There’s much more to a theme park ride than just the ride itself. From the entrance to the queue to the preshow, every part of the experience needs to fit alongside each other, snapping into place like pieces of a puzzle. It also needs to fit alongside its surroundings, whether it’s in a space themed around a single, cohesive vision, like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, or a collection of concepts united by a common theme and design standard, as with Disney’s Tomorrowland or Fantasyland. That’s why Dragon Challenge, the intertwined roller coaster that once made up a part of the Hogsmeade portion of The Wizarding World, was a disappointment as a theme park attraction—it predated Universal’s Potter expansion, opening alongside Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 1999, and its exposed red and blue steel tracks shattered the immersive atmosphere created by the rest of the minutely detailed land. It was like an outpost of Six Flags on the edge of Hogsmeade, and no matter how fun it might have been, it wasn’t a good fit for The Wizarding World.
Dragon Challenge closed for good in 2017, making way for a new coaster that would be built from the ground up with its entire footprint planted squarely in the world of Potter. Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure takes riders on a thrilling, high-speed motorcycle ride through the Forbidden Forest, with appearances from a number of audio-animatronic creatures and familiar faces. Every inch of it looks and feels like it’s part of Potter’s world, making it a wonderful new addition to The Wizarding World. And based on the ecstatic response from the wave of journalists who were able to ride it at this week’s media preview, it just might be the best Harry Potter ride yet.
The magic starts before you ever board a motorcycle. After walking through a large ornate gate, with letters that seem to magically light up at night, guests will walk past the backside of Hagrid’s hut, with a small passel of oversized pumpkins dotting the ground. Hollowed-out gourds hang from trees above, with metal braziers illuminating the walkway at night. All paths lead towards a large, ancient castle that remains awe-inspiring even in ruins, with elaborate rock work and a bas-relief sculpture of a stern and fearsome being staring down at all passers. The castle entrance leads into a series of underground caves, some of which are dotted with graffiti from past Hogwarts students (keep an eye peeled for Easter eggs), others of which include Hagrid’s collection of dragon eggs and one of his classrooms. These momentary bits of environmental storytelling are connected by long, winding caves that aren’t much in the way of design but will at least keep you out of that hot and humid Florida air.
Eventually the queue winds its way to a preshow room. Here Arthur Weasley and Hagrid himself explain the ride’s story, which involves a field trip of sorts for Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class, with Weasley casting a spell to make a motorcycle with a sidecar not just fly, but stretch out like a train so it can carry every rider.
From here you enter the last part of the queue, a chamber with a snake-like procession of switchbacks leading up to the loading platform. Interestingly, this ride loads like one of Disney’s Omnimover rides, like the Haunted Mansion or Spaceship Earth: the vehicles move through the platform at a steady pace, and riders get on a conveyor belt before stepping onto the motorcycle. After the restraints snap in place, the cycles will rush out on the adventure ahead.
That ride vehicle is unique for a roller coaster, with the motorcycle having a higher seat that you sit on like a bike, and the sidecar having a lower vantage point and a more traditional seating style. This leads to two slightly different ride experiences; you’ll be able to see everything of interest from either seat, but the motorcycle might give a slightly better view, and whoever’s in the motorcycle seat also gets to take part in a small bit of interaction near the end of the ride. (We won’t spoil it.)
There are a number of other distinctive draws here for coaster fans, too. It has seven launches, the most in the world, and they keep your bike zipping along at a frantic pace that tops out at 50 miles per hour. It’s almost a mile long, which gives it an unusually generous run time of over three minutes, which is downright luxurious for a modern coaster. At one point the motorcycles shoot up at a 70-degree angle before plunging backwards for a while, and elsewhere there’s an already infamous 17 foot drop where the entire track that you’re on just suddenly plummets straight down. There are a few show scenes throughout, with appearances from various Harry Potter creatures and Hagrid himself, all in animatronic form. We won’t spoil any specific story beats, but rest assured that Universal isn’t off-base when they branded this as a “story-coaster”—it’s basically a roller coaster through a classic dark ride, like Disney’s Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, but longer, more thrilling, and with a more satisfying and substantial story.
Those intense thrills limit who can ride Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, unfortunately. With a 48” height minimum, a wide swath of younger Potter fans will be out of luck. And Hagrid himself wouldn’t be able to ride his own roller coaster, as this is another one of Universal’s rides that can’t handle larger or taller guests. A test car should be available outside the entrance; if you’re at all worried that you might not be able to fit, definitely use that before getting in line. It could save you a lot of time and some embarrassment.
It’s surprising that Universal can be so unforgiving with larger body sizes. Gringotts can be a tough squeeze, and Forbidden Journey is especially restrictive; with Hagrid’s now in the lineup, that makes three major, top-shelf Harry Potter attractions that will be off-limits to many riders. Meanwhile Disney rides are rarely unable to accommodate larger guests. Even Disney World’s most intense roller coaster, Expedition Everest, which is more intense than Forbidden Journey or Gringotts and comparable to Hagrid’s (although without a drop track), is more accepting when it comes to body types. As great as Hagrid’s is, many Potter fans will be disappointed when they realize they can’t ride it.
For those who can, though, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is a genuinely amazing journey. It beautifully combines the intensity of a world-class roller coaster with the kind of theming and storytelling you’ve come to expect from Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It’s a perfect fit for Hogsmeade, and a huge step up from Dragon Challenge. It might not steal all of the thunder from Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which is opening down the highway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at the end of August, but it’s no less impressive a piece of theme park design.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about theme parks, games, comedy, travel, wrestling, and anything else that gets his attention. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.