The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Words and pictures by Ella Gale (@hellakale)
On the day I visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Florida, I woke up earlier than I’ve woken up for Christmas morning since I was a kid. Be warned, I’m not exactly an unbiased observer; not only am I from the generation that aged at approximately the same rate as Harry and friends, but I also have a somewhat inexplicable love for artifice and money-sucking concessions. I was not disappointed.
The Harry Potter attractions at Universal Studios are split between the two parks: Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida, and Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The two areas are connected by the Hogwarts Express, which is a lovingly detailed train with different immersive 3D components in both directions.
If you don’t opt for the Park-to-Park Pass, Diagon Alley (the second phase of the park, which opened in 2013) is the larger and more impressive of the two parks; it’s home to the Escape from Gringott’s, an immersive 3D semi-roller coaster. The ride is prone to long lines, which you can bypass by using the single riders’ lane or buying an Express Pass.
However (and I really wish I’d known this before visiting the park), when you bypass the main lines, you also bypass a big chunk of the ride’s storyline, and some of the beautifully detailed environments. Take the single riders’ line, and you’ll peer (from a distance) into the main hall of Gringott’s Bank, complete with exquisitely rendered animatronic goblins, but that’s about it. If you skip the main line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, for instance, you’ll miss seeing a hall of talking paintings, a Hogwarts classroom, and Dumbledore’s office.
I was underwhelmed by the Escape from Gringott’s, largely because of phoned-in 3D performances from actors in the films (which I never enjoyed as much as the books), but I liked swooping around Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Other rides include the Dragon Challenge (fun, straightforward twin coasters), and Flight of the Hippogriff (a kiddie coaster I skipped).
Both parks are less about doing and more about seeing and exploring. And shopping. All the shops house small surprising details that are enjoyable to look at even if you’re not buying. The shop in Knockturn Alley, for instance, which caters to the Slitherins among us, displays both actual wares and spooky props.
The food was expensive but surprisingly good, especially the roast potatoes, which are available in various combos breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Food is served in beautiful recreations of Harry Potter environments, like the Leaky Cauldron. I loved the hot butterbeer, which tastes like a toddler was let loose on a barrel of milk with a range of buttery syrups. All the drinks are sugar bombs, even the pumpkin juice.
The wands. Oh, boy, THE WANDS. Universal Studios has gleefully equipped at least half its distracted visitors with hazardous poking sticks, presumably because they are making a killing. The Ollivander’s Wand Experience is an entertaining but VERY hard sell for the park’s resin wands. Ollivander himself (I think Harry Potter World employs a significant percentage of Florida’s grizzled elderly men) ushers you into his shop, where he chooses a park visitor to take part in the experience. In my case, that visitor was me, presumably because a) I had a huge stupid grin on my face the entire time I was there, and b) there was a dearth of small children in the room.
Ollivander handed me several wands, which, when I waved them, produced various effects around the room (I don’t want to give away too much, because golden snitches get golden stitches), until we found THE ONE, in my case a 15 inch oak with a unicorn hair core. As I was ushered out of the room holding the wand, a very polite employee informed me that I could keep the wand for the low, low price of $47.
Had the wand been merely an inert stick, I might have passed (if you have the kind of small charismatic child likely to be selected for participation, DO NOT under any circumstances attend the Ollivander’s wand experience unless you are prepared to shell out fifty bucks - the park must have to employ more than one wizard whose specialty is tantrum soothing).
However, the wands are good for more than just “encouraging” small children out of your way. Interactive wands come with a map identifying locations throughout both parks where visitors can “cast spells”, a process which involves waving your wand in a specific pattern to make, say, water squirt out of a fountain.
I saw children and a surprising number of unaccompanied adults waving their wands and giggling like idiots; if you’re not averse to looking like a goofball, the wands are worth it. Buy and use them early in the day to avoid waiting in lines of 5-year-olds to practice your spellcasting.
HARRY POTTER WORLD WEBSITE
Ella Gale was a guest of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.