Experience review: Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience, The Briars, Mornington Peninsula

Fancy a trip to a Potter-themed forest experience? Butter beer included...
Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience. Image is an old Ford Anglia with its lights on crashed in a forest and spotlit from above.

Following a hiccup in the planning, when the original site saw locals concerned about the event’s impact on the fauna and flora, this immersive outdoor experience has now opened in a slightly different location on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. With an understandable eye on profits, the organisers first guide visitors to a Potter-esque “village”, where they can buy snacks and beverages (“butter beer”, apparently comprising milk and maple syrup, tastes exactly as you’d expect from those ingredients, but there are alternative, more enticing options too). And ending as they begin, visitors won’t get out of Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience without being led through the gift shop either.

The actual experience involves a leisurely stroll through a rather delightful wooded area along a trail surrounded by scores (hundreds?) of speakers, and hundreds (thousands?) of LED lights, all orchestrated to evoke the Forbidden Forest that, in the Harry Potter books, borders the grounds of Hogwarts School and is generally off-limits to pupils.

As visitors follow the trail, they witness light shows, hear parts of the score and snippets of dialogue from the movie series and, every so often, come across an installation or set piece that focuses on a particular character or sequence from the stories. Some of these utilise video projection or animatronic figures, while others are simply intricate and well-designed dioramas.

Where the whole thing works best is in the quality of the sound and light installations, which are first rate. The more interactive elements are a little more variable. Waiting in turn to bow to a hippogriff is enjoyable enough, but when all it does is bow back, you can’t help but feel a little more inventiveness and movement on the part of it and the other 3D figures would really take things to the next level.

As it is, perhaps the most successful and magical sections involve projections, as visitors see ghostly figures of unicorns weaving between the trees, and then get an opportunity to mount a plinth and wave a wand to conjure their own patronus. The selection of about half a dozen wands means that it’s not the same moving animal created every time – leading to a slightly more personalised experience with an element of surprise. Although aficionados will be aware there are far, far fewer than the 142 listed on MuggleNet.

Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience. Image: Supplied. Image is a hippogriff surrounded by pumpkins in a forest.
Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience. Image: Supplied.

Saving the best/most alarming until last, near the very end of the trail is the section devoted to Aragog (and arachnophobes are forewarned on entry that ‘there will be spiders…’). Apart from the oversized spider sire, the sheer number of smaller, eight-legged beasties dangling from branches every which way but loose is an impressive sight to behold.

On the night we attended, it was clear that, despite current widespread levels of antipathy for the books’ author (and you won’t see her name mentioned anywhere in the advertising for this event), there is still a huge audience for anything in the Potter-verse. The Forbidden Forest was full of cloaked and wand-waving muggles of all ages clearly having a grand old time.

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But be warned, it’s very much orchestrated with photo opportunities in mind, so there’s generally a queue at each stopping point as visitors jostle to get the best angle. The whole thing can take about an hour, depending on your penchant for picture-taking or the crowds who are lining up in front of you.

Madeleine Swain is ArtsHub’s managing editor. Originally from England where she trained as an actor, she has over 25 years’ experience as a writer, editor and film reviewer in print, television, radio and online. She is also currently Vice Chair of JOY Media.