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How does the "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts" ride experience stack up against "Forbidden Journey" ?


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How does the "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts" ride experience stack up against "Forbidden Journey" ?

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So how exactly does Diagon Alley's marquee attraction -- "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts" -- compare to Hogsmeade's signature ride, "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ?

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Well, before we get started here doing the compare-and-contrast thing ... I think it's important to acknowledge that "Forbidden Journey" could also be called "Harry Potter's Greatest Hits." Because -- as that Kuka arm powers your flying bench through that massive IOA show building -- you then have all of these very brief but extremely intense encounters with iconic characters & memorable settings from the Potter books & movies.

I mean, seriously. Think about it. Within seconds of your flying bench being dispatched,  you're suddenly being (SPOILERS AHEAD for anyone who has yet to ride this 4 year-old Universal Orlando attraction) pursued by this fire-breathing dragon. Then you're surrounded by massive spiders in the Forbidden Forest. Once you escape the Forest, you nearly pulverized by the Whomping Willow before -- BANG! -- you're right in the middle of this fierce Quidditch match. And then as the Death Eaters arrive, you tumble with Harry down into the Chamber of Secrets and ... Well, you get the idead.

And while all of this is going on, you have these blink-and-you'll-miss-them encounters with your favorite Harry Potter characters. There's Hagrid looking for his missing dragon. Draco Malfoy accusing Potter of " ... showing off for your Muggle admirers." There's Dumbledore warning you to tuck your elbows in as your bench flies back to "Forbidden Journey" 's unload area.

Don't get me wrong. As a fan of the Harry Potter films, when "Forbidden Journey" first opened in June of 2010, I enjoyed the heck out of this attraction. And not just because of its Kuka arm-based ride system brought a real sense of intensity & excitement to the whole "Forbidden Journey" ride experience, bringing you closer to sets, props & animatronic figures than had previously been thought possible with more conventional ride systems.

And given that "Forbidden Journey" 's film sequences feature the real Harry Potter actors and were actually partially shot on this movie series' then-still-standing sets at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden ... Well, this new Islands of Adventure attraction had a level of authenticity & immersion that very few theme park rides on this planet had ever achieved.

That said, "Forbidden Journey" did have some pretty glaring flaws when it first opened four years ago. Chief among these being that -- at least for its first few months of operation -- this attraction's flying benches weren't exactly fat-friendly. It took a quick redesign of Forbidden Journey's ride vehicle (which then made the outer two seats on each flying bench far more accommodating for more ample individuals) to finally make it possible for 90% of all Universal Orlando visitors to then enjoy & experience this attraction.

And then there was "Forbidden Journey" 's height requirement. Which then made it tough for Harry's littlest fans to find out exactly what was going on inside of Hogwarts Castle. Not to mention the intensity of the entire "Forbidden Journey" experience, which -- because of that fluid, back-and-forth movement of those Kuka arms -- left some Islands of Adventure visitors nauseous.

Interesting side note here: Because the Japanese are supposedly so much more motion sensitive than people here in the West are, Universal Creative developed a somewhat milder / smoother version of "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey." And according to what Seth Kubersky of the Orlando Weekly told me, Universal Creative actually test-drove the new version of "Forbidden Journey" at Universal's Islands of Adventure earlier this year by temporarily substituting the original version of this attraction's programming for the newer, eventually-headed-to-Universal-Studios-Japan programming. Given that this milder / smoother version of "Forbidden Journey" 's programming was deemed a success, it was then shipped off to Osaka. Where it then began delighting visitors last month when the Japanese version of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter officially opened to the public on July 15th.

Anyway ... Getting back to "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts" ... Ever since the movie-going public saw Harry & Hagrid go into Gringotts Wizarding Bank in 2001's "Sorcerer's Stone " and then rode that Goblin-driven cart through those caverns deep underground below Diagon Alley, there were Potter fans out there who said "That would be a really great theme park ride."

Copyright 2001 Warner Bros. All rights reserved

And then when "Deathly Hallows - Part 2" came out in 2011 and people saw Harry, Ron and Hermoine's exciting escape from Gringotts aboard a fire-breathing dragon, the chorus of theme park fans saying "That's a ride I want to experience. Will someone please build a Gringotts-mine-cart-deep-underground attraction?" grew louder & louder.

And Universal Creative -- to their credit -- listened. Though their takeaway from all those "We want a Gringotts coaster" cries was a little different than you might have expected.You see, Universal Creative -- after taking a closer look at "Forbidden Journey" -- decided that the next Harry Potter-themed attraction that they designed wouldn't be another greatest hit ride. This time around, the Universal Creative team wanted to design an attraction where Potter fans would then get to spend a lot of time in a single location. Not only that, but -- this time around -- Universal Orlando would get plenty of face time with the books & films' greatest heroes -- Harry, Ron & Hermoine -- as well as this series' scariest villains; Bellatrix Lestrange and he-who-must-not-be-named, Lord Voldemort.

This -- to my way of thinking, anyway -- is what makes "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts" an intriguing departure from "Forbidden Journey." "Escape from Gringotts" is a far more story-driven experience. Over the course of this 4 & 1/2 minute-long ride, you visit far fewer places than you did on "Forbidden Journey." You interact with far fewer characters as well. But at the same time, when "Escape from Gringotts" is over, Universal Orlando visitors have had a far richer, more involving ride experience.

Copyright NBC Universal. All rights reserved

"And why is that exactly?," you ask. Because you've become familiar with Bill Weasley & Blordak the Goblin before this ride actually got underway, the stakes are now higher. And then when you encounter Bellatrix Lastrange, Lord Voldemort and Nagini later in the ride ... Because Harry Potter film fans already know how lethal this trio can be, the scares are bigger and the stakes are much higher this time around.

Look, I know that there are Potter purists who complain that what the ride film for "Escape from Gringotts" shows us departs significantly from what we all previously read in "The Deathly Hallows" and/or saw in "Deathly Hallows - Part 2." But given that J.K. Rowling herself signed off on this ride concept when Universal Creative first pitched it to her three years ago, that the creator of all seven "Harry Potter" books thought that the storyline proposed for this attraction was plausible ... Well, just because these scenes weren't recounted in the books and/or depicted onscreen doesn't mean that they also couldn't have happened.

Speaking of Ms. Rowling, Mark Woodbury -- the President of Universal Creative for Universal Parks & Resorts -- revealed that Jo herself wrote the lines that Bill Weasley says at the very end of this ride. Which puts a really fun button on this whole ride experience.

Copyright NBC Universal. All rights reserved

You know what's also fun / different about "Escape from Gringotts" ? On "Forbidden Journey," there's just four of you -- at best -- strapped into that flying bench. Which admittedly makes this ride a more private & personal experience. But that said, if your three riding companions aren't the sorts to hoot & holler as they're being whipped around at the end of that Kuka arm, "Forbidden Journey" can sometime be a pretty quiet ride experience.

Whereas "Escape from Gringotts" ... Well, because each train that heads out of the station is made up of two carts which can then each have upwards of 12 people riding aboard them for a total of 24 passengers being dispatched every 80 seconds ... You have much more of a communal experience going on Diagon Alley's signature attraction. As a group, you're menaced by trolls in armor. As a group, you spin 360 degrees as Bill & Blordak try to get you to safety. Which means that you're getting a whole lot more energy & excitement out of your fellow theme park guests.

And let's not forget about "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts" super-elaborate queue with all of its animatronic goblins. Or its Musion-based pre-show where Bill & Blordak quickly sketch out all of the exposition that you need to understand what's going to happen next (Because -- let's remember -- not everyone who visits Universal Studios Florida is going to be a Potter fan who can then quote from the books and/or knows the films backwards & forwards). Not to mention your trip 9 miles down into Gringotts' vaults involves climbing aboard an elevator that's basically a NextGen version of the Living Seas' old hydrolators.

Copyright NBC Universal. All rights reserved

The other thing that I really enjoyed about "Escape to Gringotts" is that -- because this is a train-based experience -- Universal Studios Florida was able to lower this ride's height requirement by 2 inches. Which means that even more family members can get in on all this Harry Potter goodness.

And then when you factor in the clever way that Universal Creative has reimagined image capture for "Escape from Gringotts"(because -- let's face it -- a taken-on-the-ride image of 12 people wearing 3D glasses isn't exactly something that you'd want to frame and then place on your desk at work) so that people are now being issued visitor badges for Gringotts Wizarding Bank ... Even the retail side of this attraction is innovative & fun.

So how good is "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts" really ? So good that a person I know who stood in line on Opening Day for six hours to experience Diagon Alley's signature attraction and then -- immediately after they got off that ride -- got right back in an equally long line. All with the hope that they might be able to squeeze in one more ride on Gringotts before Diagon Alley officially closed for the day.

And if that doesn't tell you know good this new Universal Studios Florida attraction actually is ... Well, then you're even more of a Muggle than I thought.

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