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People only show up on the Marauder’s Map after they set foot on the grounds of Hogwarts — or these days, into the Franklin Institute.
The Philadelphia institution is hosting the world premiere of Harry Potter: The Exhibition, which debuted in February and will run through September, when it departs to tour the globe. The show appears to have lived up to expectations as a hit, according to Franklin Institute spokesperson Stefanie Santo.
In just one month, the exhibit has welcomed people from all 50 states, D.C., three U.S. territories, and 19 countries. About 13% of tickets so far were bought by Philly locals.
Exact sales figures aren’t typically shared, Santo said, but she did note that the show is on track for the record books as “one of, if not the most successful exhibition of all time” at the museum, which was founded in 1824.
The exhibit is definitely comprehensive. I say that as someone who has a full shelf dedicated to Harry Potter books and items, and has watched the movies over and over and over again. The show leaves very little of the Wizarding World unexplored (at least as it’s portrayed on screen).
There are entire rooms designed after specific scenes, interactive stations where you can win points for your favorite Hogwarts House, original movie props and costumes, signs and plaques with behind-the-scenes facts, and immersive wall-to-wall screens. And yes, it all ends in a gift shop, where you can buy $10 butterbeer if you feel so compelled.
A lot of people probably do. “The brand recognition is insane,” said Tom Zaller, CEO of Imagine Exhibitions, the Atlanta-based company that designed the exhibit. “People love it. So I think we’re really lucky to have had the opportunity to create an experience based upon this incredible world. And I hope that we delivered — I mean, I feel that we delivered — something very special.”
Cast a spell, brew a potion, throw a Quaffle
When you visit this exhibit, you’re not just there to see (although that can be fun). You’re there to participate.
When you enter, a staff member hands you a wristband — but it’s not the typical, dig-into-your-skin, can’t-tear-them-off paper ring. It’s a soft ribbon with a sliding bead that lets you adjust it to your wrist size. More importantly, it has an RFID tag with a picture of a Golden Snitch.
That tag is key to customizing your experience. Scan it at the front touch screen to enter your name and email, choose my Hogwarts House (mine is Ravenclaw ofc), your favorite wand (I go for Hermione’s), and your patronus (a terrier).
Once set up, you can tap into interactive stations, like the one that makes your name appear on a giant Marauder’s Map, displayed on huge screens that almost form their own room.
For the most part, the interactives are short and sweet and very kid-friendly. However, they are limited to one try per person — so make sure your Sorting Hat selfie is actually good before you press the button to take it. “They’re really fun, so people want to do it again and again,” exhibit creator Zaller explained, “so those ones we had to limit.”
There can still be some long lines. During my visit, I hit a bit of a traffic jam and had to do some waiting once I reached the Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts rooms, which featured the opportunities to brew potions by selecting the correct ingredients on a screen and to fight a Boggart by casting the Riddikulus spell (tracing a shape on the touchscreen).
To make the waits more interesting, Zaller said, designers purposely made sure there are things nearby to look at, read, and take pictures of.
Some stations were particularly cool. Tracing my Riddikulus spell didn’t feel super special after seeing a bunch of other people do it, but reading a personalized prophecy in a tiny crystal ball in the Divination room felt novel.
And throwing a foam Quaffle through a Quidditch hoop was just plain fun. A family with four or five kids seemed to enjoy themselves, and I (an adult in my twenties) did too.
Don’t focus on Insta-worthiness
The entire Harry Potter book series was released pre-Instagram, and the last movie came out in 2011 (very early Insta days). But it’s 2022, and any comprehensive fan experience just has to be Instagrammable, right? (My Gen Z side is showing.)
Not so fast. This isn’t an experience you can fully relive through photographs — and this is mostly a good thing.
The lighting on signage with factoids and trivia isn’t always good enough that you can snap a pic to remember it later, so make sure to read carefully. But what really makes the exhibition so difficult to photograph is actually what makes it so cool to visit: it’s centered on the experience of just being there.
For example, the wall-to-wall video or animations paired with ambient noise from Harry Potter’s world.
The exhibit alternately places you on the Hogwarts Express, sweeps you away on a short journey at the touch of a portkey, or lets you take a peek into Dumbledore’s Pensieve. The images and sounds surround you completely. It’s pretty much impossible to capture in one shot, and challenging, but possible, to capture on video — trust me, I tried.
My advice? Put your phone away for a while and just savor the experience.
If you’re looking for some Instagram-friendly photo ops, you do have options. The cupboard under the stairs, the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets, and Dolores Umbridge’s desk are all pretty promising.
For something with more motion involved, you could pose with a friend wielding Harry’s and Voldemort’s wands in their final battle. Or you could have someone snap a video of you getting a foam Quaffle through a hoop. (I’m totally planning to go back and get someone to get some shots of me doing just that, as proof that I can indeed succeed in at least one sport.)
How it’s going (and where it’s going next)
Zaller said the feedback since the exhibition has been “tremendously, overwhelmingly glowing.”
So far, it’s drawn people across age groups — 20% of tickets purchased have been for kids between the ages of 3 and 11, according to Santo, while the rest have fallen in different age categories.
Imagine Exhibitions chose to make the Franklin Institute the exhibit’s first location because of previous success in their collaborations, as well as the large population in the region overall, Zaller said. Philly also has yet to have a dedicated Harry Potter experience, he said.
The company hasn’t yet announced its next stop, though Latin America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa were mentioned in a press release.
“The fan base is broad, and certainly wide,” Zaller said. “And I think that people all over the world love Harry Potter and the Wizarding World. And so hopefully, we can try and get to all corners of the earth.”
If you want to go
The exhibit will be open in Philadelphia through Sept. 18, so you’ve still got plenty of time to go.
During the day, tickets (which include admission to the entire Franklin Institute) cost $39 for kids ages 3-11, $43 for anyone ages 12 to 64, and $41 for people ages 65+ or military members of any age. On evenings (after 5 p.m.), they’re $30 a pop for everyone, but they don’t include access to the rest of the Franklin Institute.
There are also some bells and whistles you can add to your experience for more money. An audio tour ($8) allows you to hear behind-the-scenes fun facts on your phone as you move through the exhibition, and your first greeting after signing in is a green-screen photo-op that you can get printed out for $25 at the gift shop before you leave. A VIP ticket ($59) can get you a discount on these (and a special lanyard, if that excites you), but there’s not much availability until May, so be sure to book well in advance.
According to the exhibition’s website, it takes about an hour to an hour and a half to make it through the full thing. (I spent about an hour and 15 minutes, but I could’ve imagined spending more time if I’d been with other people, or more dedicated to reading the information plaques next to the props and costumes. Or less time, if I had taken fewer photos.)
Weekends are busiest, according to Santo, and weekdays between noon and 5 p.m. are “far less busy, and the recommended time to visit.” The exhibition is popular and selling out fast, Zaller said, so he recommended checking online for tickets regularly and considering a trip on weekdays or evenings if possible.
“We’re trying to accommodate everybody,” Zaller said. “It’s very popular. It’s a good problem to have.”