Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Universal Studios Hollywood

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Universal Studios Hollywood is about to unveil Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and with soft openings running sporadically of late, we decided to drop in last week to check out the Hogsmeade in Los Angeles. This post covers our review of “Wizarding World Hollywood” with a focus primarily on the differences between this version of Hogsmeade and the ones in Florida and Japan. The post also includes photos I took of the Wizarding World during our visit (fortunately, we were able to straggle into the evening, so I got some dusk and night shots with my tripod).

While there are a lot of entertainment options in Southern California, we expect to see a huge interest surge for Universal Studios Hollywood, particularly among those planning trips to Disneyland. Before we do a full-bore guide to Universal Studios Hollywood, we thought it might be worthwhile to post a review of the new Hogsmeade to see if any Disneyland visitors were also interested in heading to the nearby park in Hollywood.

Well, perhaps “nearby” is a bit of an overstatement. Thanks to Los Angeles’ lovely traffic situation, Universal Studios Hollywood can be anywhere from 45 minutes to ??? hours away from Disneyland. From our location in Orange County, Universal Studios Hollywood can be 2 hours or more away. Suffice to say, we don’t get nearly as much mileage out of our Universal Annual Passes as we do our Disneyland APs. Still, we have found Universal Studios Hollywood to be a great park that compliments Disneyland and Disney California Adventure nicely.

Let’s take a look around Hogsmeade to see how Wizarding World Hollywood compares to its predecessors…

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In terms of general design, the layout feels very similar to the versions of Hogsmeade in Orlando and Osaka. This one is definitely the most cramped, with other lands immediately outside the perimeter of the land. Other changes for the better have been made, such as tweaks to Ollivanders Wand Shop, which has a large queue behind the building for what has become a surprisingly long wait in the Florida version. Surprisingly enough, it felt like Universal Studios Japan’s incarnation of Hogsmeade had been iterated upon more than this one.

It is a bit of a disappointment that Wizarding World West does not really bring anything substantively new to the table with Hogsmeade. Even minor new areas to explore and added details would be appreciated. However, the practical reality is that outside of those obsessed with theme parks, direct clones don’t matter. A good 90%+ of Hollywood’s guests will never visit Orlando or Osaka’s versions. Still, something new would be nice, and I hope that arrives when the rumored demise of Shrek 4D occurs.

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There is a new Hogwarts Express photo op, but you aren’t allowed to take photos of it with your own camera. File that decision under “super lame cash grab.”

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Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is the star of the show, so let’s start with it. Forbidden Journey is arguably one of the top 10 theme park attractions of all time, and easily one of the best of the last decade. Universal Creative wisely left well enough alone in terms of the layout and substance of the experience here.

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They did, however, add 3D. I’ve heard rumors that this is specially-designed 3D and the glasses for the ride have yet to arrive, so generic glasses are presently being used. I sure hope this is the case, as the 3D was a tremendous disappointment. The screen and scenes were too dark, and I found myself cycling between wearing the glasses for screen scenes and removing them for show scenes.

Among theme park fans, Universal Creative has developed a reputation as being screen-obsessed. The same could be said for 3D. I would argue that Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey perfectly balances screens and physical sets, and only uses screens when the constraints of physical sets require it. I can think of no such argument for what 3D brings to the table here. If anything, the prevalence of 3D at Universal attractions is an annoyance for the decent chunk of the population that already wears glasses or is made nauseous by 3D.

Even so, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey remains one of the best theme park attractions of all time, and is an absolute must do regardless of the wait time (thankfully, there’s single rider). I just worry that come 2013 when 3D is passé, all of these 3D attractions will be a bit much.

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Flight of the Hippogriff is the land’s kiddie coaster, and it’s cute for what it is. The total ride duration is 1 minute, tops, but I could see this offering enjoyable views at sunset or night when Hogwarts is looking dopest. There’s also an Audio Animatronics Hippogriff that is pretty cute. For those non-Potter fans, from what I can ascertain, a Hippogriff is basically a slightly modified griffin. Not a hybrid of a hippopotamus and griffin, as I was hoping. (How badass would that be?!)

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With no wait, we also stopped in Ollivanders for a demonstration. Honestly, I’m not sure why this has become so popular. There is some charm to it and decent effects, but if I waited more than 20 minutes for this, I’d feel like I wasted my time. Maybe it’s because I’m overly-cynical, but it ultimately feels like a dressed up sales pitch for the wands they sell.

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There’s also a stage where shows are performed throughout the day, all of which are fine diversions.

On an unequivocally positive note, there’s the food. We had lunch at Three Broomsticks with Guy Selga (who has done his own excellent review of Wizarding World West), who had already dined at Three Broomsticks once. While some options are the same as the Orlando menu, they have upped the ante on quality across the board. Several menu items are exclusive to Universal Studios Hollywood, and these are the best of the bunch.

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Our meals last year in the Springfield (The Simpsons) area made us suspect the food was better at Universal Studios Hollywood, and Three Broomsticks confirmed that suspicion. Our ribs, chicken, and stew were all excellent and high quality (I really wanted to try the “Beef Sunday Roast” but the $21 price tag scared me away), but those pale in comparison to the desserts.

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For dessert, we all shared the Butterbeer Potted Cream and Sticky Toffee Pudding, which was a huge mistake. These desserts were so mind-blowingly awesome that sharing here is an atrocious idea. The Sticky Toffee Pudding was decadent, moist, and thick, and one of the best theme park desserts I’ve ever tried.

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Much like gluten, I don’t even know what “potted cream” is, but I know I need it in my life. As I write this post, I find myself craving both desserts, and much like Butterbeer originally, I think these treats are going to be surprise hits of Wizarding World Hollywood. Of course, they also have the various varieties of Butterbeer (which I’ve compared and contrasted in The Wizarding World of Butterbeer post), but these two desserts should also rank as must-dos. Make sure to wear pants with an elastic waistband (after all, this is L.A., so only the flyest style will do) to Universal Studios Hollywood, because the dessert scene is excellent.

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Let’s wash down dessert with a bit of the ugly: sightlines. Without powerful zoom lenses or viewing Hogsmeade from odd angles, the real world and other areas of the park intrude upon Hogsmeade with regularity. We are talking hotels, office buildings, show buildings, and other lands of the park. In fact, there is seldom a view in Hogsmeade that is not interrupted by something that does not belong. This is wholly unacceptable. I understand that Universal Studios Hollywood has a small plot of land in one of the largest metropolitan areas on earth. That doesn’t excuse this complete and utter disregard for show.

It’s one thing when we are talking regional amusement parks and their slipshod attention to detail, but Universal deserves to be held to a higher standard. Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley have raised the bar on themed lands. Ironically enough, it would be a disservice to Universal to hold them to a lower standard when they themselves are clearly aspiring to more. Universal is now a viable pretender to the throne previously held by Disney alone, and it deserves to be judged as such.

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While there is no way to totally quarantine Hogsmeade from the outside world, we aren’t talking about building the land in a bubble or anything impractical. Most of this could have been fixed by planting adult trees at the edge of the land to obscure office and show buildings (likewise, there should be trees between the wooden fence and security fence around the Flight of Hippogriff coaster). J.K. Rowling has a reputation as a bit of a perfectionist, and I wonder whether she has seen this version of the finished land yet and given it her seal of approval.

For a land with an undoubtedly lavish budget, it’s mind-boggling to me that a few hundred-thousand dollars (drops in a bucket) more wasn’t spent ensuring that the illusion of Hogsmeade was maintained to the greatest extent possible. Ever been to an opulent home that is devoid of furniture and decor inside because its owners are “house poor”? Well, it feels as if Universal is “Hogwarts poor” when viewing the sparse and undersized trees around the perimeter of the land. They get no pass because the trees will grow in 5+ years from now. Time to fully shed that bush league image, Universal.

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The easy retort to this is that Disneyland is far from perfect when it comes to sightlines. You can see the Matterhorn from multiple lands, Big Thunder Mountain from New Orleans Square, and so on. One of my favorite blogs, Passport 2 Dreams, recently covered the sightlines topic, with the ultimate crux of the issue being whether it really matters to the casual guest, or if this is all academic fodder. Definitely worth a read if you’re intrigued by this.

I think that it does matter to average guests, even if only subconsciously, and it’s more an issue of plausibility and suspension of disbelief than anything else. In the generic lands of fantasy, adventure, frontier, future, etc., otherwise-themed visual intrusions are easier to process and accept. Seeing a castle and Swiss mountain from Frontierland isn’t visually jarring, for me at least, because (among other reasons) the concepts are vague and somewhat blurry.

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I’m sure there’s an analytical way to judge this, but for me it comes down to the smell test. The sightlines at Disneyland that might be problematic on paper or in isolation don’t raise any cognitive red flags or interrupt my suspension of disbelief. Perhaps it’s the deft mastery of Walt’s original Imagineers or maybe personal bias and familiarity, but most things that could be dubbed sightline issues at Disneyland pass muster for me. About the only thing I find troubling is the view of Splash Mountain from New Orleans Square.

On the other hand, when you have a narrow thematic concept, such as the world of Hogsmeade or a planet in the Star Wars universe, the bounds on that are clear and viewers are far less forgiving. Narrowly-defined lands that succeed based upon their ability to allow visitors to step into a very specific story and experience those environments necessarily require more. No first-timer walks into Adventureland with a preconceived mental notion of what the land should and should not entail, but you better believe they do with Hogsmeade. The bar is likewise high with Star Wars Land, and I hope Wizarding World West serves as a cautionary tale for Disney.

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Neither these sightline issues nor anything else in this review should dissuade anyone from making a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood. While the sightlines do put an asterisk on an otherwise impeccable land, the emphasis should be on the impeccable land not on the asterisk. Along with Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade is one of the most exceptional theme park lands ever created. It rivals the best of Tokyo DisneySea, and of its United States contemporaries, only Cars Land gives the Wizarding Worlds a run for their money. It’s important to remember that this review is largely a compare and contrast exercise to other versions of Hogsmeade, which is why there’s an (admittedly) undertone of disappointment. Were this the first and only Hogsmeade, the prevailing tone here would be, “OMFG, THIS IS $%&$ AWESOME!”

Consequentially, the ultimate take-away here should be that if you’re heading to California and have never visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Hollywood is a must-do. Even if you have been to the Orlando version, USH is worth considering for the true star of the park: the iconic Studio Tour. While the park has a reputation as being small with a short list of attractions, the Studio Tour (even with the laughably bad Fast & Furious segment) alone almost justifies the cost of admission. That, plus a solid slate of attractions and shows (including a great version of Springfield from The Simpsons) makes Universal Studios a full day park that is worth the cost and effort of braving Los Angeles’ traffic. Just be sure to arrive early if you’re coming this spring or summer, as it’s sure to be busy.

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If you’re preparing for a Disneyland trip, check out our other planning posts, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, whether you should stay off-site or on-site in a Disney hotel, where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide!

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Your Thoughts

What is your take on Wizarding World Hollywood? Is the sightline thing a big deal or non-issue for you? Thinking of visiting Universal Studios Hollywood on your next visit to Disneyland? Would you like to see a complete guide to the park from us? Share any other questions or thoughts in the comments below!


39 Responses to “Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Universal Studios Hollywood”
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