Wizarding World of Harry Potter opening party [VIDEO, PICS]

The official grand opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter isn't until tomorrow morning, but last night a lavish VIP kick-off was held and WalletPop had a coveted golden ticket to attend. The new theme park at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure is how your family soon will be spending its vacation money.

On hand were most of the major players from the films, including Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Tom Felton (Malfoy), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Warwick Davis (Griphook, who led the "Frog Choir"), and the other Weasleys, Bonnie Wright, and James and Oliver Phelps. The most recent Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, wrapped shooting Saturday. Emma Watson wasn't able to attend, but she had visited the park earlier.

Series author J.K. Rowling made a rare appearance, too, although she didn't speak to the crowd. The elusive bazillionaire beelined past the press horde (most of the journalists were too engrossed with the movie stars to notice) and made straight for a group of small schoolchildren, who won their place on the red carpet, and stooped low in her evening dress to greet them.

The weather was oppressively muggy, and even the normally picture-perfect movie stars were sweating through their clothes. They were lucky, because, just an hour before the they arrived, the rainwater was pooling on the plastic-coated red carpet through the arch of Hogsmeade Village. By the time the party started, the rain was gone. The kids craned their necks to see which new celebrity was coming their way. Some of the kids chanted "Harry."

The frozen Butterbear was all-you-can-drink, and the banquet tables were piled high with British favorites, including salmon, English cheeses, Branston Pickle (although the sign said "pickles,"), and everyone's least favorite, head cheese. You could wash it down with Pumpkin Juice, which was a dessert unto itself, or you could get real desserts in the form of Wizard's Hats (little ice cream cones stuffed with something like a peanut butter mousse), chocolate frogs (normally $9.95 at the Honeydukes sweet shop) and personal-sized apple pies.

Everyone was given a custom-made wand with the date stamped on the hilt, and at the climactic moment, actor Daniel Radcliffe led the audience in an incantation. The tips of our wands collectively illuminated to an invisible signal, as did Hogwarts Castle in a display of pyrotechnics and projections of bits from the movies. All the while, legendary film composer John Williams, in a white sport coat, lead the Orlando Philharmonic.

After the fireworks, the ropes were dropped on Hogwarts Castle for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the epic new ride created for the park. Guests could board the four-person "benches," without lines, as many times as they wanted, although the intense movie portions of the ride meant that once was enough for most of us. (I did it more than once, of course.) It's unlike anything you've ever ridden. You don't need 3D glasses to enjoy it. The ride takes you high off the ground and there are both enveloping animated film portions (it turns out the Harry Potter appearance in the Super Bowl ad was a sneak peek at ride animation) and some really large, really in-your-face segments featuring dragons, spiders, the Whomping Willow and the Dementors.

It's so big you can only be agog and what they've accomplished, even if the effect can feel like the most expensive haunted house ever created. The queue itself, which ride creators will only call "the Castle tour," renders the inevitable wait period as painlessly as possible, with lots of pre-ride entertainment such as talking oil paintings (is that Dawn French?). When we got off, our on-ride photos, taken from an unflattering angle that makes the most slender knee look enormous, were free if we could stomach the crowd of freebie-seekers and wait for it to print.

There were a few slight hiccups: The ride broke down in the middle of the VIP showcase. I was on it when it ground to a halt and the lights came on, revealing a massive, bigger-than-you-thought warehouse of a show building, and some of the stagecraft trickery it would be unfair to reveal here.

Also, the wands handed to guests turned out to be too big for the lockers and so staffers confiscated them as we entered the ride building. Many guests didn't get theirs back, because the park ran out during re-distribution. You could plainly see that some guests, and even staffers, were taking home wands by the handful. If you bid on one on eBay, you'll know how you got it: Out of the hands of the person it really belonged to. Sometimes, collectibles are born out of sin.

You can find more photos of the event as I tweeted the event, live, from my Twitter stream: @Bastable.

Follow WalletPop's Jason Cochran on Facebook.

Update: In August, Universal mailed identical replacement wands to party guests who didn't get theirs back.
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