LEESBURG, Virginia—“Ooh!” my daughter Harper exclaimed, pointing through the misty, brilliantly lit woods. In the distance, half-hidden in the trees, was Buckbeak, the majestic hippogriff who plays a pivotal role in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. “Over there!” Harper said. “It’s that bird thing! What’s-his-name!”
We raised our kids on Harry Potter—read the books aloud, watched the movies together, waved wands at the Wizarding World at Universal Studios. But that was a long time ago. The final Harry Potter film came out in 2011. (Fantastic Beasts movies don’t count, because they are terrible.) The final book was published when Harper was still in the womb, and she and I finished reading it in 2016. Now Harper is 15, and Daniel Radcliffe is Weird Al, and J.K. Rowling is disgracing herself on Twitter, and our visit to “Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience”—an immersive attraction making its U.S. debut this fall about an hour outside Washington, D.C.—really brought home just how distant the wizarding world feels for at least one contemporary teen.
The Forbidden Forest—outposts of which have also taken over parkland in Westchester, New York; Groenenberg, Belgium; and Cheshire, England—is an ambitious brand extension created by Warner Bros. and several entertainment design companies. In Leesburg, it takes up 15 acres of the historic Morven estate, winding its way along riding paths through the autumnal forest. The goal, as is the case with many contemporary attractions, is to provide as many Instagrammable backdrops as possible. Fog machines, theatrical lights, models, and animatronic figures attempt to transform the Virginia woods into the Forbidden Forest that lies just outside Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books and movies. It is pleasant for adults, a little tame for teens, and probably just right for, say, a 9-year-old.
On a recent clear, crisp evening, Harper and I gathered with other guests in a lantern-lit clearing as the last light faded from the sky. A staff member welcomed us to the experience and tried to draw some excitement out of the kids in the crowd. “Because this is a forbidden forest,” he warned us, “we ask that you stay on the path. Keep gravel under your feet at all times.” Then he sent us down the trail into the trees.
It should be said that the forest looks spectacular. “Honestly, they should do this with all forests,” Harper said. “Put pretty lights in the national parks.” Stands of trees are gorgeously illuminated purple, red, blue, and yellow. Hidden speakers play an unending stream of Potter movie themes, reminding you that the eight films required a combined 550 minutes of orchestral composition. The vibe is semi-spooky and semi-festive, a mix of Halloween (the holiday season during which this attraction has opened) and Christmas (through which the attraction continues, all the way into January). There you are, walking down a lovely path, admiring the show, and then—whoa! There’s a familiar character from the Harry Potter world!
Or, if you’re Harper, a somewhat unfamiliar character. She did identify Hagrid. She had zero memory of Nifflers or Blast-Ended Skrewts. She remembered Mr. Weasley’s car but didn’t remember why it started flying. When I told her we should be on the lookout for werewolves, she said, “There are werewolves in Harry Potter?!” After I reminded her that (spoiler for 1999!) Professor Lupin is a werewolf, she said, “Oh yeah, I remembered there was something weird about that guy.”
And as we walked past a re-creation of the mistletoe under which Harry kissed his Book 5 girlfriend, Harper snorted at the character’s name. “We were talking about that at school the other day!” she said. “Everyone was like, ‘She wrote a Chinese character and named her Cho Chang?’ So that’s another thing about J.K. Rowling.”
While you do get to bow to Buckbeak and see Aragog the spider emerge from his lair, most of the exhibits are fairly basic: a video of a unicorn way back in the woods, a group of Pygmy Puffs on a stump. Midway through the one-mile pathway, there’s a concessions stand where you can buy pretty good snacks or pretty bad hot chocolate. (They also sell butterbeer, the grossest of all Potter-adjacent products.) At one point, you do get to cast a Patronus. We chose our wands from a box offered by a friendly staffer, and Harper said, “Oh, these look like the wands we got at Disney World or wherever!” (Somewhere in Orlando, a Universal Studios brand executive woke up in a cold sweat.) “Expecto patronum!” we yelled, after the staffer reminded us that was what we were supposed to yell, and lovely silver animals swirled and flashed on projection screens in the forest.
Once upon a time I spent every night reading to her from these magical books, her tucked under the covers, listening intently and asking questions through chapter after chapter of Harry’s adventures. These days her evenings are filled with softball practices, club meetings, coffee with her friends. In one particular stretch of the Forbidden Forest, surrounded by spider webs, she took my arm—not because she was scared, she noted, although she reserved the right to be scared if something jumped out at us. (Nothing did. It’s not that kind of place.) Then she gently let go of my arm and walked ahead, down a straightaway illuminated in vivid violet and blue.