How Hagrid got his own roller coaster and we got menaced by a blast-ended skrewt

We were wondering why Hagrid got his own roller coaster at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Not that we begrudge him a thrill ride.

Rubeus Hagrid is a half-giant with a giant-sized heart who has a great love for magical creatures; a one-time Hogwarts student who, by his own admission, is not very good at magic; a wizard who never seems to foresee how things could go awry.

So sure, give him a roller coaster. What could possibly go wrong?

Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure opened June 13. What Universal calls a family-friendly story coaster has been a big hit, with wait times in the last week generally running two to four hours. The coaster is 5,053 feet, just under a mile long, and the longest coaster in Florida. It runs nearly 3 ½ minutes, which is long for a thrill ride, has seven launches and a top speed of 50 mph.

And something has gone awry. For reasons that Universal won’t reveal but certainly weren’t planned, the coaster can’t run during the entire period that the park is open each day. The ride requires more daily “routine maintenance” than other attractions and so closes before the park does. If necessary, Universal says, “We may begin limiting access to the queue by mid-afternoon so that we can make sure everyone currently in line has the chance to ride before we close for the day.”

No word on how long that situation will last.

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Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure runs through the ruins and across Black Lake at the edge of the Forbidden Forest at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Marjie Lambert

Although it uses the shell of the queue structure that was built for the Dueling Dragons (later Dragon Challenge) coasters, the ride itself is totally new and has little in common with the old one, except that both are themed to the world of Harry Potter.

The plan, according to Elaine Hinds, executive show producer with Universal Creative, was to find a replacement for the Dragon Challenge roller coasters, the former Dueling Dragons coasters that had opened with the park in 1999, then were rethemed to fit into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter when the new world opened in 2010.

“There comes a point when you have to evaluate each ride attraction,” Hinds said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “As much as Dragons was a fan favorite, we saw an opportunity to expand upon the Wizarding World.”

Nearly three years ago, Universal’s creative team began brainstorming, looking for a character on which to base the ride’s story. “We began looking through the literature and all the brilliant characters,” Hinds said. “You start to throw around all these ideas.”

Ultimately, the team realized that “we all had a favorite and that was Hagrid,” she said. “In every film he’s that go-to guy, warm and fuzzy.”

Hogwarts gamekeeper and Care of Magical Creatures professor Rubeus Hagrid appears as an animated figure in the queue for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Universal Orlando

And so a story line developed: Behind his hut on the edge of the Forbidden Forest, Hagrid had found the stone ruins of sprawling buildings that predated Hogwarts, and he was repurposing them as a nursery for his magical creatures.

Hagrid would hold a class in the Care of Magical Creatures in the ruins, and the coaster would transport “students” there. For the ride vehicle, the team chose a motorbike with sidecar with which Hagrid had rescued Harry Potter.

Universal had to start work on the forest right away. Two years ago, the company began buying trees, 1,200 of them, entire tree farms of Deodar cedar, slash pine and Eastern red cedar. While the creative team did the design work, while the old Dragon Challenge coasters were disassembled and hauled away, while ground was cleared and reshaped and construction of the new coaster began, the trees had time to mature. Some were 40 feet tall by the time the ride opened.

Choosing Hagrid as the central character in the story also provided a wealth of opportunities to showcase some of the wizarding world’s magical creatures. The team chose several creatures that already been developed for the Harry Potter films: Cornish pixies, tiny, bright blue flying creatures that like to play jokes on humans; centaurs — half man, half horse with a skill for divination; and Fluffy, the giant three-headed dog that looks fearsome but is easily put to sleep by music.

They also chose the blast-ended skrewt, which Hagrid created by cross-breeding two species and which blasts out sparks and fire from one end. But they didn’t know what it looked like. The screwt had made an appearance during the Triwizard Tournament in the book, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” but not on the screen.

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Universal Creative brought to life the blast-ended skrewt for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Universal Orlando

“We got the first opportunity to bring to life the blast-ended skrewt,” Hinds said. Universal ran its ideas past Warner Bros., which made the films, and J.K. Rowling, author of the books, and got their approval. Their creation looks like a fat shrimp with a upright arcing scorpion’s tail.

“And from there,” she said, “the creative process just took off.”

The result of that creative process is a fast, smooth roller coaster that flies through the Forbidden Forest, past scenes with Hagrid’s magical creatures. It’s old-fashioned, said Hinds, in the sense that it has show scenes and animatronic characters and creatures, but no 3-D screens.

First you must meet Hagrid.

You’ll walk up a long, winding path that looks across to the steep roof of Hogwarts, past the back of Hagrid’s hut (which was there when Wizarding World opened in 2010, facing Flight of the Hippogriff) to the entrance of the ruins.

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The line for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure runs past the back of Hagrid’s hut. The front faces the Flight of the Hippogriff junior coaster. Marjie Lambert

Inside is a twisting, dimly lit trail that leads to a room where Hagrid appears and explains what’s going to happen in the class. Arthur Weasley, Ron’s dad, is also there, trying to modify a motorbike then clone it for guests to ride to the class — if some escaped Cornish pixies will quit messing with him. Technologically, it’s similar to the scene where Professor Dumbledore greets riders on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

Hagrid, who stands 7 ½ feet tall, appears to tower over a much smaller Arthur Weasley although in real life, the actors who played the two men are both 6-foot-1. Some very advanced technology was needed to play that trick, Hinds said.

Guests also pass through the room where Hagrid raised the skrewts until they grew too big for it, as well as what is apparently his nursery for dragon eggs, judging by all the giant eggs lying around (no one’s admitting it’s a dragon nursery because breeding dragons is highly illegal in the world of wizards). Then they reach the line of motorbikes, seven per train, which growl and rev their engines as if they can barely restrain themselves from taking off.

Riders choose between the motorbike and the sidecar, which sits about a foot and a half lower. I’m told the experiences are different, but since I sat in the motorbike both times I rode, I can only confirm that riding in the front car is more thrilling than riding in the back. Hinds said she has watched families get onto the ride, and younger kids often choose the sidecar, even though it sits lower. “I want to sit where Harry Potter sat,” she heard them say, remembering him riding alongside Hagrid.

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Stone carving at the entrance to the ruins where Hagrid’s roller coaster -- his Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure -- runs. Marjie Lambert

The train whizzes back and forth, sometimes at steeply banked angles, through seven acres of forest and over Black Lake. Although there are many roller coasters in Florida that go faster and higher, Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure is a thrilling ride. It was designed to be family friendly (minimum height to ride is four feet) and never turns upside down, but its seven launches make it feel faster than 50 mph. There’s a 17-foot free fall that might make your heart stop the first time or two, and a 65-foot almost-vertical track spur that the motorbikes roar up, then fall backwards.

“You feel like you’re flying between the trees,” Hinds said.

The ride is swift and smooth and so much fun that the first time through, shrieking at the turns and dips, I forgot to watch the scenery. It wasn’t until my second ride that I noticed the centaur or the unicorns right next to the track, or Hagrid standing with a full-grown blast-ended skrewt, sparks starting to shoot out of its hind end toward me.

Frantically I tried to remember the Impediment Curse, which Harry used to defeat a skrewt in the Triwizard Tournament. But just then the coaster launched forward and we were out of there, the motorbike screaming along the steel rails.

Marjie Lambert is the Miami Herald’s local government editor. She has spent most of her 40+ years in the newspaper business as a reporter and editor covering government and related news. She was the Herald’s travel editor from 2009 to 2016 and has also written eight cookbooks. She loves roller coasters.