by Julie Bookman
Amusement park action in Orlando is never a relaxing vacation, but if the top goal is a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, then your family really has its work cut out. You need to set priorities and strategize the wait lines. For example, go for the famous “butterbeer” (think a shortbread and butterscotch concoction – with a frothy vanilla topping) as a sugary jolt for the morning, because you might spend 30 minutes in line for it later in the day. If a visit to Ollivander’s wand shop is a must, make that first thing in the morning, or last thing at night – otherwise expect to wait more than an hour just for your few minutes inside for the demonstration by wise old Ollivander himself.
Since it opened in 2010, the $265 million Potter section has brought capacity crowds to Universal Orlando Resort’s Islands of Adventure park. On the recent day I visited with a Potter-loving daughter and other youngsters, the theme park was bursting at the seams and not everyone inside could happily get their fix of Harry, Hermione and Hogwarts. The Harry Potter world within – a wonderfully atmospheric street lined with steep-roofed, “snow”-draped stone shops reminiscent of merry olde England – was at capacity; patrons were given numbers that allowed them to return to the Potter zone at a specific time later that day.
“It was definitely worth it to stay at an official Universal property,” says Jennifer Aqua of Sandy Springs, who recently ventured to Orlando with husband Stephen Szabo and their three kids to soak up some Pottermania. When you stay at one of three Universal properties, such as the Loews Portofino Bay, your hotel key card doubles as an “Express” pass that lets you bypass the regular wait line for most rides in both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. Another Universal guest benefit: You get a one-hour jump on the rest of the Muggles (human types) and gain entrance at 7 a.m. That’s what the Aqua-Szabo family did, and also what we did. We rose in the dark to be at the water taxi dock by 6:30 a.m. – just to be smack at the entrance gates by 7 a.m.
Suddenly, everyone was running through other park sections, such as the crazy-colorful Seuss Landing, just to reach the 20-acre Potter site inspired by J.K. Rowling’s seven-book series. Once you get to the magnificent gates and glimpse the Hogwarts Express train (an exact replica from the one in the film), you are pretty amazed. Two things pop into your head: How the heck did all these other folks already beat us here? And: How on Earth did they dream up this place? For the true Potter fan, this is the next best thing to reading the book series for the first time. Unlike the Universal Studios park next door (with rides and attractions inspired by movies from E.T. to Twister), or the rest of the Islands of Adventure park, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter feels intimate – a world unto itself. You’re surrounded by “veddy British” places such as the Hog’s Head pub. You’re saying “hello” to fellow book lovers, many wearing their gold-and-red Gryffindor scarves or Hogwarts robes. Best of all, you don’t have a sense that other sections of the park are anywhere nearby, such as that Lost Continent section where you can consider the remains of Poseidon’s Fury if you don’t mind standing a lot, or the Marvel Super Hero Island, which has a great Incredible Hulk roller coaster and a thrilling Spider-Man 3D ride that was our favorite non-Potter experience.
A number of Rowling’s literary locations in both Hogsmeade (the village near Hogwarts school) and other parts of England have been linked for this Potter land. When we visited, it was impossible to turn around inside either Honeyduke’s sweet shop or Dervish and Banges, which has loads of clever general merchandise such as quill pens with super-long feathers. Hottest souvenir by far: A carved wand, in a handsome box, from Ollivander’s ($30, many varieties).
Jennifer Aqua said that her three kids, including Harry Potter expert Abigail, 14 (who has read every book 10 times), had initially been given a vacation choice, but the Wizarding World at Universal “won out over going someplace fancier, like the Bahamas.” In the end, Abigail “was not disappointed,” Aqua said. “I can say that Harry Potter lived up to our expectations. We did everything we wanted to do, and two days was enough.”
Thanks to the early-bird scheme, our group rode the multimedia Forbidden Journey ride twice in one day, then again the following day. We spoke to a number of guests who declared it the “greatest ride ever,” and plenty said they felt as if they were actually following Harry Potter on a wicked-fast broom ride. Equally exhilarating was the one-hour walk through the Hogwarts castle on the way to boarding our “brooms.” There’s so much to examine throughout the immense castle, including props from some of the Harry Potter films, that we actually wanted to go through the line all over again.
In fact, we want to go back to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But for now, a good book with a fantastical plot will have to do.
part of Universal Orlando’s
Islands of Adventure theme park
6000 Universal Blvd., Orlando, Fla.
Tickets: $85 per adult for a one-day pass, $79 ages 3-9 for one-day pass; various ticket packages available. (Prices same for Universal Studios park.)
Hours: Vary according to time of year, spring breaks, holidays, etc., so it’s best to confirm times in advance.