The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
A spring break trip to Universal Orlando
In the slideshow above, visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Photos by Erin Thibeau
Our generation grew up with Harry Potter. As young children we listened raptly as our parents read aloud the stories of a boy discovering he had magical powers and a world of wizards and dragons, house-elves and quidditch. As preteens we aged with Harry, following his explorations of the magical world as we navigated the halls of junior high. In high school, we waited in line at midnight to buy the latest installment.
So what better way to spend spring break than a trip to Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Five BU friends and I arrived on Tuesday morning promptly at 9:15. We had ordered our tickets in advance and picked them up at Will Call, a quicker option than standing in line to buy tickets. Our day passes cost $82 plus tax and covered the cost of admission and rides at Islands of Adventure, which includes Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, The Lost Continent, Jurassic Park, and Seuss Landing as well as Harry Potter.
Tickets in hand, we rushed excitedly to the Harry Potter entrance, only to find the park was already at full capacity. Park attendants were handing out Return Time Tickets and we were told to come back between 11:40 and 12:40. While we waited, we went next door and rode the very cool Jurassic Park River Adventure, a boat ride past animatronic dinosaurs.
We returned to the park entrance just before 11:40, joining a crowd already jostling and pushing with anticipation. The attendants were woefully hopeless at shaping the crowd into an orderly line, and as soon as our time was called, the mob rushed forth into Hogsmeade.
A dead ringer for the village portrayed in the Potter films, Hogsmeade is built along a winding road. A layer of “snow” covers the rooftops, out of which jut jagged chimneys, turrets, and mismatched windows. To the right of the village, the Hogwarts Express (identical in every detail to the train featured in the movies) sits grandly in Hogsmeade Station puffing real steam. A uniformed conductor patrols the area, ready to snap a photo or pose for one upon request.
Before tackling the shops, we decided to stop at the Three Broomsticks for some much-needed lunch. At close to noon, the wait was already about 30 minutes. Patrons enter a cavernous, dark interior with staircases that lead nowhere and dim lamps that illuminate the restaurant’s numerous balconies.
The menu offers such fare as Shepherd’s Pie with Garden Salad ($9.99), a Rotisserie Smoked Chicken Platter ($13.49), and Cornish Pasties with Garden Salad ($7.99). Drinks include Butterbeer ($2.99) and Pumpkin Juice ($2.99). Our food arrived almost as soon as we ordered from the friendly English girl at the register. My Fish and Chips ($11.99) was better than standard theme park fare. However, the Butterbeer was nothing like the warm, thick, buttery drink I had imagined, but was instead a cloyingly sweet cream soda topped with butterscotch-flavored foam. And the Smoked Turkey Leg my friend Lindsay ordered ($11.99) was tough and flavorless.
We wandered through Hogsmeade at a glacial pace due to the number of people filling the street. I overheard one girl exclaim, “There’s a line for everything!” She was right. It took about an hour to wait in line to enter a shop. Note to visitors: the park is busiest at noon; by the time we left at 4:15, the crowds had thinned somewhat.
As with any theme park, the opportunities for consumption are endless. Want your own broomstick? A Time Turner key chain? A Triwizard Jersey? All can be yours. The best shops by far were Honeydukes Sweetshop and Zonko’s Joke Shop, which are bright, colorful, and brimming with merchandise. Honeydukes offers chocolate frogs, sugar quills, lemon drops (“Dumbledore’s favorite,” an English-accented shopkeeper reminded me), and Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans. At Zonko’s, screaming yoyos, extendable ears, and fluffy, pink Pygmy Puffs line the red-and-gold-striped walls up to the ceiling.
Ollivanders (transplanted from Diagon Alley) draws the longest line of all the shops (up to two hours), as visitors clamor to get their hands on a wand ($29.95 each). In the shop, each visitor is asked a series of questions before testing a wand. If the wand is a match, wind blows and light shines on the young “wizard” buying it.
In addition to Hogsmeade, there are three main attractions: the Flight of the Hippogriff (a roller coaster geared towards children), the Dragon Challenge, and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
The Dragon Challenge consists of two intertwined roller coasters that take off simultaneously, twisting and looping for a high-speed thrill (each “dragon” is a different ride). The ride’s theme is the Triwizard Tournament. The dungeon path on the way to the ride showcases both the Goblet of Fire and the Triwizard Cup. As we waited in line, the shadows of Harry’s battle with the Hungarian Horntail flashed across the tented ceiling. Short but exhilarating, this ride is best enjoyed in the front row, where the threat of crashing into the other coaster seems frighteningly real.
The undeniable high point of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a walking tour of Hogwarts that concludes with a ride. After waiting in line for an hour and a half (the line weaves through Professor Sprout’s greenhouse), we arrived in the cool, dark interior of Hogwarts. Before the tour begins, visitors are required to stow bulkier belongings in free lockers operated by fingerprint identification. Then visitors scurry through the dim halls of Hogwarts to such familiar sights as Dumbledore’s office, the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, the Gryffindor common room, and the Room of Requirement. Many of the portraits that cover the walls move and converse with one another (“Did you hear Rowena? Hagrid’s lost the dragon, again!”). The attention to detail is incredible: Dumbledore’s office is full of all the whirring knickknacks and magical instruments one would expect. On a balcony, incredibly lifelike holograms of Ron, Hermione, and Harry appear, giving onlookers advice on what spells to use as well as directions through the castle before scampering away. All the elements of a proper Hogwarts are here: stained glass, antique paintings, high ceilings, and stone walls. There was a palpable excitement among the crowd, as though the very air of the castle was infused with magic.
The tour’s one detraction was the crowd behind us that kept pushing us forward. We were unable to take anything in for more than a minute and would have preferred to linger at each of the sites.
At the end of the tour was a kind of loading dock where attendants quickly strapped us into seats for a ride I can only describe as magical. Designed to give you the experience of flying on a broomstick, it begins in a dark tunnel, then takes off at a thrilling pace. Our seats jerked and dived and swooped like a broomstick as we held on for dear life. Gigantic, menacing spiders (the Acromantula that dwell in the Forbidden Forest) advanced close enough to squirt us with streams of “venom” (water). The Whomping Willow thrashed its deadly branches. Fog rolled in and Dementors flew by (the most terrifying part of the ride for me). All of a sudden, the amazingly real scene of Hogwarts unfolded before us and we were hurtling toward the ground in pursuit of a snitch, only to be intercepted by a taunting Draco Malfoy. Harry called, “Follow me!” and so we did. In front of us rose the looming turrets of the castle, and we screamed with terror and delight as we barely dodged the astronomy tower. Back inside the castle, we found ourselves in the Chamber of Secrets, where we came face-to-face with the molted skin of the mythical Basilisk.
At the ride’s conclusion, my friend Jamie spoke for the group when she said, “I loved the effects! It was terrifying…totally worth the wait.” Kavita, agreed, saying, “We were all smiling the whole time.”
A cashier working at Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods (in reality, a gift shop) explained the inner workings of the ride. The seats act as motion simulators that twist around a robotic arm that travels through the different rooms. Some rooms are dome-shaped, with walls of green screen that move with you. Others are huge prop rooms (with magical creatures). She mentioned that although everyone enjoys the ride, “some people feel a bit queasy after.” In my opinion, the best part was the utterly unique sensation of flying, that same soaring happiness Harry feels after mounting a broomstick for the first time in The Sorcerer’s Stone.
The attention to detail is what makes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter so exceptional. Of course, that’s to be expected given that J. K. Rowling was involved in the park’s development, overseeing such things as menu items and storefronts. Moaning Myrtle’s voice resounds through the restrooms with a saccharine coo. Visitors are referred to as Muggles (when entering), students (when waiting in line in Professor Sprout’s greenhouse), and challengers (at the Triwizard Tournament–themed Dragon Challenge). Sirius Black’s face, shifting and glowering, greets visitors on a wanted poster (“Have you seen this wizard?”). The shops’ window displays are spot-on. Best of all, the staff is knowledgeable and as enthusiastic as we were.
It’s telling that even when the park lines are up to two hours long, it’s considered an “extremely slow day,” according to park employees. When the park first opened last June, the line to enter was 10 hours long.
Some advice for future visitors: consider going during the late fall off-season, when the heat, humidity, and crowds aren’t as bad. Unlike many other parks, there is no Fast Pass for purchase here.
The overall sentiment among our group was that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was worth the time and money in every way. In Kavita’s words, “If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you have to come.”
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is in Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Fla. More information about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is available here. Learn more about Universal Orlando here.
Erin Thibeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments