Part of the allure of Harry Potter and the entire wizarding world franchise is the fantasy that any one of us could find our chimney flue flooded with letters from Hogwarts, inviting us to trade our normal muggle lives for the magical school of witchcraft and wizardry. It's why so many fans throw their money at movie-accurate wizard robes, prop wands, and all the bits and bobs that conjure the illusion of being a wizard for a day. The newly opened "official" Harry Potter store in New York City's Flatiron district offers all that as the largest collection of Potter-themed products under one roof, but the retail destination takes that illusion further with two new virtual reality experiences offered only at this Manhattan location.
Making your way past the Fawkes phoenix model suspended overhead, the wand selection station, and the griffin statue that typically guards Dumbledore's office (but has been repurposed for the store's staircase), you find yourself at the entrance to Chaos at Hogwarts, where up to six people can suit up in VR gear and embark on a mission inside Hogwarts Castle. On the bottom floor, close by the basilisk winding its way around the section dedicated to the Dark Arts, is the second experience, Wizards Take Flight, which replicates the feeling of soaring over Hogwarts' grounds and the city of London on a broomstick.
In both adventures, participants become witches and wizards through computer magic. You first pick one of the pre-selected character avatars to embody. Then, by entering these virtual spaces with your VR headset, you transform into that character — including colors suitable for your Hogwarts house. You can interact with and speak with your fellow magic users as you face off against Death Eaters or round up pesky pixies with charms.
Chaos at Hogwarts
Courtesy of Warner Bros. 'Chaos at Hogwarts' VR experience
The most remarkable of the two experiences is Chaos at Hogwarts. Sure, flying is fun. No one is arguing otherwise. But this one completely entrances, despite a few minor glitches.
The story begins with a push through to Platform 9 3/4 to chase down the Hogwarts Express, which you inevitably miss. But that's okay, because Dobby apparates in and whisks you to Hogwarts, where you traverse the castle, wrangle pixies in the Gryffindor common room, levitate objects to try catching a runaway niffler, and face a gargantuan dragon. And there happens to be more than one outcome to the end of the story depending on how good your group is at casting spells.
The experience, however, starts outside the VR space in a replica of King's Cross Station as participants wait for their timed slot, complete with a train-style departure schedule. Guests are then welcomed into a holding room where they suit up. Trackers are strapped to their hands and feet to mimic their movements in the virtual plane, followed by a backpack and headset. The actual space for the experience looks like a square pen, but you easily forget your whereabouts once the headset is on and the illusion is cast.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. VR gear for the 'Chaos at Hogwarts' experience
Courtesy of Warner Bros. VR gear for 'Chaos at Hogwarts' experience
Through the goggles, you're seeing in real time the other participants in your group as the Harry Potter avatars picked ahead of the experience. And together you move about the stage, which will reacts with added effects timed to the experience. Those range from water spray when you splash down to the underground depths of the castle, and rumbling vibrations as you step onto one of Hogwarts' many movable staircases.
To complete the transformation from muggle to wizard, you are handed physical wands. They react in the virtual space with a specific arm gesture as you cast spells to aid on your journey. The creative teams at Wevr, Keylight, and Dreamscape Immersive, who are responsible for the experience, still seem to be working out some minor kinks. Holding a wand doesn't fully translate well into the VR realm, especially if you look at your hands through the headset. Fortunately, it's an experience with so many dazzling elements you won't be looking to your hands often.
Wizards Take Flight
Courtesy of Warner Bros. The 'Harry Potter' VR experience 'Wizards Take Flight.'
With Wizards Take Flight, there's a far less chance of accidentally bumping into anything. The only gear needed for this experience are the headset and the trackers strapped to your hands. And, of course, a broomstick.
It starts off easy enough as you get used to, you know, flying. Each guest gets their own mount, which you command by placing your hands on the broom handle. Pulling up lifts you higher into the air. You wanna go right? Lean to the right. You wanna go left? Lean to the left. Easy enough. But then Dobby pops in again on the tip of your broom to give you your next mission.
Hagrid needs help delivering a special package, and it's up to you and your fellow witches and wizards to defend him against Death Eaters that will appear to hinder his path through London. It's very much like Harry and the Order of the Phoenix's journey in Deathly Hallows. At this point, you get a wand and the added challenge of battling with the "stupefy" stunning spell while also maneuvering your broom. (This writer ran into many buildings on a first pass.)
Like Chaos at Hogwarts, the physical room where this is all happening is casting its own spells on the players. Water sprinkles down to complement the rainy London air in virtual reality. As the aerial fight carries higher into the thick clouds, the wind effects ramp up.
Both VR experiences are not included as part of the general store offerings. To enter the store, visitors must scan a QR code at the door with their smartphones in order to enter their group's information in a virtual queue, which is currently being used to manage capacity in the time of COVID-19. You will then be notified when it's time for you to enter the store.
Chaos at Hogwarts and Wizards Take Flight each cost $34 per guest. Booking your reservations online in advance is the better way to go, since you won't have to wait in the queue to enter the store. The price tag is an easy way to balloon the amount customers spend in the store. (Save some coins for the butterbeer bar.) Yet there's something to be said for the fact that attendees on the East Coast, a train's ride away from the Big Apple, don't have to fly to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Fla. or Universal Studios in California to have a VR ride like this. Instead, they can go to the spot where one Newt Scamander chased his Fantastic Beasts to have their own magical adventure.