Monday, February 14, 2022

Harry Potter NYC VR Experiences - What The?, Thoughts, & Review

 First and foremost, before you read this, please check out The Trevor Project. Read their site, learn some new stuff, share their materials, and if you can, donate to them. This project helps LGBTQ youth through hard times and helping fight back against anti-trans hatred, like the stuff JKR spews, is very important. We highly suggest reading Daniel Radcliffe's response to Jo on their site.

Your life matters no matter your racial, gender, or sexual identity.


Concept art for Harry Potter NYC store.

Harry Potter NYC is a two-story shopping destination located south of the Flat Iron in Flat Iron District.  The store features all sorts of merchandise you'd expect if you have visited the Universal parks in the past 20 years plus higher-priced items like Le Creuset cookware, jewelry, and Vera Bradley bags. This is New York, after all. Potter fans will also appreciate the exclusive MACUSA merch (hahah sorry I couldn't type that without laughing) and HP NYC branded items (which are very very cool). I personally bought some exclusive candles for myself and my sister. In addition to the merchandise is a small cafe selling Butterbeer at $10 a pop, Butterbeer soft serve, and other pastries.

The real unique factor are two virtual reality (VR) experiences offered at the store. One, Wizards Take Flight, is a simulated broom ride around Hogwarts and through London. The second, Chaos at Hogwarts, takes you from Platform 9 3/4 into Hogwarts as you help Doby deliver a suitcase to Dumbledore. Both experiences are booked online prior to visit and cost $34 plus tax per person.

VR equipment examples
Hand sensor on left, bodypack with VR helmet on the right

The VR is designed by Dreamscape, a Los Angeles-based company with physical locations around the world, with special effects done by Technifex out of Santa Clara. Each experience features a VR helmet, hand tracker beacons, and a wand- Flight also features a broom you ride on while Chaos includes a computer backpack and feet tracking beacons. These beacons track your movements through the attraction - for Flight it tracks your hands, head, and wand while Chaos is full-body tracking through the experience. If you are familiar with at-home VR experiences you know what to expect from this.

The check-in for the experiences is on the first floor near the Hogwarts House merchandise in the main room, next to a giant Elder Wand. Flights take place on the bottom floor, Chaos entrance is on the main floor then heads up to the second floor for the experience.

Each experience is run by several employees, with one being the experience host. They layout any story beats, offer guidance, help with equipment, and will assist with any issues you are having. Before each experience guests will also pick an in-game avatar and Hogwarts house, this will change your face and scarf appearance to others. We are also instructed on how to cast spells, a simple karate chop motion while holding a wand will suffice to cast (take that Flitwick).

Wizards Take Flight

My first of the two VR experiences was Wizards Take Flight, a simulated broom flight. The holding area is themed to a broom dispatch center, but the gear up is themed to a quidditch locker room. Upon strapping on your hand trackers the experience guide will inform you of a mass break out of Death Eaters at Azkaban (again). But not to worry, the best wizards are on the case and there is nothing to worry about.

We the next proceed into a large room with six "broom" simulators: think a bicycle seat with footrests and where the front wheel and handlebars are is a broom handle. To the right is a small stand holding a wand vertically, on the back of the broom simulator is your VR helmet. The broom handle articulates at a point located between the knees - pulling up on the handle raises your in-game character while moving to the left or right steers them in that direction. Somewhat understandably, but still disappointing, you cannot control the speed of your broom, so no crazy swooping dive maneuvers around the Quiddich pitch.

Once you put on your helmet you will find yourself in a dark field house alone. Of course, everyone is there too, setting up, and once everyone is engaged the experience guide will "remove our invisibility cloaks" (aka activate the in-game avatars) and we soon see the whole group on our brooms. The field house door creeks open and soon we are out in the broom training yard where we soon take off. During this time we are allowed to fly around the Hogwarts grounds and get accustomed to our brooms. After a few minutes of flying Dobby apparates onto our brooms (in easily the most startling aspect of either experience) and takes us to Knockturn Alley for a special mission.

In Knockturn we find the familiar motorbike, Dobby, and our wands floating in front of us. The wands we saw as we mounted the brooms are now floating in front of us, either held using a magnet and a guidewire or employee. It's the simple things, ya know. Soon Hagrid comes out and informs us that we have a special delivery to make but he needs backup as the death eaters have escaped Azkaban. 

Soon we are off, with Hagrid on the motorbike leading the way, leaving Diagon Alley and into London. We zoom along the River Thames past the Palace of Westminster and London Eye (which suggests Diagon Alley is located in the Westminster section of London, FYI). As we make our way Death Eaters start attacking and we must fend them off before we fly into a storm cloud that will dispel them all. Soon we are back at Hogwarts, slightly damper from the wind and rain effects, as we make a victory lap around the school and back into the field house.

Wizards Take Flight fulfills the dream of flying on a broom but falls a little short of expectations. Due to game design we don't really have control over our speed or pitch, going up and down is more like an elevator rather than a rollercoaster. If you have been on Forbidden Journey the sensation of flying through the Quidditch pitch and caves is more intense than this experience, for better or for worse. If you find yourself getting motion sick I'd suggest skipping this attraction and doing Chaos at Hogwarts instead.

Chaos at Hogwarts

I saved the best for last as Chaos at Hogwarts is the most impressive - a full walk-through of Platform 9 3/4 and Hogwarts that combines multiple practical and virtual effects to put you into the fictitious school. I will not bury the lead: Chaos at Hogwarts is worth the trip to visit and is a true E-Ticket experience. It is mind-blowing, quite magical, and scratches the "I wish I could visit Hogwarts" itch as if I was in Islands of Adventure in 2010. The experience combines several practical and virtual effects to completely sell the illusion you are moving your way secretly through Hogwarts.

Your experience starts as you walk up the stairs towards a small Kings Cross station waiting room. Up here is a set of restrooms (use it) and your main experience rooms. When your group is called you'll suit up in a mock Hogwarts Express-themed room: feet and hand trackers, a backpack with all the computer equipment, and your VR helmet attached to the backpack. 

Next, you enter a large room with a massive floor with guardrails around it, about 20 feet x 20 feet around it, with numerous blacked-out effects around the platforms. Your guides tell you to put on your visor and you will see a wireframe of Kings Cross to focus and set up your VR helmet. Soon you're transferred to Kings Cross, between platforms 9 and 10, with a cart in front of you. In a truly magical moment, you grab the cart, push it through the portal, and onto Platform 9 3/4. It is one of those "wow I just did that" moments that can't be done in other methods. 

Once through you'll find the Hogwarts Express.... leaving the station. What the? Well Dobby, busy as ever, tells us we've missed the train, but do not worry! He's going to apparate us to Hogwarts with some VIL (very important luggage) for Dumbledore. After a quick stop on the boat on the Black Lake, Dobby sends us to a room where we pick up our wands for the experience. We are soon set on our way through Hogwarts, going the rotating staircases to the common rooms of Gryffindor and Slytherin. On your trip, we will cast some simple spells to stun Pixies, levitate objects, and repair a broken jar. The grand finally of the experience involves us stuck with a large creature in a famous room of the school. After we complete our task we are sent to the fireplace to use flu powder to travel to the entrance of Hogwarts but instead accidentally get sent back to Kings Cross.

Chaos at Hogwarts combines many tricks, illusions, and technology to create one of the best VR experiences I've ever experienced. At no point do you feel you're trapped in a 12 x 12 space or walking linearly thanks to clever virtual set design and some haptic feedback in the floor. The highlight of the experience is the Platform 9 3/4 sequence and anytime we walk through the Hogwarts Grand Staircase, the latter offers the most open and transportive aspect of the experience.

Get to New York City as quickly as possible to do this experience. 

Closing Thoughts

Oh yeah got to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, too!

New York City has become a little haven for Potter fans between the new store, VR experiences, and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Lite. A full day of Potter experiences can be had for, depending on ticket prices, around $150-250 per person (for comparison, a one-day two-park ticket to UOR is $164). And frankly, it was a refreshing change of pace compared to a theme park vacation. 

The Potter VR stuff is solid, with Chaos at Hogwarts really transcending to something special. While I know Universal has been working on their own Potter VR attraction, I would like to see them attempt to license at least Chaos at Hogwarts for either a CityWalk or in-park experience. What helps is VR's potential in making a limited space into an infinite one. A space the size of a Mcdonald's can hold a check-in area, pre-shows, VR rooms, and various needed facilities to run the operation. Compare this to VR's use in theme parks so far: limiting expansive spaces (dark rides or rollercoasters) into limited spaces. Unique, specialized installations like this have lots of potential.

Another thing is the Potter NYC store and the new CityWalk Universal Studios Store Potter section share some similar visual motifs. While I understand not all of the same things can be carried over I do hope some of the more fantastical elements of the Potter NYC store (like animated digital displays) are incorporated into the Studios Store.

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