however, a good time was had by all.
My cousin, visiting Florida for the first time, was anxious to compare Walt Disney World to the more familiar Disneyland, so day two of our trip found us in the Magic Kingdom. It provided us a great opportunity to compare and contrast not only Disney's most famed attractions but the operational differences between the Universal and Disney parks. Unlike Islands of Adventure, no attractions were closed nor seemed to suffer the slightest delay. In addition, the longest line we had to brave for a ride was less than 30 minutes, although Disney's Fastpass system further simplified the wait for a few major attractions.
If in the end the Magic Kingdom proved to be a bit more magical than the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, both parks and their assortment of impressive attractions (even more impressive when they are all working) deserve to be visited often.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.