As lifelong fans, we are among millions of poor saps who will pay basically anything to see this beloved world brought to life for a day. The cunning folks at Universal Studios Orlando know this, and put half of it (Diagon Alley) in their main park and the other half (Hogsmeade), in adjacent theme park, Islands of Adventure. So if you want to see the lot, you gotta pay for two adults x two parks: total nearly $AUD500!
This is why it was the ONLY activity in a week in Orlando. It was no hardship to lay low and eat in, though, blessed with the second of three planned resort stays amid a sea of AirBnB. We rolled into town and aside from a Grand Canyon training hike, parked our arses poolside for six days.
And on the seventh day, God gave us Harry Potter.
We started bang on opening time on the Hogsmeade side with the premier ride “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey”, reached through Hogwarts Castle. A half-hour wait in a line threading through the castle was made awesome by the atmosphere inside, complete with moving portraits on the walls, and holographic appearances specially filmed for the purpose with the movie actors, so they would pop up from time to time in the corridors and talk to you.
This ride was the highlight of the day, showcasing mind-boggling modern theme park tech – indoor rollercoasters combined with elaborate 3D simulations and real interior puppetry and special effects, including fog, fire and water, a completely immersive experience. The ride, in which you escape Dementors, play Quidditch and fly with dragons across the castle ramparts, was both scary and exhilarating – not really one for a child, unless you count the inner one.
We then waited perhaps 15 minutes to catch the Hogwarts Express, a real train and an experience in itself, to Diagon Alley at Universal Studios – a five-minute ride. On the other side, you go through a “London” street complete with Ministry of Magic phone box, Knight Bus with actor playing Stan Shunpike, and full-size facade of 12 Grimmauld Place. We stepped through the magical hole-in-the-wall to Diagon Alley, which centres around a beautiful full-scale Gringotts Wizarding Bank. It even has life-sized animatronic goblins intimidating you as you walk through the entrance hall in line for the ride “Escape from Gringotts”, a line that takes 45 minutes even soon after opening time and from the size of the waiting pens the lines clearly grow until they are hours long. These pens have to be kept in specially made yards behind the main tourist attractions as there is no space in the Alley itself.
The Gringotts ride, a simulation of Harry and the gang’s journey through the vaults on a rail cart then their escape aboard a dragon, is also very good in the manner previously described but should probably be done before the Forbidden Journey as, with expectations now sky-high, we found it shorter and less astounding.
We didn’t do the Dragon Challenge coaster as it catered more for children, but wandered Diagon Alley which has all the shops from the books and more. You can go to Ollivander’s and buy a wand, which can be used to activate extra little touches in the window displays throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. We skipped the line and the expense and just watched other people do it.
You can look in the window at Flourish & Blott’s, go to the magical creatures store, buy crap, get fitted for a robe at Madam Malkin’s, buy more crap, and even visit spooky Knockturn Alley with a Borgin & Burke’s, where you can buy darker-style crap.
We heroically resisted buying crap, but did do lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, a perfect replica where you can get eye-wateringly priced English pub grub as well as Butterbeer and pumpkin juice. While the food was ordinary the decor was spot on, the pumpkin juice delicious (a kind of spiced fruit juice, presence of pumpkin debatable) and Butterbeer, though sadly non-alcoholic, also unbelievably good. Then to Florean Fortescue’s Ice-cream Parlour for dessert, a flagrant money-grab with little atmosphere.
Heavy with sugar we ran through the Simpsons street at Universal, which includes a life-size Moe’s Tavern where you can get Duffs and Flaming Moes. We did the Simpsons ride through Krustyland, me trying not to hurl. All the rides are of the type described, with 3D simulations making you feel as though you are travelling very fast and far, much more sickening and overwhelming than an outdoor rollercoaster.
After a sweltering 45-minute wait we reached Platform Nine ¾ to get the Hogwarts Express, an experience that changes on the return journey (with Dementors!) back to Hogsmeade. Here we wandered through more shops selling crap, including Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes joke shop, and Honeydukes, which was beautifully done, and hard to resist! We poked our heads inside the Three Broomsticks, another perfect replica pub, a similar deal food-wise to the Leaky Cauldron, and entered the Hog’s Head, a darker pub where we obviously had to try firewhisky, a kind of spiced sweet whiskey brewed in Savannah specifically for the purpose of bringing the books to life in this park. Tasty, but pricey!
Exhausted and dripping, we exited Islands of Adventure by way of the Jurassic Park ride and Amazing Spiderman rides, both super fun, and by another 100 souvenir shops, further testing our resolve. We were utterly shattered, but all the money and waiting and sweat was totally worth it! And can you believe we didn’t buy ANYTHING? Our Money Mustaches grew long and luxurious that day my friends.
StuMobservations: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
- Wands that activate various 10-second attractions can be experienced by following someone else’s kid around. Saved 50 bucks.
- Still should have brought my wand though.
- Ride simulators have come a long way.
- Finally saw a fire breathing dragon! #lifegoalachieved
- The Flaming Moe is non-alcoholic and doesn’t even contain cough syrup.
- Providing in-queue entertainment is genius and should become industry standard.
- You can view post-ride photo and have a laugh without buying it.
- Matching family holiday T-shirts are not lame.
- Putting cinnamon in everything does not make it ‘magical’.
- Couldn’t decide on what to buy and came away with nothing.
- The wait times displayed at each ride entrance are inaccurate.
- Seeing a little girl point her wand at her brother and shout ‘Incendium’ is amazing.
What we’re reading
Em: The Ersatz Elevator and The Vile Village, Lemony Snicket; The Apprentice, Tess Gerritsen; Rich Habits, Poor Habits, by Michael Yardney
Stu: The Long Walk, Stephen King; Eric and Moving Pictures, Terry Pratchett;
What we’re listening to
Cuban singer Jorge Moreno, who sings a lot about going to Texas and Mexico and how girls should just accept it when he doesn’t call, cause that’s just the way he is, baby. This is in preparation for visiting his Cuban restaurant in Miami Beach.
What we’re watching
Game of Thrones finale… holy moly!
Miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand (super good and classic eighties, with Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald)