Since, everyone who has been fortunate enough to enter the capacity-limited Harry Potter store in NYC has been treated to a visually stunning experience. But starting July 15, two new sections of the store will open to explore on-site, but in virtual reality -- Harry Potter: Chaos at Hogwarts and Harry Potter: Wizards Take Flight. I was invited to take an early look at these experiences and learned about what it takes to build these experiences for such a broad audience.
Adding VR to the HP NYC Store
While the middle floor of the massive store is all about shopping, tucked away on the top and bottom floors are a pair of rooms dedicated to VR. If you take the stairs up, you find yourself at Chaos at Hogwarts. If you look downstairs, you'll see the hallway leading to Wizards Take Flight. Each experience is designed to support up to six people at a time, though during this early rollout the games will be limited to four people at once.
Warner Bros. has partnered with the popular VR creators at WeVR and Dreamscape, the team behind the Dreamworks Dragons Flight Academy and Curse of the Lost Pearl among other popular attractions, to build these games. You start each by walking into a staging room, where you gear up with trackers on your limbs and ato power the headset. For these games, Dreamscape is using HP Reverb G2 headsets with HP Z VR PC backpacks. Add all of that tech together, and each person is wearing about $4,000 in hardware before you count the combat wand and seated broom for flying.
The Harry Potter NYC staff are allowing anyone over the age of 10 and above 48 inches (~1.2m) tall to participate in the 10-15 minute VR games, each of which takes about ten additional minutes of set up to prepare for. When you book an appointment for one of these games, you're allowed to bypass the typically long line to enter the store and shop at your leisure after. If you're under 13, you must be accompanied by an adult with their own ticket. According to the website, both games are wheelchair accessible but only one wheelchair can be accommodated per trip through the game.
Mechanically there's a ton going on here, but the staff are more than ready to handle any questions or help if anything goes wrong during set up or in the game. If you've ever experienced a Dreamscape or Void VR installation, this process will all feel very familiar.
Hands on with Harry Potter: Chaos at Hogwarts
As soon as your ticket to enter is accepted, you are led up a flight of stairs (or invited to use the Floo Network-style elevator if you need it) and find yourself in a model King's Cross Station. The iconic clock, lighting and ticker board with upcoming trains are immediately familiar, with a few magical references scattered about. This selfie area eventually leads down a hallway to a staging platform where you set up for the game.
Chaos at Hogwarts requires a tracker on each foot, a tracker on each hand, the VR backpack and headset, and once you're in the room you are handed a wand. Like everything else inside the actual Dreamscape VR room, I was not allowed to take photos of the wand. Before you put the headset on, it's clear this dark room full of small blue lights is set up to deliver a ton of different sensory simulations to enhance what you see.
As the name and the King's Cross entrance suggests, the game starts with you running through Platform 9 3/4 with your cart, where you find Dobby the house elf on the other side in need of assistance. He leads you directly to Hogwarts to help him capture a handful of creatures he accidentally let out of a suitcase that looks a whole lot like Newt Scamander's suitcase from the Fantastic Beasts films. From Cornish Pixies and a troublesome Niffler, to a big grumpy dragon, your purpose in this game is to wander through Hogwarts and sling spells to help Dobby put these critters back.
As you wander Hogwarts, there's a couple of fantastic real-world things you can feel to make it all seem more real. Wind blows when you're in secret hallways, the ground shakes as the staircases move you from place to place, and if you find yourself near water there's a very real chance you will feel the spray hit you a little. It's a lot of small, subtle things that all come together to really pull you in to the game.
Unlike the interactive wand experiences at the Wizarding World theme park or even the Harry Potter universal TV remote wand, you cast spells by reaching the wand over your shoulder and then slamming your arm forward while shouting the spell you want to cast. Because the Dreamscape hand trackers sit on your hand and are not something you hold, it never fully feels like you're actually holding the wand in your hand if you look down. Additionally, my experience was masked because COVID-19 exists even in the Wizarding World, so my muffled speech had a mild but noticeable impact on my ability to cast the proper spell each time.
While the three other wizards in my group were quite capable in their own right, the ending we reached together was not one of resounding victory. In fact, there are multiple endings to this game depending on how your team performs. My only helping hint here is to work together as much as possible and communicate in order to be successful the first time.
Hands on with Harry Potter: Wizards Take Flight
Once your ticket has been accepted, you are ushered from the Harry Potter store and into the Quidditch locker room to get set up. You take your hand trackers out of the locker and put your personal belongings in their place before being ushered into the VR space. As soon as you pass through the door, you're greeted with six brooms for you to sit on with VR headset beside them. Each broom has a comfortable saddle for you to sit in, and the broomstick can be pulled up or pushed down to help with the leaning-based navigation. Once you put the headset on, it's easy to see there's a wand tucked away under the broom for you to use later.
The VR game starts with you being invited to fly around the Hogwarts grounds to get your bearings and learn how to fly your broom, and this little intro is honestly worth the whole trip. You can explore the entire grounds, from the Quidditch pitch to the Astronomy tower, and even risk getting thumped by the Womping Willow. It doesn't take long for leaning left and right while pulling up or pushing down on the broom handle to feel quite natural, which is great because a minute or two into the experience Dobby the house else hijacks your ride.
You are immediately transported to Knockturn Alley, where Dobby meets up with Hagrid to check on this secret project. Hagrid has picked up something special and needs to deliver it to Hogwarts, but there are scores of Death Eaters coming up fast to stop him. You fly by his side, wand at the ready, and quickly defend him with a combination of Stupefy and Protego spells. Wave after wave of baddies fly your way, and you need to keep flinging spells through actual, real wind and rain and enemy fire until you finally make it to your destination. Before the game comes to an end Hagrid makes it clear he needs to run and help Dobby with a different issue, which you'll fully understand if you have already played Chaos at Hogwarts.
As much fun as the beginning of this game is with all of the freedom of movement, much of the actual story puts your broom flying on rails. This lack of freedom is not only restrictive, it is likely to cause mild motion sickness in sensitive players because you are not the one in control. And like the other Harry Potter VR game, playing masked can cause problems with accurate spellcasting.
Adding whimsy to retail
Every part of the Harry Potter NYC store is a ton of fun, but these two VR games really make the trip worthwhile. The store charges $34 per person to book one of these games, and you can only book one at a time. Groups of four can book together, and booking an appointment means you can bypass the line, but you're unlikely to experience both VR games in a single day for the time being. Which is odd, since the two games directly reference one another in fun ways and really encourages hardcore fans to jump from one to the other.
If I had to choose, I would almost certainly go with Chaos at Hogwarts. While riding a broom is super cool, the overall experience in Wizards Take Flight needs some consistency work. On the other hand, if you have someone smaller and younger joining you in this VR experience, the backpack in Chaos at Hogwarts may prove to be more challenging than sitting on the broom.
Either way you go, the level of detail is incredible and the fun you will have is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon.