The day I had been waiting for for months had finally arrived. We were going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Univeral Studios in Orlando!
The day was off to a good start. Zev's cousin Eloise had arranged our tickets in advance, so we got to skip the line. We were surrounded by kids who were almost as excited as I was - some of whom were already wearing their robes and carrying wands.
The first thing that took us by surprise was being fingerprinted at the gate - big brother is watching! Presumably to stop people from passing tickets on to others, each time your ticket is scanned (ie at entry, and when you go between the parks), you also have to scan your fingerprint. They also use fingerprints to secure the free lockers that you use while riding. It was great not having to worry about a key etc, but it was pretty creepy!
The Hogwarts Express
As as we were through the gate, we started power walking towards Kings Cross Station and the Hogwarts Express. We were following the advice of a friend of Zev's who had recently visited, so we were confident that our intel was good.
In a classic money making scheme, the Harry Potter components are split over two parks, which of course means two admission fees. In the original park, Universal Studios, contains Diagon Alley, Grimmauld Place, the Knight Bus, and King's Cross Station. The second site, Islands of Adventure, houses Hogsmeade Village and the Hogwarts Castle. Running between the two is the Hogwarts Express, so that was our first port of call.
Although we were hurrying through the park, trying to beat the crowds to the Harry Potter section, we still managed to get a look at the rest of the park. The shop facades and streets scenes were incredible.
We entered King's Cross Station, gave our tickets and fingerprints, and passed through the turnstile. Suddenly, we were in another world. Although the whole park is set up to allow for massive queues, we were there early in the morning and mid-week, so we were moving pretty quickly. Nonetheless, the set decorations designed to keep people entertained while waiting were amazing. We passed by stacks of luggage before passing through a neat optical illusion that made it appear as if you were walking straight through a brick wall to platform 9 and 3/4. On the platform, a trolley was holding Hedwig in her cage, and an empty rat cage suggested that Scabbers was somewhere nearby creating mischief.
With no wait at all, we were ushered onto the train. As we started moving, the windows turned into screens playing the 'view' outside, and there was a neat little scene with dementors. A couple of minutes later, we'd arrived at our destination: Hogsmeade.
We walked out into a 35degC winter wonderland. The alpine village of Hogsmeade was filled with snow capped shops, even as we sweated through our clothing. And it was wonderful. I know I've said it already, but we really felt like we'd been transported to another world. Every shop was completely dressed, and I was grinning like an idiot!
We passed through the village pretty quickly, hoping to do the two rides in Hogsmeade before the lines got longer as the day wore on.
Hogwarts Castle and the Flight of the Hippogriff
We went straight for Hogwarts Castle, delighted to find that the wait time for the ride was only 15 minutes. Again, the queue areas for this ride were almost better than the ride itself. Talking portraits, holograms of Dumbledore, Harry, Ron and Hermione, an animatronic sorting hat... It was SO MUCH FUN, and that was just the line.
The ride itself was our first experience of what most of the rides at Universal were like. Very cleverly, they use a kind of virtual reality. It seems like a great way to build rides in a small space. Basically, you get onto whatever seating arrangement they have for that ride (in this instance, it was an enchanted 'park bench'), which moves on multiple planes (eg up and down, side to side, and back and forward). In addition to this, it also moves along a track. They combine this with really effective use of screen playing the visuals and expertly timed animatronic figures. This article provides a great explanation. The result is fun, although in my opinion not as cool as traditional roller coasters, and as someone who gets motion sickness, it wasn't my favourite.
We climbed on, and for the next few minutes our enchanted park bench flew around Hogwarts, from the tops of towers to the Chamber of Secrets, from the Quidditch pitch to the Great Hall. Sadly I spent a lot of the time with my eyes closed, trying not to puke, but Zev had a blast and thought it was one of the best rides of the day (which seems to be the general consensus of those visiting Universal).
From there, we headed straight for the Flight of the Hippogriff, a smaller wooden roller coaster that was geared towards the younger visitors. Nonetheless, still feeling seedy from our first ride, I struggled with even the kiddy roller coasters. I was devastated - I LOVE roller coasters! How is it possible that I've become someone who can't ride them??
Olivander's, and our first taste of Butterbeer
Our plan was to explore all of Hogsmeade, then check out the rest of the rides at Islands of Adventure. After that, we'd jump on the Hogwarts Express back to Universal Studios, check out all of the attractions in Diagon Alley, and then with the time we had leftover, do the other rides in the park.
Feeling pretty green around the gills, we headed back into Hogsmeade from the Flight of the Hippogriff. It seemed like a good time to check out Olivander's Wand Shop.
We were ushered into the shop along with 20 or so other people. The dimly lit shop was packed to the rafters with wand boxes, and at the front, behind the counter, was Olivander's assistant (the real Olivander is at the wand shop in Diagon Alley - this is a franchise). A customer was selected from the crowd, and Olivander's assistant helped her find the right wand. It was super fun - she was doing spells and boxes were flying all over the place.
Naturally, you exit through the gift shop, where every man, woman and child were ogling the wands. At $50 a pop for a regular wand, they were pretty pricey, but honestly, if we weren't on a big trip, I would 100% have bought one! They also sell interactive wands for $75 which are pretty cool. At designated spots throughout the Harry Potter worlds, you can follow instructions and perform a spell (with the correct wand movements), and it makes things happen (water spurt out of fountains, displays in shop windows move etc).
They also sold pretty much anything Harry Potter-related you could ask for - robes (an eye watering $100 a set for kids, and more for adults), sweaters, scarves, tee shirts, key chains... It was neverending!
Having recovered from my nausea, it was time to get ourselves a butterbeer. This is sold in two ways: cold, or frozen. Popular opinion is very divided on which is better, so we got one of each. They fill the cups with butterbeer, and topped it with 'foam' - a delicious salted caramel-esque marshmallow fluff type substance. It was everything I hoped it would be and more. Naturally, our opinions differed on which tasted better - I prefered frozen, and Zev prefered cold. That worked well!
The remainder of Islands of Adventure
Having filled our Harry Potter reserves for the morning, we headed out to explore the rest of the rides in the park. There weren't too many rides for adults that didn't result in getting saturated. We checked out the Jurassic Park River Adventure (and managed to avoid getting too wet), Kong, Skull Island, and the Spiderman ride (more virtual rides), and finally a traditional rollercoaster, the Hulk. The wheels came off for me a little here - it was close to lunch time, we hadn't eaten since about 7am, and all the virtual rides had left me feeling a little queasy. As the ride shot off, I actually blacked out... How embarrassing! As I sheepishly disembarked, we agreed that maybe some lunch was in order...
Back to Universal Studios on the Hogwarts Express, and lunch at the Leaky Cauldron
The ride back to Universal Studios on the Hogwarts Express was just as fun as the ride there. But the most fun of all was walking though the hole in the wall to Diagon Alley.
If Hogsmeade was magical, this was something else altogether. It was like stepping into the movies. We had a quick wander around to take in the sights, but decided to prioritise lunch. The obvious place to eat was The Leaky Cauldron.
Despite the crowds, we ordered, were seated, and were eating in no time. It was definitely an American take on a traditional English pub meal. Zev had a banger sandwich, and I had a chicken sandwich. We washed it all down with another butterbeer each.
Exploring Diagon Alley
Feeling refreshed and reinvigorated, we were ready to check out the shops! From Quality Quidditch Supplies, selling quidditch uniforms and house merchandise, to Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes selling jokes and toys everything your heart desired could be yours. Honestly, if we were here on a short holiday, we would have been going home with much heavier bags. Even Zev, who is nowhere near the Harry Potter fan I am, commented that he was getting completely sucked in, and wanted to buy everything in sight!
Escape from Gringotts
Having got our fill of window shopping, we were ready for our next ride: Escape from Gringotts. This was the longest line we waited in all day, at about an hour. The first 15 minutes or so were hell, as they were outside, away from the air conditioning and cool in-line entertainment. When we re-entered Gringotts Bank though, the wait was worth it. The lobby was filled with towering desks, each staffed by an incredibly realistic animatronic goblin. Two enormous chandeliers hung from the ceiling. We wound our way through the bank, past offices and vaults, and eventually, climbed into the mine cart.
Another virtual reality ride, this one took us through the vaults at Gringotts and had us escaping from security trolls, a runaway dragon, and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named himself. Although slightly less nauseating than some of the other rides, it still left me feeling a little shaken, but I think it was my favourite of the Harry Potter rides.
Knockturn Alley, the Knight Bus, and Grimmauld Place
Having successfully escaped from Gringotts, we headed to the less savoury area near Diagon Alley. The creepy, dark alleyway is lined with shops dedicated to the dark arts, and stands in stark contrast to the bright and cheery shops nearby. We browsed Borgin and Burkes, filled to the brim with creepy masks, skulls and trinkets.
We exited back through the hole in the wall to the streets of 'London', and were greeted by the triple decked Knight Bus parked outside. Just opposite was the home of the Order of the Phoenix, 12 Grimmauld Place, complete with Kreacher poking out from behind the curtain every so often.
The rest of Universal Studios
We set off to see what the rest of the park had to offer. The biggest traditional roller coaster in this park was out of order, which was a bummer, but secretly I was a little relieved! Instead, we checked out a couple of classics - The Simpsons ride (another virtual coaster), and the even classic-er ET ride. It was so sweet and sedate, it nearly brought a little tear to my eye! I remember riding it in 1989 at Universal Studios in Hollywood. Next was Tranformers, The Fast and the Furious, and the absolute highlight of the original park (outside of Harry Potter), the Return of the Mummy. Again, the queue was almost the highlight, with a super creepy witch doctor chanting as the skull lined walls caught fire.
Return to Hogsmeade, and return to Hogwarts
Having ridden almost every ride in the park, we headed back to Hogsmeade, debating whether we were interested in getting dinner. We were both pretty full, but the draw of eating in Hogsmeade was pretty strong... By the time we disembarked from the Hogwarts Express for the third time, Universal Studios was closing, and Islands of Adventure was only open for another hour.
We decided not to get dinner, and as we walked through Hogsmeade, we noticed people gathering around the Hogwarts Castle. Staff were directing people to stand to the right, so we asked what was going on. It turned out we'd stumbled on a light show that happens each night that we had no idea was happening. Good timing!
We hung around waiting for the show to start, but after about 15 minutes, a PA announcement informed us of the show's cancellation due to technical difficulties. While this was a bit of a bummer, we hadn't been expecting it, so we weren't too devastated. There were plenty of tears around us though - mostly from adults who had kept their strung out children up until 9pm especially to see it...
Instead, we took the opportunity to re-ride the Hogwart's Castle ride. After the light show was cancelled, it looked like most people were heading home. There was virtually no queue, which was awesome. This time, we took our time walking through the castle so that we could really enjoy all the in-queue entertainment that we'd zipped past the first time. It was a great way to top off an incredible day.
With our final ride complete, we started the long walk back to the park entrance. We'd walked through the park gates just after 9am. It was now just before 10pm, and we were both shattered, stuffed, and had stupid grins on our faces that would be there for a while. It's not often that things live up to your expectations. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter had surpassed them.
Lots of love,
S & Z