Warning: If you’re not a Harry Potter nerd, some of this entry will not feel as magical to you (see what I did there?) as it might otherwise. But you should read it anyway.
We had been to Universal Studios, Orlando several years ago soon after they opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP), and we were amazed with how it felt like stepping into the movies. Now, if you can believe it, it’s even better! Universal has two parks in Orlando: the classic Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventure. The “original” Harry Potter section is in Islands of Adventure, and recreates the village of Hogsmeade. Now they’ve added Diagon Alley to Universal Studios, and if you have the multi-park pass, you can ride the Hogwarts Express (train) between the two.
But before we get to how bloody brilliant the whole WWoHP is, let’s introduce the other recurring characters in this week’s episode. If you’ve been following our travels, you met my brother Erik when we went to Dubai together last year. This time he joined us in Orlando with his girlfriend, Ryan, who may be an even bigger Harry Potter geek than me.
Okay, so Orlando. Universal Studios is much smaller than Disney World, and so it’s possible to stay offsite, and walk to the front gate in about 20 minutes. Even better, our offsite hotel was on a local, Orlando bus route from the airport. So instead of $40 each to take a shuttle, two bucks on the bus took us right there. Yay budget travel!
Erik and Ryan wouldn’t be joining us for a couple of days, but we weren’t about to wait. We woke up early and headed straight for Islands of Adventure. You’re supposed to be able to get inside an hour early if you’re staying on site, and we found they don’t check tickets very thoroughly (if at all). Just act like you belong, and they’ll wave you in with a theme-park-y smile.
Hogsmeade was just as we remembered it; covered with permanent snow, and filled with magic. The biggest attraction there is called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and your journey takes place inside Hogwarts castle. The line is often over 75 minutes long. We walked right on. Five times! It is seriously an awesome ride.
Then we decided that maybe we should check out some other stuff in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. One of my favorite rides is the Harry Potter Dragon Challenge, where two suspended roller coasters (“inverted” to coaster aficionados) twist and wind through each other. This used to be called Dueling Dragons before this section of the park was transformed into the WWoHP. Unfortunately, however, they have discontinued the best part: The two trains used to be weighed before dispatch, and were started at different times so they hit a pair of outside loops at the same moment. It made you feel like you were going to collide until in the last minute, you spun up and over with your feet seemingly inches from the riders of the other train. Even though there was never any real danger OR any accidents, the officials decided that if a shoe flew off someone’s foot at the wrong moment, it would be bad. For them. In a litigious sort of way.
The ride is still a blast, and there is so much to see and do in Hogsmeade that there’s no point crying over spilled pumpkin juice. We visited Ollivander’s and watched a wand choose a wizard (read: kid selected out of the crowd). We wandered through Honeyduke’s sweet shop and tried not to buy everything. Did I mention the Hogwart’s Forbidden Journey ride is one of the most amazing theme park attractions we’ve ever been on? (Five times in a row?!)
We visited many other lands in Islands of Adventure that day too. We took Stephanie to Seuss Landing where we acted like kids, and shamelessly rode the Caro-Suess-el on strange Dr. Seuss characters. We went to Marvel Comics Land, and rode Stephanie’s favorite coaster – The Incredible Hulk. And we went on soaking water rides to cool off from the heat of the day.
The next day it rained. Actually, it poured. It hammered. It was like a Biblical, 40-days-and-40-nights style storm was on us. So we decided to take a day off from the parks. It was a difficult decision to make on Day 2 of our trip, but it was just as well because Stephanie had a plan to do something incredibly unlike her. She wanted to watch all eight Harry Potter movies in the week we would be in Orlando. We only had park passes for four days, but that’s still a tall undertaking. (I’m pleased to report that we knocked out all eight of them in three days.)
Day three: the skies were clear, and we were ready. Right about now, you may be asking yourself what about Erik and Ryan? Where are they? Well, this is the day that they met up with us. If you thought Stephanie’s eight-movies-in-three-days plan was crazy, get a load of this: Erik and Ryan were taking a 6:00 am flight from Philly, and were going to meet us in the parks by about 9:00. Or so they told us. We know all too well what travel is like, and headed off to Universal Studios to check out Diagon Alley. We figured we’d catch up with them by noon or so.
If Hogsmeade was amazing, then Diagon Alley was Jaw-dropping, mind-blowingly incredible. After entering from a non-descript street entrance, Diagon Alley unfolds in front of you looking exactly like the movie, complete with rakishly angled walls and glaring wizard colors. At the end of the street is Gringott’s – the wizarding bank, looking exactly like it does in the movies. The dragon on top even breathes fire periodically. (We caught it on video.) This building houses the only attraction in Diagon Alley – Escape From Gringott’s – a 4-D adventure/thrill ride that does not disappoint.
We rode it a few times, but did not explore Diagon Alley in too much detail since Erik and Ryan were on their way. Instead, we rode a few other Universal attractions, while we waited. They obligingly gave us plenty of time by rolling up around 1:00pm. But at last they were there, and the Harry Pottering could begin in earnest.
We checked out the Knight Bus, and chatted with Stan Shunpike (the conductor) and the shrunken head hanging from the rearview mirror. We browsed in Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes – the joke shop run by Ron Weasley’s older brothers Fred and George. We had a seat on Sirius Black’s flying motorcycle, and found the entrance to Knockturn Alley – a dodgy place where you can find all kinds of Dark magic items at Borgin & Burkes. We also had a butterbeer, and some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had at Florean Fortescue’s ice cream parlor.
The next few days found us back in the parks, back in the rain (at times) and back in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Also watching more movies whenever we could fit them in!)
We went on several rides based on Universal movies including Men in Black, the Simpsons, and the very cheesy, yet irresistible E.T. We even played in the world of Curious George.
We also went on the Mummy – an indoor roller coaster based on the movie starring Brendan Fraser. Okay, I know I said the Dragon Challenge was my favorite ride at Universal, but THIS is really my favorite. It’s got the right blend of campiness and thrills, and is too much fun not to ride over and over again. (“Are you insane?! Get out of here! The Curse! It’s real!!”)
As a dyed-in-the-wool Disney fan, I have to say that Universal Studios can really hold its own, and even excels over Disney in one important area: A four-day pass to Universal is cheaper than two days Disney World. And before you could say “finite incantatum,” it seemed we were bidding Universal Studios (and Erik & Ryan) farewell, and went for one last good time in Orlando.
We originally met our friends Ben and Caitlin in Cuenca and got very close with them in the three months they lived there. Now, having finished their South American travels, they live once again in Orlando. We spent one night at their place catching up and enjoying each other’s company, and then it was time to return to Ecuador (with cricket flour protein bars as a souvenir from Ben).