As many of you know, I’m not the hugest fan of theme parks. But even I have to admit to being a little bit excited about our visit to Universal Studios at Orlando when I realised there was a Wizarding World of Harry Potter there.
Our family loves the Harry Potter books. We’ve each read every one of the seven books in the series, with The Poolboy reading all seven aloud to The Impossible Princess last year – which I think is a legendary feat. That’s over 4,000 pages (or over 1,000,000 words) of Harry Potter. We’ve read the books, we’ve watched the movies (multiple times). So visiting a replica of Harry Potter’s world was definitely the next step. Although, as I outlined in my last post, I sincerely hoped it wouldn’t disappoint.
Remember our dilemma about Universal at Orlando? How we initially thought we’d cover off both parks (Universal Studios AND Universal’s Islands of Adventure) in a single day with a Park-to-Park ticket? And then how we came to the conclusion that idea was complete madness and we’d be better upgrading to an Express Pass for a single park and concentrating on just one?
Well, that decision was made a lot easier for us, because back in April of this year when we were in Orlando, only one of the parks had The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure). Now, however, both parks have a Wizarding World with the opening over the US summer of Diagon Alley at Universal Studios. And the two attractions are even linked by a Hogwarts Express ride!
So, I’m not sure what we would have done if we’d been faced with two Harry Potters to choose from. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was, for us, the biggest drawcard of Universal at Orlando…and I think we would possibly have coughed up the extra dough to do both parks with a Park-to-Park Express Pass…or maybe I could have squeezed another day into the Orlando itinerary? But that’s all hypothetical, as we only had one Wizarding World at our disposal.
We made a beeline for Hogsmeade as soon as we entered the Universal Islands of Adventure park. We entered The Wizarding World of Harry Potter through the gates of Hogsmeade, with the sign reminding us to respect spell limits. It was already quite crowded by the time we got there, but nothing compared to later in the day.
The first thing I saw was the cart selling butterbeer and pumpkin juice. Even at that early hour in the morning, people were queuing for their taste of those famous beverages. I decided to wait until lunchtime, as I figured butterbeer and shaky, speedy rides were probably a bad combination.
The Poolboy, Queenie and The Impossible Princess headed straight for Dragon Challenge, a high-speed twisting, looping, scary rollercoaster where guests choose to ride either a Hungarian Horntail or a Chinese Fireball dragon as they duel across the sky. The two dragons are actually two separate roller coasters, so each one is a completely different ride but the two interlace to give the effect of chases and near-misses. While they did they that, I wandered around Hogsmeade village admiring the shop windows at Honeydukes.
We joined the queue for Ollivanders shop, Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C. Only about 20 guests are let into the shop each time, and once inside the small, dimly lit shop an interactive experience begins. A ‘wizard’ is chosen from the group for the process of a wand choosing the wizard. A young boy was chosen in our group, and I was quite glad that The Impossible Princess wasn’t the chosen one, as I’d imagine it’s quite hard for parents to resist the pressure to purchase that wand as the group exits through the outside retail shop, which is stacked full of wand merchandise.
Then we made our way up to Hogwarts Castle for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. This ride does not have an express pass option, so everyone queues up regardless. And by queue, I mean around 40-60 minutes (and that was early in the day). However, the ‘queue’ component is actually as big a part of the experience as the ride itself. Initially, you enter through the castle gates, then once the queue enters the Castle, you make your way along the passageways and corridors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Dumbledore’s office, the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, the Gryffindor common room, the Room of Requirement…yes, you get to see them all. Plus the moving portraits. It is so incredibly well done, exactly as I had imagined from reading the books and the attention to detail was awesome.
Usually, at the entrance to any theme park ride, there’s a notice warning people with various conditions not to ride – back and heart problems, pregnancy, motion sickness etc. There was the usual sign at the entrance to this castle, but as we got closer and closer to the ride itself, the warnings about motion sickness became more and more insistent. As it was early in the day, and I knew that if I set off a case of the green-skinned nausea it could be hours before I felt better, I decided to bail at the last minute. Which was perfectly fine. I just said to the attendant at the entrance to the ride-loading zone that I wanted to exit and she pointed me to a door which took me straight out and into the obligatory exit through the gift-shop. But I’m glad I didn’t miss the walk through the castle. So, even if you don’t want to partake of the nausea-inducing ride, you can still enjoy the Castle experience.
The ride exits through the gift shop too, and I waited there and watched as batch after batch of people came through looking very pale and muttering about spiders.
Eventually The Poolboy, Queenie and The Impossible Princess arrived. Looking green, but saying it was the BEST RIDE EVER. Apparently, this ride uses state-of-the-art technology to create a part virtual, part physical experience where you actually feel like you are riding a broomstick.
A more sedate ride option is The Flight of the Hippogriff. I can usually handle any roller-coaster that is labelled ‘family-friendly’ so this one passed the Fairlie test. It was actually a very sweet ride (even if I did scream for most of it). We passed by Hagrid’s hut where we learned the proper way to approach a Hippogriff, then it was off on a “training flight” in our woven-wicker carriages, spiraling and zooming around the pumpkin patch.
Nearby was the Flying Ford Anglia that Harry and Ron crashed into the Whomping Willow at the start of their second year at Hogwarts.
Our venue for lunch was The Three Broomsticks Inn. The food in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is surprisingly good, and even more surprising is that it is quite reasonable in cost (for a theme park, at least). It was in the Three Broomsticks that we tested out the butterbeer.
Around Hogsmeade, you can find all the fabulous shops – Honeydukes, Dervish and Banges, Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods. You can send a letter via owl post (with a Hogsmeade postmark), buy wands and robes, see the Hogwarts Express train (and since the summer, ride it too). The day we visited, there were also frog choir and tri-wizard spirit rally shows on the streets.
Overall, the thing that impressed me most about The Wizarding World was the total immersion of the experience. The theme wasn’t dropped for a moment. Even a visit to the toilets (or the restroom, as they call them in the US) was part of the fun. Harry Potter fans, you know who hangs out in the bathrooms, don’t you? Yes, Moaning Myrtle, the ghost of a former Hogwarts student. So my advice is that you really want to go, even if you don’t need to go.
This is one theme park that has softened my grinch-like views of theme parks in general. I would definitely be up for a second visit – especially now that Diagon Alley has opened at Universal Studios.
The detailsThe Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort
6000 Universal Boulevard Orlando, Florida, USA
Open 365 days a year. Operating hours normally begin at 9am and closing times vary.