Guest Post: Wizarding World Review

I asked Kelly Loomis, a HogPro All-Pro reader and investigator, to write up her experiences as a first time visitor to the Wizarding Word of Harry Potter in Orlando. Enjoy!

My recently college-graduated son and I headed to Florida recently to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando.  We’d been talking about going for a couple of years.  He and I are the Harry Potter fans in our household.  At first, I thought we would go to Hollywood (we live in the Pacific Northwest).  However, because Orlando has both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, we chose to go there. Plus, we could throw in  some Disney days also.

I’ve heard various opinions about these parks and was anxious to see what my reaction to it would be.  Two years ago, I was fortunate to be in London and did the Warner Brothers studio tour in Leavesdon.  I will write a post soon comparing the two experiences.  Professor John challenged me to wear my “Book Nerd” tshirt to the park.  I decided to forego his challenge!  But keep in mind, I am much more a fan of the books than any HP movie that has been produced!

The word that comes to mind upon exiting the park is MERCHANDISING!!!!  SO MUCH STUFF!  I suppose this shouldn’t have been any real surprise knowing how theme parks work – ushering you into a themed store as soon as you finish a ride.  It is the same at Universal.  However, let me go back a little first.

We had been given a strategy by relatives who had already visited on which attractions and activities to do first. To see both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley and ride the Hogwarts Express between the two, you need to buy the multiple park pass. I should also point out that we stayed on property in a hotel which included express passes for each guest in our room price.  Just that feature alone, paid for the extra price we paid for the room as opposed to staying somewhere cheaper close by.  The hotel (The Royal Pacific) was very nice, had a wonderful pool, workout room and a boat shuttle service to the parks.  Parking and breakfast were not included.  You would need to price out all the amentities and decide which are the most important for you in deciding where to stay if you visit.  A shuttle boat dropped us by the Universal Citywalk.  We crossed a bridge and entered the park.  We chose the park which has Diagon Alley to visit first. 

Diagon Alley is located in a back corner of the park. Before you get into the actual street, Universal has what looks like some typical London buildings.  Among these are an entrance to Kings Cross Station, 12 Grimmauld Place and, across the street, a replica of the Night Bus.  I was intrigued by a tshirt at the first merchandise booth next to the Night Bus. It looked like a typical London tourist tshirt with a Grimmauld Place street sign on the front.  I thought it would be a great momento and only true fans would know it was a Harry Potter souvenir.

To get into Diagon Alley, you go through a crooked little tunnel and then emerge onto the street.  A soundtrack is playing and you see all the buildings as if you just emerged from the magic bricks.  It feels just as if you were Harry on his first visit with Hagrid. As you walk along, it is easy to bump into people as fascinated viewers may stop on the spot to “ooh and aah” at something they recognize.  Fingers are pointing in all directions as people spot little touches.  The Leaky Cauldron is immediately on your left inside the street – of course, funneling the thousands of people THROUGH the restaurant would be impractical.  It was entertaining people watching and seeing reactions.  It was also fun to see clothing and costume choices.  It was pretty hot and the only people I really saw in robes were little kids.

We had been told to hurry through the street to Gringotts for the ride there as we could always come back to look at everything.  It was tough, however, to not stop at places along the way.  Everything is there from the books.  Some were actual shops you could enter and others were just store fronts.

To get onto the first ride, Escape from Gingotts, you go through a re-created main lobby.  It looks just like the movies with goblins at desks lining the sides.  They are animated and move.  It is quite the experience.  After passing the desk at the end where the disguised trio asked to let into the Lestrange vault, you enter into the waiting/lines area (if you’re lucky and the line doesn’t extend all the way back into the lobby).  I can’t remember the distinct details, but you go past fabricated office doors and at one point into a room where Bill Weasley and one of the goblins are animated with projections onto a screen seeming like they are supposedly in Bill’s office. 

Of course, my book nerd brain told me that there was never a scene or mention of Bill with a goblin in a Gringott’s office!  It is quite ingenius how they give you instructions about the ride.  There is a talking picture of a goblin before you enter elevators to take you to more lines.  They have managed to really give you a feel for being in the bank.  There is ornate woodwork, stone stairs, and the elevator shudders as you descend.  You are given 3D glasses and eventually enter onto a Gringotts “mine cart”.  It is a very fun ride, being a combination of an actual rollercoaster and virtual reality ride interspersed together.  At times, the car rotates in a 360 on the track.  It goes backwards and forwards and you feel as if you haven’t just gone in a line to the end. You are supposedly the trio trying to escape the vaults with goblins and others chasing you.  My book nerd self  pointed out after we exited that Voldemort, Bellatrix and Nagini were never chasing them but I guess it makes for a fun experience though to include them in the ride.

We then travelled back the length of Diagon Alley and exited to ride the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade Station. As part of the wait, you can stop at a certain point and see people going through the brick wall of platform 9 ¾.  I wanted to video my son but he didn’t quite understand what I wanted so it wasn’t the best example of going through the bricks!  He looked back at me just as he was supposedly going through the wall!!

Universal has definitely leaned from Disney in setting up the atmosphere of a place while you are in line.  None of the Wizarding World attractions feel like just an average amusement park ride.  On the platform, people are ushered into compartments by conductors that look just as you would imagine.  The compartment door is closed and the train begins moving.  In the window, a video plays the whole trip in between the two stations.  We both did not see the sign that told us not to video and as we were the only two in our compartment, we both filmed the whole thing!  It’s a fun ride.  The video and action is different depending on what direction you are going on the train.  Scenes are re-created – the trolley lady (thankfully not throwing pumpkin pasties), dementors, chocolate frog, Trevor’s escape, etc.  There are definitely inaccuracies but it is ingenious nonetheless.  On about our third trip, I just watched a young girl and her fascination during the whole ride.

You exit the train station and are at the end of a street in Hogsmeade.  They have fake snow on top of the buildings.  Our first act was to get a butterbeer!!  It is really good and refreshing although very sweet.  We passed by familiar landmarks such as Honeydukes, Madame Puddyfoots, and The Three Broomsticks (going past the owl post office, we saw that you can send something that will have an actual Hogsmeade postmark on it but you have to buy a “package” of postcards. You can’t just buy one!!!). We rounded a corner to see the castle.  It is such a thrilling experience.  The size and majesty are something to behold!  They did an amazing job constructing it as it is set way up upon fake stone cliffs.  We looked around for the typical place people take their pictures and found a bridge with evergreen foliage near the area.  It even smells like you are there because the trees are real.  In travelling back to where the ride entrance is, we passed the show with Beaubutan and Durmstrang students.  Of course, it’s really cheesy but fun to see nevertheless. 

We walked through the line around the base of the cliffs and through fabricated Hogwarts greenhouses.  We were very thankful for our express passes on all the rides and for the fact that it was a pretty light day for park attendees.  When you enter the castle, there is a room with portraits of the founders that talk to each other and another big room which contains switchback lines through the DADA classroom.  The projected trio greet you from the top the stairs which lead to the DADA professor’s office.  I objected to the fact that they were talking about Professor Binns the whole time when we were supposed to be in the DADA classroom.  You wear 3D glasses again on this ride.  The car seats are fashioned so you feel like you are straddling something – a broom!  Again the ride is both roller coaster and virtual.  You really felt like you are in a dive around the castle and on the quidditch pitch.  All in all it an awesome experience.  I’m the one usually getting motion sickness but it was my son who prevented us from riding again.  As you exit the ride, the shop you are shuttled through sells many things from pictures taken of your car during the ride to Marauders maps to Hogwarts replicas.  We were hoping to eat at the Three Broomsticks for lunch but the line was incredibly long.  We hopped the Hogwarts Express again and ate at the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley.

We enjoyed typical pub fare.  We sat in a section off the main room that was divided by the stone arches seen in the movies.  I enjoyed sticky toffee pudding for dessert and was disappointed that Harry’s favorite treacle tart was not on the menu. 

After a nice break in the shade during our lunch (Orlando in the summer!!), we then moseyed about Diagon Alley enjoying entering the shops, seeing which items had been replicated and were being sold, seeing which shops you could enter and which were just false fronts and watching many children using their virtual wands.  It was a joy seeing them trying spells at the special locations and what each spell would do.  They did many things from making items move in store displays to making water come out of a spout.  Wands can be bought in many locations, but there if one is ok with waiting in line at Olivander’s, you can have an actual experience in the wand choosing the wizard! We had been told the ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s ice cream shop was really good but we were way too full to have any. They have a small Knockturn Alley complete with a Borgin and Burke’s.  You can make the hand of glory move in a display cabinet and listen to birds chirping inside the vanishing cabinets. Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes had joke items and the candy shops had replicated many treats that were featured in the books.  It was too bad they didn’t actually have the magical qualities some were known to have!  I did buy a chocolate frog to see which wizard card we would get (Dumbledore) and some fizzing whizbees (chocolate flies with pop rocks inside of them).  I didn’t see any merchandise I couldn’t live without in any of the stores, and you can actually get so many good things off Amazon, that I reigned in my buying to the candy and the Grimmauld Place tshirt. 

We rode the Gringotts ride again and decided mid-afternoon to go back and rest at the hotel, come back for dinner at The Three Broomsticks and watch the Hogwarts light show afterwards.

Unfortunately for us, a massive thunder storm began just as we got on the shuttle boat and didn’t end until after the light shows ended. The shuttle boats were shut down and we don’t even know if the light shows went on as scheduled.  I was disappointed we didn’t get the extra experiences but I can’t do theme parks for endless hours anymore and wasn’t that broken up.  The only regret was money spent on tickets that wasn’t able to be used as fully as I would have liked.

The fun of the parks is feeling like things from a world that has been meaningful to you are brought to a semi reality. And you’re experiencing it with other people who are as excited to see beloved places as you are. As I commented earlier, they have done a marvelous job of capturing a feeling.  We had an advantage that the park was not very crowded and we had express passes.  I think if we had to wait in really long lines and be more crowded in the streets, it would have been a much less satisfactory visit.  I would recommend planning your dates carefully if you wish to visit.

 I asked my son what his favorite part was.  He said his favorite thing of the day was just walking around, listening to the music and experiencing the atmosphere it created – the coming to life of such a special place in his heart.  He began reading the books in 3rd grade and the last movie was released his senior year in high school.  The visit was a bonding experience and gave us a wonderful life memory.

 

Comments

  1. http://Dave%20Shargel says

    Thank you for such a well-written and brilliantly described tour! I feel like I’ve been there now, too. Well…it is just my opinion, perhaps, but I HAVE “been there”. Speaking only for myself, that is exactly what the movies have done for me AFTER I have read the books. Seeing the movies when they first came out, and discussing them with others, my imagination has already done for me what (I think) a trip to the Universal theme park offers. And sharing your experiences with us have made it all more “real”. Thanks again and thank God for imagination!

  2. http://Kelly%20Loomis says

    Dear Dave, Thank you and I’m glad you were able to experience the world for a day through my eyes. Imagination is a wonderful gift!!

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience! I haven’t visited the park since 2011, and I’m dying to visit the new attractions (especially without all the crowds of it being so “new”!). I had so much fun but I could hardly walk around because it was so crowded! Glad you and your son had fun though!

  4. http://Kelly%20Loomis says

    Ashley, thanks! They are constructing a new coaster in Hogsmeade. I saw a recent picture that makes it look like the “cars” will be Sirius’ motorbike with sidecar!

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