Despite having just three rides, Wizarding World offers magical experience

SUNDAY, NOV. 28, 2010

ORLANDO, Fla. – Professor Albus Dumbledore is talking to me and only me, a mere Muggle.

I know this because no matter where I move in the headmaster’s office, he turns to peer my way. My 17-year-old daughter, Rachel, rolls her eyes at my squeals, but she’s thrilled just the same.

And there you have a small but delightful hint of the vast magic at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando Resort’s brilliant (as Harry would say) enterprise to lure tourists away from that other theme park across town.

Dumbledore’s office, complete with Pensieve and portraits of past headmasters, isn’t even the main event. It’s just a point of interest on the scenic route snaking through Hogwarts castle on the way to the big attraction, the Forbidden Journey.

Rachel and I had to make this Florida pilgrimage. Like most kids and many of their parents, we love all things Potter – the books, the movies, the mystique.

After the Wizarding World opened this spring, we kept hearing stories: A classmate who browsed in Ollivander’s wand shop. An aunt and cousin who, between trips into the castle, ate strawberry peanut butter ice cream and watched a “Frog Choir” perform.

With the arrival of the next-to-last movie in the saga, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” our mecca beckoned.

Last month we had a short break from school and free round-trip airline vouchers – our tickets to bond over butterbeer.

The Potter paradise, built for a reported $265 million, is 20 acres tucked in the far corner of Islands of Adventure, the newer of Universal’s two adjacent theme parks.

We enter the Wizarding World through a stone archway and are transported out of gaudy Orlando and into author J.K. Rowling’s quaint old Britain.

This is the village of Hogsmeade, with cobblestone streets, snow on slate roofs and the focal point – Universal’s answer to Cinderella’s castle – the towering Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The best stores are all here: Honeydukes sweet shop, selling Peppermint Toads (delicious) and Chocolate Frogs (not so much), and Zonko’s Joke Shop, brimming with Extendable Ears, Sneakoscopes and You-No-Poo.

At pubs and street stands, the legendary butterbeer flows. It’s sort of a root beer float – no, a cream soda float – with a dash of butterscotch. Get it cold or as a frozen slushie – delicious.

(Some people like the Pumpkin Juice, but we tossed ours after a few sips.)

All of this Potter immersion makes up for the fact that the Wizarding World contains just three rides. And two are roller coasters commandeered from a chunk of the Lost Continent area next door.

The former Dueling Dragons is now the Dragon Challenge, two intertwining coasters retrofitted as an homage to “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

(Warning: The Challenge is for the strong-of-stomach only. After my maiden voyage, I had to rest near the very stationary Hogwarts Express steam engine while Rachel headed off for another spin.)

Universal transfigured the Flying Unicorn into the Flight of the Hippogriff, a tame-by-comparison coaster that speeds us past Hagrid’s persnickety pet.

But the best part of the whole place is the totally new Forbidden Journey – forbidden because Muggles aren’t allowed anywhere near Hogwarts. Oooh, we feel so special.

The wait can approach two hours. But it’s an entertaining wait.

We enter through Hogwarts’ dungeons, stocked with the Mirror of Erised and other artifacts, then wind our way among the exotic plants of Professor Sprout’s greenhouse.

Up inside the castle we encounter talking portraits, the chatty Sorting Hat, Dumbledore in his office and none other than Harry, Ron and Hermione, seemingly in the flesh (OK, they’re really just projections).

They offer to sneak us out of a dull History of Magic class and over to a Quidditch match.

It all builds to the spellbinding ride itself, a mix of animatronic creatures and high-def film that looks all too real as we swoop, soar and twist along. (I don’t feel sick if I close my eyes during the whooshiest parts.)

First, we are strapped into a four-person bench and whisked through the Floo Network, up to the Astronomy Tower and out over the Hogwarts grounds, with our BFF Harry leading the way aboard his broomstick.

We swerve to avoid a flying dragon but somehow get stuck in front of its fire-breathing face. We plunge into the Forbidden Forest, where giant spiders spit who-knows-what all over us. (Maybe it’s water. Maybe not.)

We narrowly avoid the Whomping Willow, flee from Dementors, race out of a crumbling cave and finally land back inside the castle, as students and professors cheer our accomplishments.

Thank you, thank you very much. Time for the gift shop.

It’s an intense ride, probably too much for younger kids. But it’s perfect for my teenage daughter and even me.

Yes, at times I long for the days when Rachel was one of those little ones, dolled up in a pink Disneyesque dress, absolutely thrilled to be with her mommy.

Then again, that girl would have refused to set foot on a scary Harry ride.

Sometimes, a teenager can be much more magical.

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