While quaint, meticulous Hogsmeade village has charms and delights aplenty, and the the two themed coasters provide satisfying swoopy thrills, a wondrous, looming Hogwarts castle and the "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ride that lies within it are at the heart of the park's $400 million wizarding gamble.
Given the thousands and thousands of muggles who waited untold hours just to ENTER the grounds of WWoHP opening weekend, who then immediately queued up AGAIN for "Forbidden Journey," and based upon the assumption that demand will not wane dramatically in the foreseeable future, it was extremely wise of the designers to make the queue for the "Forbidden Journey" ride an intricately detailed tour of the venerable school of magic. In fact, I so enjoyed the sights and sounds of the castle, I was almost disappointed when it was finally time to strap into the actual ride.
We arrived Saturday morning during the (another wise idea) magical hour when guests of the three on-site hotels are allowed "private" access to the park before the general public is allowed in. We were far from alone, however, and the sign outside the castle already read "120 minute wait."
After my six year-old son barely squeezed past the minimum height requirement — whew! — we passed from the already palpable heat into the welcoming cool of the castle. Bags and backpacks are not allowed on "Forbidden Journey" — can't have wayward projectiles braining fellow passengers or damaging the technology — so they must either be handed off to non-riders or stored in (free for the duration of the ride, ANOTHER good idea) provided lockers.
Although the crowd was moderate, all of the locker touchscreen access terminals read "temporarily full." Shortly, the terminal we were nearest opened up and I quickly touched my way to the biometric fingerprint reader — tres high tech! — and gained access to a safety deposit box, er, locker. After much pushing, folding, muttering, and architectural violation, I finally crammed my backpack into the locker-let and we headed off on our adventure.
We breezed through winding dungeon passageways until we caught up with the line as it exited the building out into a garden area, then Madame Sprout's greenhouse, before eventually reentering the castle proper. Without giving away too much, in line we encountered numerous living paintings (including the Fat Lady and the four Hogwarts founders), so detailed and convincing that you can see brush marks on the "canvas."
My son sincerely asked how they brought the paintings to life.
Among the most memorable tableau as one winds upward through the castle are a book-crammed Dumbledore's office, complete with a holographic Hogwarts headmaster (Michael Gambon from the films) welcoming you; the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, where holographic Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) appear from under an invisibility cloak to talk you out of sticking around for the stultifying lecture; and the Room of Requirement, filled with dozens of floating candles, from whence you embark on the Forbidden Journey powered by Hermione's flying spell and Floo powder.
The ride itself is an astonishing, nearly seamless blend of "advanced robotic ride system technology" and "immersive filmmaking" as riders soar over Hogwarts; take part in a quidditch match; escape punishing attacks by a dragon, giant spiders, and the Whomping Willow; and plunge vertiginously from the spires of the castle toward Hogwarts Lake below.
I had some minor queasiness with the virtual reality elements, which, based on anecdotal evidence, seem to affect a fair percentage of adult riders; but it wasn't enough to detract from the magic for me personally.
My son pronounced the ride "awesome, other than the spiders." Elapsed time from locker to locker: one hour, so the "120 minute" warning was conservative by half.
Shockingly, the attraction spills into a gift shop back on ground level, adjacent to the locker area, cleverly themed as Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods, complete with fiber optic brooms, house crest items, and Ministry of Magic mugs for sale. On display on the walls above the shop are multifarious items confiscated from students over the years by the dreaded caretaker Filch, including the iconic Marauder's Map, loaned to Harry by the Weasley twins in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Potter fans and theme park aficionados alike will find the experience powerful on the story, character, detail, and thrill level – a grand slam.