If you’re a fan of the Harry Potter books and films, raise your hand. Me too! (I’m raising my hand right now.) I’ve read all the books, seen all the movies (some more than once) and when I heard that Universal Orlando was creating a theme park for the Harry Potter series, I thought it was the most brilliant idea I’ve heard in a long time. (Except for maybe that Star Trek theme park they’re building in Jordan.) Naturally, I knew I had to visit it. I finally had my chance during my trip to Orlando at the beginning of November.
My timing, as is so often the case, could have been better: After my plane tickets and hotels were booked, I learned that the weekend I’d chosen to spend at Universal was the same weekend as a Harry Potter Convention. This meant I would be jockeying for space in ride lines with hundreds of Harry Potter fans. And we all know how much I love crowds. (That’s me being sarcastic. The thicker the crowd, the more claustrophobic I feel.)
I stayed on-site at the Hard Rock Hotel (a very nice hotel but ridiculously overpriced), which offered two perks: Your room key serves as an Express Pass (meaning you can skip the long lines at most rides, though not the Forbidden Journey in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) and you can get into the parks an hour earlier than the general public. It was that extra hour I was hoping would serve me well–and it did.
Friday morning, I was up before it was even light out (on my vacation no less–ugh!) to shower, have a quick bite to eat and head over to Islands of Adventure, one of two Universal Orlando parks (the other being Universal Studios). I followed other park-goers to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, located near Jurassic Park and the Lost Continent. It’s a weird feeling walking from the tropical jungle of Jurassic Park into Hogsmeade, with its peaked roofs capped with snow and hanging with icicles. Even at eight a.m., Hogsmeade was bustling (but not nearly as mobbed as it was later in the day). First things first: I headed straight to the castle of Hogwarts (School of Witchraft and Wizardry) to ride the Forbidden Journey.
The Forbidden Journey is a great motion simulator ride (combined with 3D elements) with a detailed story featuring a dragon, a brief flight across the Quidditch field, dementors, spiders, the Whomping Willow, and our three favorite young wizards, Harry, Ron and Hermione. But the queue line is just as entertaining as the ride itself. It features the talking sorting hat, the “living portraits”, and videos of Headmaster Dumbledore and Harry, Ron, and Hermione setting up the scenario for the ride. (Sorry, I have no photos, because it was just too dark to even bother.) The Forbidden Journey has a single rider line if you want to skip the long wait, but I don’t recommend using it. Here’s why:
You can’t get into the single rider line until you’ve already been standing in line outside the castle for God knows how long. Once you do get into the single rider line, you miss all the great details inside the castle. But that’s the part you don’t want to miss! If the single rider line allowed you to skip the long line outside the castle, too, then I’d say it was worth it; but since you only skip the most interesting part of the queue, it’s really not. Your mileage may very, but that’s how I felt.
After this, I rode Flight of the Hippogriff, which feels like the quickest roller coaster ride in the world. The cars feature a Hippogriff head (like Buckbeak from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) in the front. One ride on this was more than enough for me. The cars are a very tight squeeze, and they do put two people per car even when you’re a “one”, so I had to ride with some guy I didn’t know. Normally, I don’t mind riding theme park rides with strangers, but this car was so small, I was literally pressed right up against him (and neither of us were large people). It was not a comfortable ride. Keep that in mind if you’re going solo to this park.
There is a third ride in this area called Dragon Challenge, which is two inverted, intertwined roller coasters (the Chinese Fireball and the Hungarian Horntail, named after two species of dragons in the Harry Potter books). I don’t like going upside down, so I skipped this ride. In hindsight, I should have gone through the queue anyway and then ducked out at the last minute so I could see the Triwizard Tournament themeing. Oh well, there’s always next time.
I returned to the Wizarding World two more times over the next two days, but I still missed a lot of details. There were just so many people around me all the time. There was an upside to the convention, though: many people had purchased Harry Potter garb that they were wearing in the park; it almost felt like being an extra on set of the films. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to pass two young women wearing robes and Gryffindor scarves who looked like students of Hogwarts on a weekend trip into Hogsmeade.
Ultimately, though, I think I would have enjoyed wandering the streets of Hogsmeade if it had been less crowded. The attention to detail is really outstanding, and I would have appreciated the opportunity to really soak it all in. The town features an owlery, the train engine of the Hogwarts Express, a fast food restaurant in the guise of The Three Broomsticks, and shops familiar to any reader of the books or viewer of the films, such as Zonko’s Joke Shop, Honeydukes Sweet Shop, Gladrags Wizard Wear, and of course, Ollivanders Wand Shop. The line for Ollivanders was ridiculously long every time I passed by, so I didn’t even bother trying to get in to see the show. The Three Broomsticks was also packed the whole time I was there, so there was no chance to grab a bite to eat, though I did pop my head in briefly to look around.
One of the longest lines in the park was the line to purchase butterbeer. But of course everyone just has to try it, including me. It’s hard to describe what it tastes like. Some have likened it to cream soda, but that’s not the flavor, exactly. More like a cross between cream soda and butterscotch. The foam on top wasn’t a natural foam; it tasted suspiciously like whipped cream to me. It wasn’t bad, but not something I’d drink on a regular basis.
While I thoroughly enjoyed this park solo, I think it also might be fun to go with a group of friends who are also fans of the books and movies. There’s something about sharing an experience like this with like-minded people that appeals. The upshot is, if you’re a Harry Potter fan and you have the wherewithal to make the trip to Orlando, do go to Universal and immerse yourself in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I only wish there were quality theme parks like this for all our favorite books and movies.