If you ask pretty much any fan of the Harry Potter books and movies what their number one dream is, it would probably be to visit Hogwarts. Number two? Ride a broomstick, preferably in the Quidditch Cup. And though there have been attempts at channeling the magic of those fictional experiences in the real world, not many have come close… Until now, at the Harry Potter Store in New York, which is adding two stunningly immersive Virtual Reality experiences, as of today.
After an extremely long delay due to — what else — COVID, the flagship Wizarding World store officially opened in New York on June 3, 2021. With two packed floors filled with authentic movie props, exclusive goodies, chances to take pictures in Hagrid’s giant shoes or taste some authentic, fizzy Butterbeer, the Harry Potter New York store is a paradise for fans of the franchise, albeit one that demands a hefty tax on your wallet if you want to walk away with all the exclusive merch.
What Harry Potter Store New York wasn’t, up until now, was something that you could really spend more than an hour or two browsing in. Granted, that’s already a pretty nice amount of time for something that is essentially a museum/gift shop, with a small cafe stuck on the side (for the Butterbeer and Butterbeer ice cream, naturally). These two new VR experiences will turn your visit from a casual shopping experience into a full day extravaganza.
And having walked through both of them, I’m here to say: it’s worth the time.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are a number of ways of experiencing Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, even the London streets Harry Potter traipsed around in with his friends and enemies, from the Studio Tour in the UK, to Universal Studios around the world, to pop-ups organized by fans and even unofficial bars (there’s used to a really good one in Toronto, RIP, The Lockhart). The Universal Studios experience in particular is incredibly immersive, with meticulous set design filled with Easter eggs and buildings that make you feel like you’re walking through the sets in the movie.
But being in a theme park with thousands of other guests, waiting a queue line to watch the movie actors entertain you with footage recorded years ago, is not exactly the same as living in the world of the films. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been to the dual Wizarding World areas in Universal Studios Florida so many times, my blood is basically half pumpkin juice. Still, as magical as it is, there’s something that pulls you out of the fiction, from the Florida weather, to the massive crowds.
The two VR experiences at the Harry Potter Store New York take things to another level. And I dare say that particularly for hardcore fans of the movies, there are parts that might come close to feeling like a religious experience, so visceral is the world you’re plunged into.
The recommended first experience (and I’d tend to agree) is called “Wizards Take Flight.” Located on the basement level of the store right past the fancy jewelry and next to a truly magical stationary shop, you’re whisked past a small area devoted to info about Quidditch, the sport created for the Wizarding World, and into what is outfitted to look like a locker room for a Quidditch team. There’s even a locker filled with used Quidditch gear for some guy named “Harry.”
There, an actor excitedly informs you that you’re going to get to do some broomstick training, and that you should put relatively innocuous VR sensors on your hands. You also choose your avatar, based on your Hogwarts house (of course), and four different variations of sex and skin color, though they’re all vague enough that they should cover pretty much any gender and heritage. Probably.
After a quick introduction in how to use wands — basically, put your hand behind your back, then throw it forward, and shout a spell — you’re taken into a dark, airy room with six broomsticks arranged in a circle. This part is easily the least magical section of the whole thing, and is surprisingly under-themed for Wizarding World experiences, which tend to be as immersive as possible. Also of note: the whole room and all the rigs are completely sanitized between each group who plays through the experience, which is also not magical, but is necessary when we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.
Okay, back to the walkthrough. After sitting down on the “broomstick,” you place the VR goggles on your head. One quick calibration later, and suddenly you’re seeing the pre-selected avatars of you and your fellow Hogwarts students sitting on brooms. And that’s when you start flying.
Look, I get that this is all brain tricks, but with a bit of wind from a fan in front of you, the “broom” lifting slightly off the ground, and good sound and excellently rendered CG graphics, your practice session flying over Hogwarts and the surrounding grounds feels like the real thing. You can’t really die or crash — if you run into a building, the rig mildly shakes and then you fly off in another direction, or if you knock into the ground you get right back up again — but by leaning to the right or left, as well as pushing or pulling the broom, it truly feels like you’re flying in the air over the same environs as seen in the movie.
There’s a part of me that wishes this was the whole experience, so thrilling was it to have free rein to soar around the Hogwarts grounds and explore. You’ll occasionally see your fellow flyers (I think, unless those were random CG models), but the whole environment feels so massive that they’re more often specks in the distance.
That’s when Dobby shows up. The apologetic house elf explains that you need to go help Hagrid, so you’re off to London to chase down some Death Eaters. The rest of the experience is a blast — sometimes literally — as you fly over the cityscape at night using your wand to stupefy Voldemort’s minions. Lightning crashes, you’re pelted with extremely light rain, and yes, you can still steer as you fly, though the path Hagrid is taking on his flying motorcycle mostly dictates where you’re headed. To that end, I missed the free play of the beginning a bit once this section started, though zooming over the Thames, and later, around the Quidditch pitch is still a lot of fun.
The reason it’s smart to do “Wizards Take Flight” first, and probably important at this point to mention they’re both separate tickets at $34 each for the 7-10 minute experiences, is that “Chaos at Hogwarts” is so far beyond even the delightful broomstick simulator. The skills you learn in the former, from using your wand, to orienting yourself in the digital world, will come in handy in the shockingly realistic journey through the Wizarding World’s premiere institute of learning.
Head up to the second floor of the Harry Potter Store in the real world, check in, and you’re climbing the stairs one additional level to King’s Cross Station. The outside is filled with more Easter eggs, from a Niffler that steals things off the departures board, to how occasionally the “A”s will turn into Deathly Hallows symbols. Once you’re ready to “board,” though, you’ll be brought into a gear room that is themed around seats at a train station.
The gear itself is more intense for “Chaos at Hogwarts,” including the hand and head gear from the prior experience, as well as feet gear and a whole backpack attachment. Again, you enter a decidedly unmagical room, and this time are asked to stand on a number you’ve been assigned. After another tech check, this time a blueprint wireframe of King’s Cross Station, you see your pre-chosen avatars next to you (you choose a new Avatar each time, so if you want to be Slytherin in one and Hufflepuff in the other: live your dream). You walk forward, grip a real handle that seems to be connected to virtual luggage, and run through the wall to reach Platform 9 3/4, home of the Hogwarts Express.
So there you are, standing on the train platform, maybe you turn your head and see the train leave, maybe you see the other avatars (they’re basically like something out of Ready Player One, but with slightly more rendered LEGO person hands), but it’s not clear what you do next. That’s when Dobby asks you to come around the corner.
Reader, I was so confused. Come around the corner? Walk forward? But we’re on a small platform in a room on the third floor of a store off Madison Square park… Right? There’s no “around the corner.” I know this all sounds silly, but the way your brain tricks you into creating a new three dimensional space in the pre-existing, real space you’re actually existing in is immediately mind-warping.
Thankfully, they ease you into it, as Dobby explains he needs to get a special suitcase to Hogwarts. Fans will know that it’s Newt Scamander’s suitcase from the Fantastic Beasts movies, and it’s no big spoiler that it’s full of creatures who go wild. But first, Dobby transports you to a boat to Hogwarts, and then to Hogwarts itself.
Here’s where you grab your wands, another disorienting moment as you pick up a real wand in virtual space. Unlike “Wizards Take Flight,” which only allows you to stupefy, in “Chaos at Hogwarts” you can use nearly any spell in the Harry Potter books, at any time. Stupefy, Wingardium Leviosa… You can even use Avada Kedavra, a death curse, which causes your wand to smoke and shake in your hand. Some of those spells play into the story, or are prompts from Dobby, but little moments like when myself and my party were in a dark area of the school and figured out we could use Lumos, the lighting spell, were revelations.
The true stand-out of the experience though — and there are many — is when you enter the central area of the school, with it’s nearly infinite moving paintings, and constantly shifting staircases. As you stand on one, intellectually you know that the real platform below you is mildly shaking, and you’re not going anywhere. It doesn’t matter. It feels like a staircase is shifting from one side of the room to another. And the sheer scale of it makes it feel like you are in there in Hogwarts at that moment. For real.
I won’t spoil all the surprises in “Chaos at Hogwarts,” but I will say that thanks to the amount of walking you do, carefully crossing over wet stones, riding elevators with ghosts, and battling everything from pixies to a massive extremely realistic dragon, I would pay double the money for a tape of everyone stumbling around the room in the real world. It’s wild the tricks your brain can pull on you, with some clever sound and the right external cues.
It also helps if you’re with a group you know and trust… I ran through “Chaos at Hogwarts” once with a group of strangers, and we were all hesitant and clearly keeping our social distance. The second time I traversed Hogwarts with people I knew, and the interaction made everything so much better, as we talked to each other in real life while our avatars were in the virtual world. It even helped us unlock a different part of the experience… Suffice to say, whether you work together to stop the dragon from running amok, or don’t, things go in very different directions.
That’s one of the joys, too, particularly with “Chaos at Hogwarts.” While many sections are pre-dictated, or will eventually reach their conclusion whether you participate or not, others can be changed and tweaked simply by using the wrong spell at the wrong time. It’s the sort of experience that demands multiple visits, just to figure out all the secrets and Easter eggs in the experience.
(One particularly weird one I was told, but did not try: stick your head in the dragon at the end if you manage to subdue him, as some intrepid designer actually rendered the dragon’s insides.)
Ultimately, it’s understandable that not everyone will want to shell out $68 for two VR experiences, or want to spend an entire day of their New York vacation inside a store. However, like a good theme park ride, even with the short-ish running time, this is fulfilling experience that you’ll want to do again — and again. And for diehards, it’s the chance to live out a life-long dream, and finally go to Hogwarts, or fly on a broomstick. It really is that immersive, and that good — the pictures and video currently online don’t do justice to actually “living” it.
Just don’t blame the Harry Potter Store if next time you stream every Harry Potter movie, watching the films pales in comparison to living them.
Originally published at https://decider.com/2021/07/15/harry-potter-new-york-vr-experience-review/ on .