Being a nerd, I am very hard to please. Things have to be just right and if they are off or are different than the image in my head, I hate it. I love the Harry Potter books, and the movies upset me because they left so much out. They did a good job bringing the look of the world of Harry Potter to life, but I felt like they didn't catch me like the books did. The movies were good for something, however. They led to the creation of the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and it's expansion, Diagon Alley. Both parks exceeded all of my expectations, and I literally burst into tears the first time I saw the Hogwarts Express parked in Hogsmeade. I was crying because I felt that I was in Hogsmeade. Not some muggle half-assed recreation, but the real macoy. Below is my breakdown and guide of some of the attractions in both parks.
Let's start by discussing the Hogsmeade side, on Universal's Islands of Adventure. This was the original Harry Potter park, and what better way to start than its signature drink. If you like butterscotch and marshmallows then you will love butterbeer. I recommend the frozen version, it's more like a slushie, and the marshmallow doesn't feel like a weird film on the top of your beverage. This winter, because it was a freezing 50 degrees in Florida, they were offering a hot version. I did not try it, since I don't like butterscotch, but I can only image that this is the form butterbeer was meant to be drunk in.
Olivander's Wand Shop
What's great about this show is that, more than anything in the park, it really makes you feel like you are part of the world. Without giving too much away, the wand master picks an audience member seemingly at random, (I'm sure there's some kind of system) and has them try several wands. As spells go hilariously wrong, eventually they pick out a perfect wand for that one guest, and then usher the rest of you into the shop to buy your own wands. The attention to detail is immaculate - some of the wand boxes that are picked out for guests are buried in huge piles, and covered in dust as if they've been there for decades.
Too. Freaking. Cool. Seriously, a must see. Even if you already have a wand, it is worth going to see this show. The first time we visited, we waited in line for an hour and a half, and it was worth it. The dedication to the character, and the chance of having a wand choose you totally amazing. (And they do pick adults sometimes, I've seen it -ED) Note to the public, if you want to get picked, just make sure you are going with me and stand in front of me, that guarantees you will be picked. We went three times and all three times the person in front of me got picked.
The Hogwarts Choir / Triwizard demonstration
Every thirty minutes, outside of Hogwarts, the visitors are treated to two shows, the Hogwarts toad choirs and a demonstration from the Durmstrang Institute and the Beauxbatons Academy of Magic. The acapella choir is awesome, and several of the wizards are holding toads that sing the base parts of the songs. The songs they sing will be stuck in your head for the whole day, and I especially loved their rendition of "something wicked this way comes". The triwizard demonstration is pretty neat. The Durmstrang boys are dashing and strong and the Beauxbaton ladies float on air. Except, ladies guard your men form those Beauxbaton floosies. I almost got into a duel with one of them when she blew a kiss to my man.
The Forbidden Journey
The lead up to this ride is unforgettable. The line winds outside of Hogwarts, through the scream mandrake beds, and then you enter Hogwarts, and just, wow. The amount of details and thought that went into the line is awesome. There are little vignettes with the characters to set up the ride and then right before you get on the ride, the sorting hat tells you all the safety instructions. Along with the usual safety warnings, they should add arachnophobia and fear of Dementors. The pictures of me on the ride are priceless. A bit topsy turvy for those who don't like roller coaster type thrill rides, but my mother-in-law got past it, so anyone can do it.
We all have to go eventually, and there is an awesome surprise in the bathrooms. (But sadly only in Hogsmeade.) Yet another testament to the attention to detail.
Make sure to sent yourself or someone else a postcard from the owlery. The Postmark actually says Hogsmeade, just another level of detail that adds to the authenticity of the park. We sent a friend an admission letter to Hogwarts one year, and they've treasured it ever since.
The Lead Up to Diagon Ally
And now we move from Universal's Islands of Adventure, to the original Universal Studios Florida. The entrance into Diagon Alley looks like a London street with the Night Bus waiting outside. No really, it looked like London, complete with the lion heads lining the bank of the lagoon. Having just recently been in London, we recogonized Kings Crossing before we saw the sign. They matched the color of the brick and the architecture perfectly. Next to King's Crossing is a series of storefronts, complete with CCTV notices in the windows. They recreated Her Royal Majesty's Theater, and finally Grimmauld place, complete with Kreacher peeking out from number 12.
Diagon Alley is not visible from the outside, and you need to walk through what seems to be a brick wall until suddenly you are transported to Diagon Alley. Unlike the Wizarding World, Diagon Alley is a series of specialized shops. You have your quidditch supplier, robe and other school supplies, animal companion shop, Zonko's, and of course Olivanders. In Hogsmeade, these items are combined into smaller stores, and often are way to crowded. That problem is solved by Diagon Alley's abundance of space.
The Alley is spacious and beautiful, but can get crowded when everyone is standing outside of Gringots bank, waiting for the dragon to breathe fire. Insiders hint: she grumbles for about a minute before she breathes fire. There is no need to just stand there like an idiot with your phone slowly dying waiting for something that happens every twenty minutes. (Seriously, stop it. -Ed)
The ride itself is decent. I feel like if I was five it would have been awesome. I was expecting more of a roller coaster, because the vaults of Gringots are a roller coaster tycoon's wet dream. As it was, it was a tame simulator ride. The lead up is great, another testament to the level of detail that the park engineers and designers put into Diagon Alley. But again, it is not the awesome coaster it could have been. It's still an enjoyable experience for the fans, I just wish it could have been more.
The Leaky Cauldron
In Hogsmeade, you can dine at the delicious Three broomsticks and Boar's Head, where you can get some delectable British delights like shepard's pie, and pasties. At the Leaky Cauldron, they take the British dining experience to a whole new level. They have traditional British breakfasts complete with proper British bacon rashers. If you don't dig baked beans and blood sausage in the morning, then you can feast on a traditional American breakfast of pancakes, sausage and lame american bacon. We loved breakfast so much we went there for lunch as well, where they had a proper plowman's lunch. They also provide other British favorites like Guiness lamb stew, and of course, fish and chips. It also seemed more spacious than the dining area in Hogsmeade. I think J.K. Rowling gave them some leeway on her specifications after seeing the difficulties of the small cramped dining and shopping areas in Hogsmeade. However, they didn't budge on the soda issue. Instead of soda you may dine on Fishy Green Ale (a mint ginger ale of sorts with pop rocks in it), Otter's Fizzy Orange juice, Tongue Tying Lemon Squash, or Peachtree Fizzing Tea. Not going to lie, they are all weird and strangely delicious. If you drink beer, there is Wizard's Brew or Dragon Scale Ale. You can't even get normal water, it is Gillywater. There are no normal beverages in Diagon Ally, but there are a lot more places to get Butterbeer.
Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour
A perfect way to polish off a meal is a visit to Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour. In true Harry Potter fashion they have unique flavors in both soft serve and hard packed varieties. They have an array of toppings, so don't come in unless you have substantial room in your tummy, as they give you very generous portions.
WADA Puppet Shows
Just like in Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley has its own version of free shows that happen every half hour. These shows are provided by WADA (Wizarding Academy of the Dramatic Arts) graduates. The shows are puppet shows and it is magical how life-like the performers can make the puppets. They perform two of Beadle the Bard's tales: the Fountain of Fair Fortune and the Tale of Three Brothers. Really an amazing way to pass a few minutes, and if I had my choice I would so apply to WADA instead of Hogwarts!
Not that I'm judging you if you really want to practice the Dark Arts, but I'm totally judging you. Knockturn Alley is a one stop shopping area for all thing related to the dark arts. Basically a Death Eater's delight. It is wonderfully creepy, and barely lit. The people working the alley are awesomely devoted to their character. We heard tales of unsuspecting children giving their wands to the workers in the ally and the worker exclaims, "Don't you know not to give your wand to a dark wizard!" One worker that we interrogated assured us that he only practiced that one spell once and that he is working out his penance teaching the muggles magic in Knockturn Alley. "It was that or Azkaban," he said, "and I am beginning to think Azkaban would have been better."
With the creation of Diagon Ally, they added a new feature to both parks that makes you feel like an honest to god wizard. Now the wand that you can purchase at Olivanders can interact with the environment, and you can make things move in shop windows, and interact with fountains, and it is totally worth buying another wand. Its a small thing that goes a long way toward making your visit feel magical and awesome. The only major issue is that a small line forms at each spell area, so you may end up seeing the magical effect three or four times before you perform it, just like Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. Pro-tip: use small sharp motions and point your wand at the sensor. Also, while it's not necessary, it just feels cooler to say the spell aloud.
The Hogwarts Express- Kings Cross Station
Why walk to the other park when you can take the train over? First of all I felt like I was in the the actual Kings Cross Station, just strangely shrunk down. There are ticket takers with pretty authentic looking uniforms for the British Rail employees (on the other side they have a more vibrant uniform with reds and golds). Because it is just a train station, the beginning part of the line is a little boring, but then it becomes amazing. Yes my friends, you go through platform nine and three quarters and while it doesn't look like you are disappearing through a wall to yourself, to the others behind you in line ,you magically go through the wall. It's an incredible effect that I won't spoil here. Once you are through, you see the Express and Hedwig is there as well. The cars fit about eight people and the windows are projection of the wall outside. Once you start moving, the picture changes showing you the lovely town of London, which changes to the countryside, and finally transitions to Hogswarts. Through out the ride things happen outside your window and your door. The ride is different depending on the direction, and I personally like the Kings Cross to Hogsmeade the best, but all in all, a very enjoyable way to get between the parks. Just make sure you bought a park hopper, or else you won't be allowed to board.
Nothing makes me happier than going to a place like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and Diagon Alley because they make it so easy to forget you are in the real world. They are fully committed to making the world real to you and man do they succeed.
Mae Linh Fatum, a.k.a the wife, is a high-school math and Physics teacher. In other words, she is a real life wizard. She is a huge fan of Harry Potter (Go Ravenclaw!) obviously, but also enjoys Star Trek, board games, cats, and knitting.
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