Set in Hogwarts itself, THE ride of the entire Universal parks has to be Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The castle is amazing and the ride itself is incredible and very hard to describe, but I’ll do my best!
The outside of the castle, is exactly like you see it in the films – it looks huge and imposing and gives a great first impression. The queues for this do get incredibly long – while it is quite nice to see the castle and some of the effects that they have around the queue, standing for 30 minutes in the greenhouse gets old quite quickly. This first part of the queue is outside and gets really hot too. Having said that, one you’re queuing inside the castle, it gives you the chance to see some really quite impressive items in the Hogwarts theming. As you move around you enter Dumbledore’s office, you see moving paintings that talk to you, including Dawn French as the Fat Lady! There are so many items that you will recognise if you’ve seen the films – the hourglasses containing the house points and the statue at the bottom of Dumbledore’s staircase are particularly impressive.
The idea for the ride is started almost straight away. Once in the castle you make your way into Dumbledore’s office, where a 3D hologram of the man himself welcomes you as a visitor to the school and advises you that you’ll be having a lecture with Professor Bimms. You then enter the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom and a 3D hologram of Ron, Harry and Hermione appear out from under the invisibility cloak and tell you to meet them in the room of requirement so that they can sneak you out so you can see a game of Quidditch. Ron then tries some magic which goes wrong – I think this might change, but when we were there, it snowed on us! You then keep on going until you board the ride, passing the Sorting hat on your way. After you get on the ride, you see Hermione who throws floo powder on you and the bench is then lifted up and away.
The scene by scene of the ride is fairly easy to describe – you start out in the astronomy tower, then fly over the quidditch match, where Hagrid’s new dragon starts chasing you and you end up in the Forbidden Forest where you come across Aragog (the acromantula) and the Whomping Willow which hits you back out to the Qudditch field again. Dementors then arrive and you get swept into the Chamber of Secrets. Harry comes out to save the day with his Patronus and it is then a race against time to get out before the chamber collapses. You arrive back to lots of clapping and cheering from the main characters, including Dumbledore, Hagrid, Ginny Weasley etc.
The ride itself and how you do all this is much harder to describe, because it really is like nothing else I’ve experienced. The bench you sit on is on a robotic arm (which you can’t see) and this enables you to move around, up, down, side to side etc. But that also moves along – you don’t stay in one place as is typical of this kind of technology in rides. As you move through the ride, a lot of what you see is on a wraparound screen – with 3D technology – but it doesn’t really feel like you’re watching a screen as you’re moving too. But in addition to the screen, there are parts that are real sets and audio animatronics – so for instance you really do see the Whomping Willow and dementors swinging out at you. It really does have to be tried to be believed and understood – and I would definitely recommend it – it is the best ride I have ever experienced and it surpasses anything elsewhere in Disney and Universal right now.
I have three tips for enjoying the ride without the hassle. Firstly, wear shoes that day, not flip flops – I was wearing my crocs and spent the first ride with my feet turned up into the air as I thought they were going to fly off! There is a height limit (4 foot) which will incredibly disappointing to some little ones. They do a child swap so the adults can still enjoy it. So my second tip would be, even if you can’t try the ride, I’d recommend that you take them around the castle – it really is very fun and worth seeing. Just tell them at the entrance that is what you want to do and they’ll let you through – I believe you go through the single rider line. Which brings me to my third tip. On our first go, we were there first, only had to wait ten minutes and on we hopped. On our second, the queues had got a lot longer and we waited about an hour, and saw a bit of the castle. It is nice to see so actually we didn’t mind the wait. However, we didn’t really want to wait that long again and so we decided to try the single rider line. If you have already seen the castle this is sooo worth it. In the queue (which for us was less than five minutes instead of over an hour) you’re still waiting together. You only separate once you’re about the get on the ride – at which point you can’t really see who is sitting next to you anyway. Once done you hop off and meet up again in the shop at the end. We rode it another 3 times in a row and did it within half an hour! They really don’t advertise that you can do this that well – we only realised because we over-heard someone else asking for it. Once you’ve dealt with the lockers, just let them know you want the single rider line and they send you down a different queue. I’d definitely recommend it.
There are two specific things about Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey that I think if it had been done by Disney, would have been done better. The first is the lockers. You’re not allowed to take bags and loose items onto the ride with you so there are lockers available for you to store your items in (free of charge) before you ride. However it is shockingly badly organised. The lockers are located at the same entrance as the start of the ride, making it very unclear what queue you need to be in. In fact the main queue often leads right outside the front of the castle and if you weren’t aware about the lockers, you could easily queue up and then have to leave it and start again. At very busy times, I imagine there would also be a shortage, as there was a bit of a scrum when we were there, although there were enough to go around. But more than this, actually getting a locker is a total free for all – the rooms are small, there are points all over them for getting a lockers, as each bank of lockers has its own access point – which is screen that scans your finger and then allocates you a locker number – or opens your locker again afterwards. There is only a couple of people around to actually help out when someone can’t work the machines (which is unbelievably frequently!) There is no-one directing people to which locker bank might be free next so it literally has everyone pushing and shoving to either try and get past to a free bank of lockers or just to access the lockers. I really think it could be managed so much better.
The second thing I’m sure Disney would have done better is the back of Hogwarts. There is no faulting the castle itself. It has been done extremely well and as a Harry Potter fan, is really great to see. But stand to the left of the castle, or head out of Hogwarts towards Jurassic Park (that’s a sentence I never thought I’d say) and not only can you see both the Jurassic Park sign and Hogwarts, you can also see the huge white boxy building that the castle really is. You can even see it while standing in the queue as it runs through the greenhouse – if you look up it’s just a big white box above you where you should be able to see the castle. I’m sure it must be down to cost, but given how immersive the rest of the area it is, it really ruins the fantasy and lets the area down a little.
Having said that, these are minor details in what is an overwhelming success for Universal. The popularity of Harry Potter was always going to mean it would be popular in the short term, but the excellent way they have implemented the look and feel of the films into the park will give it an on-going draw. However, where they have really excelled is with the Forbidden Journey – it is the first time I’ve found anything in any park that I honestly think is better than whatever is similar in Disney World – and in this case there is literally no comparison. Universal have really stepped up their game – now it is Disney’s time to do the same!