Hollywood, having spent a century perfecting the art of escapism, is about to unveil its latest bit of magic.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which conjures up the fictional village and castle/wizarding school of author J.K. Rowling's vivid imagination, officially opens April 7 at Universal Studios Hollywood. This marks Universal's fourth foray under the ultra-popular Potter banner. (Two such worlds are connected in neighboring theme parks in Orlando, and a third opened in July 2014 in Osaka, Japan.)
If, like me, you've chased your children through the countless pages and eight films that chronicle Harry's adventures, this qualifies as another quantum leap in the theme-park universe. And so, during Universal's soft opening, I find myself towed inexorably behind an eager 10-year-old (my daughter, Sophia) beneath a welcoming arch and into view of the snow-topped shops of Hogsmeade Village, with forbidding Hogwarts Castle looming ahead.
Caught up in the moment, she issues commands in rapid succession:
"Let's get a wand."
"Let's get a butterbeer."
"Let's go to Zonko's."
Are these the spells our children employ to ensnare us? Or Hollywood's sly incantations at work?
Either way, they suffice. We do it all, immersing ourselves in Harry's world, guided in part by an artistic magician who has spent much of the past decade interpreting Rowling's vision.
Alan Gilmore awaits us at the train station, where wisps of steam escape the stack of the Hogwarts Express, a locomotive that transports the young witches and wizards who populate Rowling's books. (Note: If you are a Muggle, or person of non-magical ability, like me, you arrive here on foot.)
Leaning against a wall, Gilmore appears to all the world as just another park visitor behind mirrored sunglasses. But he is the supervising art director, and this world is, well, his world, right down to the faux owl droppings on the Owlery's floor and the gently worn edges of a shop's doorsteps - as if they'd been there for hundreds of years rather than dozens of weeks.
Gilmore tackled the art direction of three Potter films and was instrumental in breathing life into previous Potter theme-park worlds. Rowling hasn't walked these cobbled Hollywood streets, but Gilmore says on a daily basis he relays questions and details - especially those involving words - to acclaimed film production designer Stuart Craig, who in turn vets them with Rowling.
"The reason I'm here is to make sure it looks like the movie sets," Gilmore says. "The textures and colors are identical to what you see in the movies, but here you can touch it. We designed this place with durability in mind."
Designers approached Hogsmeade as if it had its own script, Gilmore says. The slate-gray buildings are similarly cloaked in snow, and the "older" edifices - the Owlery and Three Broomsticks tavern - are beginning to cant because of their age.
Designers had a confined space of six acres to work in, but Gilmore says the layout's intimate feel was intended to mimic an old-style European village.
"People who travel a lot feel they're back in Europe. It triggers a memory," says Gilmore, who carts his own catalogue of childhood memories from exploring Irish castles and villages with his mother, an artist and historian.
This land is similar, but not identical, to the first Potter world built in Orlando. For example, the Ollivanders (makers of fine wands since 382 B.C.) shop, which suffered from its vast popularity in Orlando, was redesigned here to add a lobby to thin crowds. During our visit to the Hollywood shop, there was often a half-hour wait just to enter.
Gilmore is a detail man. Inside Honeydukes sweet shop, he stops to rub the painstakingly worn edges on a display cabinet; in Dervish and Banges general store, he fingers the wool of a sweater sourced from the same Scottish mill as sweaters seen in the films; at Three Broomsticks, he points out that the broomsticks lining the walls were made in London.
"All the stains, all the grime are deliberate," he says. "It's all about traveling to some magical place."
As any Potter fan knows, the magic springs from Ollivanders wand shop, where, according to lore, the wand chooses its owner. Oddly, we have no such luck.
Sophia does happily select an interactive oak wand whose properties, according to a scroll that Gilmore told us had been penned by Rowling, are designed to fit the following personality: "Oak people are confident and optimistic, with great inner strength, and a deep well of knowledge."
Thus armed, we proceed on successive days to find a series of 11 magical windows sprinkled throughout the village. With the right wrist snap and incantation, cauldrons stop bubbling, sheet music whizzes through the air, and teacups stop spinning.
It's not just kids' stuff.
Outside a facade of Madam Puddifoot's tearoom, I watch as Richard H. Freund, 73, and his wife, Lynaia K. Freund, 65, of Redlands, California, wave their wands and wait.
It's their fourth visit since the land opened for rehearsals. Lynaia Freund, a psychotherapist, draws deep meaning from Rowling's books, which she finds applicable to her work and beyond.
"Life is difficult, and it's hard to be the hero of your own life," she says. "It's easy just to give up and say, 'I'm done.'
"Harry started out as an abused child, and he saved his world. He found support in unexpected places. He persevered."
Richard Freund, an artist, admits to being here "for the fun."
Which, I will testify, with Sophia (youngest of my three Potter acolytes) as witness, is here in buckets. We sip a sweet, foamy, frozen butterbeer at Three Broomsticks and grab another to go from a cart. I spy extendable ears in the window of Zonko's Joke Shop - perfect for eavesdropping.
The magic is inescapable: Visit a restroom, and the breathless voice of Moaning Myrtle, a ghost straight from the books and movies, will keep you company. Welcome or not.
If Hogsmeade lures visitors into the Potter books' pages through its warm and whimsical embrace, neighboring Hogwarts Castle propels us even deeper with a dose of adrenaline.
Outside, the Weasleys' crashed Ford Anglia rests at an angle, alas, never to fly again, while on the opposite side visitors can take to the air via a roller coaster called Flight of the Hippogriff. It zips through a series of dives and tight turns, but, like its Orlando counterpart, is woefully short in duration - under a minute.
Inside the castle resides the land's signature ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
Lest I reveal too much of the magic therein, let's dispense with the analysis of high-tech robotic arms and 3-D glasses. Instead, let's mount our broomsticks and pay strict attention to the wise words we hear from Professor Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts, in the event we should spot an escaped dragon:
"Please alert a member of staff and run, not necessarily in that order."
If you go
Where to stay
Sheraton Universal Hotel
333 Universal Hollywood Dr.
A convenient walk or free short shuttle ride from the park, with a big pool on a renovated terrace. Room updates began last month, and plans call for the lobby to be redone this year. Rooms start at $229.
Where to eat and drink
Three Broomsticks tavern In Hogsmeade Village
Hands down the best food I've had at a theme park (yes, that isn't saying all that much), in a remarkable old-style setting. Hoist a creamy, sweet butterbeer or refreshing pumpkin juice with your meal, but don't expect - per J.K. Rowling's instructions, I was told - to find a commercial soft drink. A plate of spare ribs, a whole corn on the cob and roasted potatoes costs $16.99. The adjoining Hog's Head pub serves a small selection of draft beers and (not available during my visit) a custom distillation known as Fire Whisky.
3315 Cahuenga Blvd. West
Fresh, chef-prepared plates at reasonable prices (especially for L.A.) in a modern setting, just a five-minute drive from the theme park. Wild mushrooms over pasta in a roasted-garlic cream sauce costs $13. Open 9 a.m.-8 p.m., except Sundays.
What to do
Universal Studios Hollywood
100 Universal City Plaza
The studio got into the tour business in 1964, allowing visitors to board trams for a behind-the-scenes look at films and television shows in the making. Although that studio tour remains a staple of a park visit, it - like much of the park - has been infused with high-octane special effects, including two 3-D elements. Among other high-thrill rides are ones devoted to the "Jurassic Park," "Mummy" and "Transformers" films, as well as an entire land based on the long-running "Simpsons" TV series. And, proving that a really bad movie can spawn a really great show, don't miss the fun and pyrotechnics in "Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular."
Find shopping, restaurants, nightlife and concerts at Universal CityWalk, adjacent to the park. A one-day general park admission for age 10 and older costs $115 but is less if purchased in advance online. Admission for ages 3-9 costs $99, and age 2 and younger are free. Expect to pay about double for a front-of-line pass, which includes park admission and cuts waiting times significantly during peak visiting hours. Parking is $18 a day, and park hours vary seasonally.