The richly detailed literary and filmic universe of Harry Potter sprang spectacularly to life Wednesday night at Universal's Orlando Resort in a lavish VIP ceremony filled with emotion, fireworks, music, and wonder.
An enthusiastic red carpet greeting awaited visitors as they passed through the opening archway into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and a steaming Hogwarts Express locomotive to find a bustling Hogsmeade, the village just outside the grounds of the Hogwarts wizarding school that is at the center of much of the Potter series action.
In-character villagers mingled with muggle press, VIP guests, and stars from the wildly popular Warner Brothers film series — including "Harry Potter" himself, actor Daniel Radcliffe — in a microscopically detailed Hogsmeade, ironically draped in convincing, sparkling winter snow in the Florida June heat.
Otherwise jaded journalists and show biz professionals giddily slurped delicious, frothy Butterbeer (including a frozen version in deference to the climate), Pumpkin Juice, and a potent Hog's Head Brew as they reveled in a milieu previously only known through the imagination and the movie screen.
Long time Universal Orlando Executive Chef Steve Jayson was on hand to discuss the creation of a creamy, miraculously balanced, vanilla-based Butterbeer, of which Potter author J.K. Rowling enthusiastically approves, Jayson announced with satisfaction. I found Jayson's spicy apple-pumpkin flavored Pumpkin Juice — the other beverage conjured only from Rowling's literary description — a bit cloying, yet delightful nonetheless.
As the evening sky darkened, guests were ushered into a hushed, cloistered Ollivanders, stuffed to its vertiginous gills with multicolored boxes of wands. The utterly convincing Wandkeeper selected a shyish woman guest to be mated to a wand — remember, the wand selects the wizard! — asked her a few questions to narrow down the search, then selected a candidate wand. All hell broke lose with shelves rattling ominously, lights flashing derisively, and shop flowers wilting: wrong freaking wand, it seemed. After another false start or two, the stars aligned and the wand chose the wizard to spectacular fanfare and startling effulgence.
Moving on, visitors strolled through the enticing stacked shelves of Zonko's Joke Shop; Dervish and Banges magical supplies; Honeydukes sweet shop; and the Owl Post (from whence messages can be sent and authentically post marked), replete with live-looking owls and their inevitable digestive remnants. Authentic Brit cuisine including shepherd's pie and Cornish pastries beckoned from Three Broomsticks restaurant and adult libations abound at the adjacent Hog's Head pub.
But this was all just a prelude. Emerging on the other end of Hogsmeade, visitors found a breathtaking vision of Hogwarts castle, spires piercing the night sky, which houses the 20-acre theme park's premier attraction, "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey," an (high voice) AWE-SOME "immersive" attraction featuring cutting edge simulation, holographic imagery, actual coaster-like movement, and more mind boggling detail.
The Orlando Symphony Orchestra, conducted enthusiastically by Potter film score composer John Williams, provided elegant mood music as a procession heralding the Triwizard Tournament — Potteresque students from Hogwarts, glowering male Durmstrangers, and fetching female Beauxbatons — wound their way through the throng. Warwick Davis, who plays the diminutive Professor Flitwick in the films, conducted a most impressive "frog choir."
Finally, on a platform in the shade of looming Hogwarts castle, dignitaries including Universal Orlando Resort president Bill Davis said a few, or more, words, introduced Potter stars Radcliffe, Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Michael Gambon (Dumbledore), Matthew Lewis (Neville), James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George Weasley), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), andDavis. The stars spoke, their faces massively projected onto the stone Hogwarts edifice, fireworks streamed into the night, and guests were welcomed to experience what may had been waiting for, the ride within Hogwarts castle, "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey."
Universal Orlando Resort's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens to the public today.