ORLANDO - So this is what it feels like to fly.
Harry Potter is on his sleek Nimbus 2000 broomstick, leading us to the Quidditch pitch.
We're following on an enchanted bench high in the air, wind in our hair, feet dangling.
It's Universal Orlando's newest ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - the centerpiece of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened last month at Islands of Adventure.
Holy smoke and flame! Where did that dragon come from?
It's chasing Harry, who goes one way. We go the other, and suddenly we're lost in the Forbidden Forest, facing one deadly hazard after another.
The most difficult challenges in designing the ride, says Thierry Coup, Wizarding World's creative director, were "trying to meet the fans' expectations, ensuring everything was accurate to the movies, and creating the feeling of free flight."
His team has got the flying down; the scenes are amazing.
Our enchanted bench is manipulated by a robotic arm that moves along a track while animatronic objects move around us and computer-generated scenes are projected on a 360-degree screen. Some of the images are a little blurry, but they don't require 3-D glasses like Universal's Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man thrill ride. The sound isn't very good, though; I ride Forbidden Journey three times before I catch all the comments by Harry and Hermione.
Whoosh! We're about to crash into a stone wall when we soar up and over it. Uh-oh - Dementors on the way. We dive, the air rushing past us. The combination of effects feels real and gives the illusion that we're flying faster and farther than we really are. At this speed, the ride should end in Kissimmee.
The bench turns, and suddenly we're flat on our backs, staring up at the Whomping Willow, whose muscular branches are moving menacingly toward us.
The story is fractured, taking riders through a chamber of magical horrors as they try to get back to that Quidditch match. Universal chose some of the most memorable scenes from the Harry Potter books for this ride, Coup says. Giant spiders drip venom, a dragon breathes fire, Dementors radiate their deadly chill. If they get close enough, they'll suck our souls out through our mouths.
Aaagh! A Dementor is floating right in front of us. Someone screams. Then Harry appears and drives off the wraithlike creature with a Patronus Charm. He leads us through collapsing stone tunnels and gets us safely back to Hogwarts, where this story began.
"Forbidden Journey takes every possible advancement in ride technology - theatrics, lighting, story - and wraps it all together," says Robb Alvey, founder of ThemeParkReview.com. "The ride raises and sets the bar for dark-ride technology."
It's an expensive ride. Universal wouldn't comment on the cost but did not dispute reports that Wizarding World was built for about $265 million, with Forbidden Journey the biggest share.
Even if you haven't read the books, you can enjoy the dizzying ride, the near-disasters as you speed over walls and through trees, the startling face-to-face encounters with monsters.
About that dizziness: Some people get queasy. Paul Kudelko of Tampa said he was prone to motion sickness but wanted to ride with his daughters, so he closed his eyes for the duration (about four minutes). "You felt like you were flying, it was so smooth," he said, but he felt sick anyway.
His teenage daughter, Caroline, loved the ride. "It was so awesome. The line was so long to get in, but it was so worth it.
"On the ride, every time we turned a corner, there was something else. Every turn was a surprise."
The Rest of Harry's World
Forbidden Journey is the centerpiece of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a themed zone at Islands of Adventure that includes two other rides and lots of retail.
Ollivander's wand shop. In this cramped and dusty shop with boxes of wands stacked to the ceiling, music plays, bells ring, and lights flash before the correct wand - birch, ash, or hazel? Phoenix feather, unicorn tail hair, or dragon heartstring? - is found. Sometimes only one customer is helped at a time, though many more can watch. This bit of magical theater takes five minutes or longer, so the line moves slowly. Regardless of whether a customer goes through the choosing ceremony, the wand (about $30) is purchased next door at the Owlery.
Butterbeer, pumpkin juice. The nonalcoholic "beer" tastes like lightly carbonated cream soda with a thick foam head and a hint of butterscotch. Go for the slushy frozen version. "Pumpkin" juice, which blends apple juice with pumpkin and apricot purees and a little spice, is less sweet.
Dragon Challenge. Formerly called Dueling Dragons, this pair of coasters has a new sound track and theme (the Triwizard Tournament from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), but the ride is unchanged. The coasters climb up the lift hill in tandem, then take off on separate tracks that seemingly bring them within inches of colliding three times. It's still one of the best coaster rides in Orlando.
Flight of the Hippogriff. Formerly the Flight of the Unicorn, this sedately paced junior coaster with gentle loops and drops has new cars in the shape of rattan Hippogriffs - part horse, part eagle. Don't forget that etiquette requires you to bow to the baby Hippogriff nesting near the start of the ride.
Queue for the Forbidden Journey. Foreseeing that the line for this ride would be long, Universal created elaborately detailed scenes to entertain waiting riders. From the mandrakes in Professor Sprout's greenhouse and the portraits of Hogwarts' founders talking about Harry Potter to the sophisticated image of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, the queue is a wonder. Even if you don't ride, walk through.
Hogsmeade Village. In the restrooms, Moaning Myrtle whines through hiccupping sobs about her plight - until she is drowned out by the roar of a hand dryer.
The shops sell hundreds of products from the Harry Potter books that were created for Wizarding World. Quidditch broomsticks ($250-$300) were sold out before the official opening. Wizards' robes, golden snitches, sneakoscopes, extendable ears, chocolate frogs, Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Jelly Beans, collectible pins, and the usual hats, T-shirts, mugs, and picture frames are also among the merchandise.
Hours and Admission
Universal's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios are open 365 days a year, usually starting at 9 a.m. Closing times vary.
Universal CityWalk, with shops, restaurants, and entertainment, is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
One-day, one-park admission for non-Florida residents is $79 for adults, $69 for ages 3 to 9. Multiday and multi-park deals are available online. Universal also operates the Wet 'n Wild water park.
- Marjie Lambert