It’s hard to imagine wandering through the cavernous halls of Hogwarts in the tiny, cramped block where the Harry Potter New York store resides. There is a line around the block to get into the recently opened Wizarding World flagship store, and even more people inside, almost shoulder-to-shoulder as they browse the chocolate-covered frogs or pick out custom-made wands. But there it is, in the corner: a doorway to another world. Or, if we’re sticking by Harry Potter metaphors, a red brick wall through which we’ll run headfirst.
I got the chance to experience the two new virtual reality experiences that are debuting at Harry Potter New York today. The two “sensory adventures,” made in partnership with Dreamscape and Wevr, offer two very different ways to step into the Wizarding World, both of which will probably make you look very silly on the outside. But it’s worth losing a couple of cool points to get the chance to weave through the skies of London in “Wizards Take Flight,” and get up-close and personal with a dragon (and I mean really up close, smells and all) in “Chaos at Hogwarts.”
Here is what it’s like to go through the new Harry Potter virtual experiences.
Dodging Death Eaters in “Wizards Take Flight”
The first VR experience I did was “Wizards in Flight,” which takes place entirely on a broom. After snapping on some hand sensors and our VR headsets in the locker room (which was charmingly decked out like a Quidditch locker room, complete with inspirational posters and name tags for Fred, George, and Cedric) and choosing our VR avatars, we were led into a dark room with six “broom” mounts positioned around in a circle. Our guide cheerfully asked us our houses and teased us about our flying experience before instructing us to mount the brooms and prepare for a journey we would never forget.
And it was. The broom controls were pretty intuitive (up takes you up, lean to the right or left to turn), but we were asked to do more than just fly around the scenic landscape of Hogwarts. A few minutes in, Dobby suddenly appears on the tip of your broom handle in a jump scare straight out of a horror movie (reader, I screamed) to inform you of your noble mission: you and your classmates have been tasked with escorting Hagrid through the torrential skies of London as he transports a special “package” on his motorbike. Now, we aren’t told what this package is or even what time period this “story” takes place, but considering what we know of the world of Harry Potter, we can probably guess that it’s a certain Boy Who Lived.
Though in reality, he probably wouldn’t have lived much longer, considering how bad I was at deflecting the Death Eaters that swarmed the London skies around us. Hagrid instructed us to keep on his tail as we wove through London, rain and wind besieging us — complete with actual water and wind machines hitting our faces — as we fought off dozens of attacking Death Eaters. We were told to take out our wands (handily provided with the broom mount) and cast either Stupefy or Protego, the different spells casting different colored sparks. And your aim mattered too — sadly, mine was terrible, and I’m pretty sure I accidentally hit Hagrid a couple of times.
But we made it back the Hogwarts grounds, narrowly missing the Whomping Willow and, for some reason, the flying Ford Anglia, as we came in for a landing. Hagrid and Dobby thanked us for a job well done, and we dismount from our brooms, a little windswept and little wetter and a little more exhilarated.
Dancing With Dragons in “Chaos at Hogwarts”
The dragon smelled. That was my first takeaway from “Chaos at Hogwarts” because I was so busy being overwhelmed by this second VR adventure, which aptly lived up to its name. This one, unlike “Wizards Take Flight,” actually had us wandering through the Hogwarts halls and hidden chambers, though I imagined it looked more like us shuffling back and forth across a platform to the staff.
For “Chaos at Hogwarts,” we were ushered to the second floor and a much bigger space than “Wizards Take Flight.” The entrance was an immaculate reproduction of a King’s Cross ticket booth, with a large imposing clock behind us, and schedules of coming trains. But we wouldn’t be boarding those trains: our guide this time took us to a familiar red brick wall after we were given foot and hand sensors, a headset, and a (rather heavy) backpack to track our movements. Once given our gear, we were brought into an industrial-looking room with a huge platform at the center that had handrails all around it — handrails that would play a key part in the adventure we were about to embark on.
“Chaos at Hogwarts” opens with your group running through the brick wall at King’s Cross (you even get a trunk to push through the wall), before you see the train just starting to pull out of the station. You missed it! But suddenly, that old rascal Dobby apparates on top of luggage cart and beckons you over, and you begin your first shuffle toward one of the handrails, which you then grab. Dobby can get you to Hogwarts, but only if you help him deliver a suitcase to Dumbledore. Suddenly, Dobby apparates your group to a boat that is approaching Hogwarts (there’s that water spray at it again), and you make your way into the castle. But naturally, things go awry.
“Chaos at Hogwarts” is much more than a glorified tour of Hogwarts, and much more than a VR experience where you shuffle back and forth in a room. It’s got a much thinner storyline than “Wizards Take Flight,” but it’s got much more stuff happening. Dobby secrets you away through hidden underground passages, which I’m pretty sure took us adjacent to the Chamber of Secrets! You have to cast quell on a room full of pixies! Dobby fights a Niffler for the suitcase! A freaking dragon crashes through the Hogwarts Great Hall and emits a foul sulfuric smell while threatening to attack you!
There was a lot more exploration and a lot more improvisation with “Chaos at Hogwarts,” which really rewards longtime Harry Potter fans who have an encyclopedic knowledge of the world — for example, in the darkened passages, I cast “Lumos” without being given instruction to do so, or “immobulus” with the pixies, and it worked both times. You can apparently even use dark magic, though I didn’t try it myself. While I preferred the feeling of flight in “Wizards Take Flight,” “Chaos at Hogwarts” is one VR experience that could actually be different every time you go through it, which captures that open-world awe that any Harry Potter fan craves.
Despite the small spaces that they’re both held in, the VR adventures are probably the closest that Harry Potter fans would get to riding a Wizarding World theme park ride without buying a ticket to a Universal Studios park. They’re incredibly immersive, with even a little story thrown in to keep you engaged, and some hurdles to remind you that you are still bad at video games. But you could still make a decent wizard.
Tickets are available now for “Chaos at Hogwarts” and “Wizards Take Flight” at the Harry Potter New York store.
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