Saturday, October 4, 2014 / No comments

Hogwarts in Humidity: My Journey to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!


Here it is... something I've been dreaming about for years, ever since I heard they were going to open it in Florida and I knew I couldn't wait until they opened one at Universal Studios Hollywood, which would have been totally closer logistically but not open until 2015... But I finally got to visit Universal Studios Orlando and see Hogwarts/Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley!!! My sister Madelyn kindly came along to accompany me while I nerded out.

(Apologies for the run-on sentence. I'm just excited.)

Yes, three days at Universal Studios, one day at Disneyworld (separate post about that coming soon!). Four days of pure magic. And lots of sweat, because it was like 80% humidity.

After a 5:00am flight and a layover in Houston, Texas (huge airport, by the way), I arrived in Orlando, Florida to meet up with my big sister Madelyn. We then hopped on a shuttle to our hotel, the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, a Universal onsite hotel. It was a fun retro hotel, modeled after the 50's and 60's, with vintage cars parked outside. Super bonus points for being able to go to the parks an hour before it's official opening hours!

Saturday afternoon we arrived in Orlando, and Sunday morning we went to start at Universal's Island of Adventures (we bought access to both parks: Island of Adventures and Universal Studios), where we promptly forgot that IOA doesn't open an hour early, but Universal Studios does. Oops. So we scooted on over to Universal Studios and walked towards the the far side of the park where we knew Harry Potter land (which is what my family and myself call it, instead of it's proper name. We're all about abbreviations for anything longer than two words) was. We knew we had arrived when we saw the giant purple Knight Bus and King's Cross station.


Apparently, if you dial "MAGIC" (62442), you get the Ministy of Magic. It didn't work for me :(
Right next to King's Cross and a couple of stores that were copied after record and book stores from London, was number 12 Grimmauld Place, which hardcore Potterheads like myself will recognize as Sirius Black's childhood home and then the secret official headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. I had read that occasionally you could see Kreacher the house elf peeking around the curtains in one of the windows but I didn't get to see him.


After watching the conductor of the Knight Bus and the shrunken head interacting with people over at the Knight Bus, we went next door to King's Cross, which we saw was made entirely of brick. Walking into that entry, with the sound of scraping bricks playing, an archway of bricks appeared overhead and once we passed through it we knew we had arrived in Diagon Alley. It was truly like stepping right into the books and movies, which is something every Harry Potter fan has always wanted to do.


Right when you arrive in Diagon Alley, the first thing you see is the bright orange joke shop of Fred and George Weasley, Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. Looking around, we saw that they had a multitude of wizarding shops, from ones that you could actually go into, like Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, a Quality Quidditch Supplies store, Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour (featuring Butterbeer ice cream!), Ollivander's wand shop, and so much more to explore.

On Hagrid's motorbike
 After being breath-taken by all of the detail that was on every storefront, window, wall, we stumbled across the giant dragon on top of Gringotts, the wizarding bank. Every so often the giant dragon will breathe fire and it certainly is a sight to see but I never quite managed to snap a picture of it.


The Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride is the newest ride in the Harry Potter sections of the parks, and since we had gotten there a little bit before the general public, the wait time was barely anything. We were then introduced to the lockers that both Universal parks use, because for some rides you can't have our belongings with you (you know, in case you swerve, go upside down, and all that jazz). While you wait in line, you wait in Gringotts (which is beautiful and marble inside with giant crystal chandeliers- be jealous, Sia) where you see all of the goblins working at their desks. The animatronics of the goblins were incredible. They looked so life like and their movements- blinks. turns, writing with their quills- was expertly executed.

From there as we waited in line, we got to walk through Gringotts and get our offical picture taken (which you could purchase later. After the ride Madelyn and I looked at our picture and were like, "nope!" The flash was not kind to us. Can you say albino?). After a little bit of a wait, we got to the ride. It was really well done. We had to wear 3D glasses and the effects were crazy good and it was fun to see Bill Weasley, Bellatrix Lestrange, Voldemort and the rest of the gang, but it seemed like it was super short and a little unsatisfying, to be honest.


Madelyn and I decided after the ride and some sight seeing that we need to get some water and try a Butterbeer. To my great amusement, the water bottle we bought was called Gilly Water. If you haven't read the books, Gillyweed is what Neville gave Harry so he could breath underwater during the second Triwizard tournament challenge. It was a super nice touch that as a fan of the books I really appreciated.


We then each had our very first Butterbeers, which I can only tell you were incredibly sweet, like drinking straight melted butterscotch that was carbonated. They put sweet cream on top to look like the head on beer. I had a couple of sips and I was done. I'm not the biggest butterscotch fan, but Madelyn seemed to enjoy it.


Me, enjoying a sugary sweet Butterbeer
I then decided that of course, I needed to buy a wand at Ollivander's. I had heard that Ollivander's was a popular attraction so it would most likely be crowded, but I was pleased to see that the wait was non-existent and we got right in. We were then escorted to a small room filled with wands (the whole store was filled top to bottom with stacks of wands!) and were treated to Mr. Ollivander himself, who helped a young audience member pick out the perfect wand for herself. The whole thing was short but very sweet and reminiscent of the scene in the first Harry Potter movie where Harry find his wand. Lot of fun special effects and both the kids and the adults in the crowd really enjoyed themselves.


Post show, we went back into the main shop of Ollivander's, and shopped around for wands. They had replicas of the characters' wands, and they also had some Ollivander's originals. I had my heart set on getting a replica of Hermione's wand, because once I saw how they made it look for the movies, I fell in love. I absolutely adore pretty vine patterns and I just thought the wand was the lovliest one of the bunch. I also liked Luna Lovegood's, but I decided to show some restraint. (Kudos to me) I also could have bought an interactive wand for $10 more that I could use around Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, where there are markers for spells you could do. I figured you could only use the wand at the parks and I was trying (but not really) to save money, so I didn't. But it was fun to watch the people who did buy the interactive wands trying to figure out what to do to use the spells. In front of Honeyduke's, the candy shop in Hogsmeade, if you waved your wand in front of the Chocolate Frog's display in the window, the giant chocolate frog box would open and the chocolate frog inside the box would hop.

A marker for a place to cast a spell using an interactive wand
Weasley's Wizard Wheezes was brightly colored and pure fun. It had a variety of candy (Puking Pastilles, Nosebleed Nougets, and the like) to items like Fanged Frisbees and the very cute Pygmy Puffs. If you look up you can see a little replica of Dolores Umbridge going back and forth on a tight rope on the second floor.



A Dolores Umbridge lookalike in Weasley's Wizard Wheezes
Once we thought we had sufficiently explored Diagon Alley for the morning, my sister and I went to King's Cross Station and waited for the Hogwarts Express (which goes from Universal Studios to Island of Adventure and vice versa). The highlight for me was seeing the people in front of us walk through the wall between platforms 9 and 10 (a clever trick but you couldn't see yourself disappear. Boo) It was fun to wait because they had piles of students' trunks everywhere and Hedwig the owl waiting in her cage. The kids in line got a real kick out of seeing Hedwig turn her head and hoot. Heck, I got a kick out of it.



We were then seated on the Hogwarts Express and while traveling, the window in our compartment changed and we went from London to Hogwarts, seeing favorite (and not so favorite) characters along the way. There was even some shadows from the corridors of Harry, Ron, Hermione and others. It was a great way to escape the heat and humidity and just sit and rest before arriving at the other park. (If you go from IOA to Universal Studios, there is a different sequence from Hogwarts to London, so it's worth going on it twice, from both parks, to get both sides of the journey)



We walked out of the station and stumbled across the wizarding village of Hogsmeade. It was crowded with people, but we could see the tall towers of Hogwarts from over Hogsmeade's villages. Seeing Hogwarts (even this slightly smaller version) was quite awe inspiring and had my 11 year old self wishing that Hogwarts really was real and how I had truly hoped that one day I would have gotten my acceptance letter. But seeing this version of Hogwarts was close enough.


Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was by far my favorite ride from the trip. You got to go into the castle while you waited in line and you get to see artifacts from the movies. The Mirror of Erised, the Fat Lady portrait, Dumbledore's office (complete with Dumbledore!), the Sorting Hat- you even got to wait part of the time in the Hogwarts greenhouse, where you could see the potted Mandrakes. There was even a part of the wait that you were in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom and witness Harry, Ron, and Hermione conspiring to get you out of Professor Binns' lectures and sneak you into a Quidditch match, which is the entire premise of the ride.

The ride itself was incredibly entertaining, with both giant screens, 3D effects and animatronics mixed into a perfect harmony that actually made you feel like you were flying and experiencing the same things that Harry and crew get to feel as in their magical world. There were lots of lively moments and lots of scary "oh no" moments and once the ride was over you just wanted to go on it again. In fact, over the next four days, Madelyn and I went on it a grand total of four times. It was that good.

Waiting in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Potted mandrakes!

The Pensieve in Dumbledore's office

The Sorting Hat, which talked to us while we waited for the ride

The entry to Dumbledore's moving spiral staircase

 We then explored the permanently snow covered Hogsmeade, which had an Owl Post (filled with animatronic owls that hooted and moved), another Ollivander's (they also had caravans in other parts that also sold wands), and the candy store, Honeydukes.




I have to say, at Honeydukes, we went a little crazy. It was just so cute and full of fun candy and whimsical touches, that we ended up staying and looking for quite some time. They had the ever popular Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans (which includes good and bad flavors), Chocolate Frogs (which has a collectible witch or wizard trading card in every box), Acid Pops, Cauldron Cakes, Fudge Flies, Peppermint Toads, Sugar Quills, chocolate wands, and so much more. I didn't buy anything that day, because I didn't want it to melt, but on our last day, I certainly stocked up on candies to share with others. Okay, that I'll maybe share with people.

After spending most of the morning doing and exploring all things Harry Potter, we ventured into the Jurassic Park area and rode the Jurassic Park River Adventure twice. We then realized why everyone was wearing those dorky looking plastic ponchos. IOA has some intense water rides! Thankfully we didn't get too soaked. Not until day two.

Once we were done exploring the Jurassic Park section, we headed back to Universal Studios and went to the Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem ride. The Despicable Me ride was incredibly cool and the graphics were amazing. It was another 3D ride where you actually felt like you were zipping through Gru's lab with the minions themselves (and you actually become a minion!). Bonus points for the cute story line and the minions outside of the gift shop taking pictures with some very excited kids.





After our jam packed day, we were pooped from being up early, so we headed back to our room at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. We then proceeded to relax and watch cable. We know how to party.

Day two we decided that since the Jurassic Park water ride was so fun, we should start with some of the water rides at IOA. First up was Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. It was essentially Universal's version of Disney's Splash Mountain, but more intense and the splash at the end, to me, was way bigger. After that we hit up Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges. If we weren't wet after Ripsaw Falls, we certainly were after the Popeye ride! Every single one of us on the ride got off soaking wet. We then knew the protective power of the dorky plastic ponchos everyone around this area of the park was wearing.

Due to Orlando being incredibly humid, my jean shorts did not dry for the rest of the day. Actually, they didn't completely dry until I came home and I put them in the wash and were able to completely dry in the dryer. So is the life of an adventurer of theme parks.

Deciding to walk around in a feeble attempt to dry off, we headed back up to Hogsmeade to check out the few rides that we hadn't been on. Flight of the Hippogriff was a family friendly roller coaster, and during the wait you got to walk past a huge scarecrow and pumpkins, and Hagrid's hut. Once you get on the roller coaster, it's fast but there aren't any upsides loops and it's enough of a thrill without giving you a heart attack. I brought my iPod touch on the ride with me so I could snap a few shots of Buckbeak in his nest.




Buckbeak the Hippogriff
Hagrid is a favorite character of every Potter fan and I was delighted to see his quaint hut in the flesh. Though I would have loved to see a full scale model and go inside and possibly sit in an oversize chair meant for a half giant and eat some rock cakes (well, maybe not the rock cakes).

I had told my sister (and many others, actually) on multiple occasions that I wasn't going to be going on any roller coasters this trip. Well, Madelyn wanted to go on the Dragon Challenge, a Triwizard Tournament ride based on the second challenge, which features two dragon roller coasters racing each other. Being a wonderful little sister, I manned up and decided to give it a try (uuuughhh). I was so nervous to go on the ride that I completely forgot to bring my iPod or my iPhone to take pictures, which I should have, because since the ride was Triwizard Tournament themed, there were homemade banners and signs lining the pathway saying things like, "Support Potter!" or "Fleur Delacour, the Beauxbaton Champion!" and other signs featuring Viktor Krum and Cedric Diggory (may he rest in peace. Sorry. Spoiler?).

While waiting in line, you even got to go into the striped tent that the four Triwizard champions wait in before the second challenge (which featured dragons as well) and see the Triwizard Cup. The ride itself was short, which was good because we went upside down a couple of times and I don't think me along with most other people could have taken much more. I was a little dizzy once I got off of the ride, but I'll just scratch that up as just leftover nerves before the ride (I mean, it's not like I needed a fainting couch or anything). Let's just say I didn't ride again, but my sister did. I was perfectly content holding her purse and waiting for her while I perused the outside windows of Honeydukes again.

For the rest of the day, and our last day at the Universal parks, we mostly kept exploring both parks (and we went on the Forbidden Journey ride twice in a row. Again, it's that good), but we spent much of our time in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. There really is so much to see, so much detail in every nook and cranny- the art team who designed and constructed it should be truly commended. I honestly could have spent all three days just in the Harry Potter parts of the parks, but I though I'd be nice to my sister, who isn't a huge geek like I am (she did like the frozen Butterbeer better than the regular. Less sweet and more refreshing, she said). We both enjoyed shopping at Honeydukes, where I may have bought a bit too much candy. But it's not like all of it was for me, I bought the candy to share. (wink)

Ollivander's wand shop

An entrance to Hogsmeade

Cornish Pixies peeking out of a cauldron after someone casts a spell using an interactive wand

Sadly, our time at Universal Studio's came to an end on our third day. I had been frequently checking the weather reports to make sure that we weren't caught in the rain, and we decided to call it quits about mid-afternoon before the weather got too bad. I can't believe how much fun I had. It was such an awesome experience and a definite must for any Harry Potter fan who loves both the books and movies. It's the closest thing we fans have to magic in our Muggle world. I am incredibly excited for the one at Universal Studios Hollywood to open next year, especially since it's closer and we have family living there. I'd love to take a trip there and show my family the magic and wonder that I experienced. It truly was fantastic time. I can't wait to go back and see what details I may have missed (they had several shows, a few of which we were able to catch. And I missed the Wizarding World at night!). So long, Hogwarts- I'll miss you! But I'll be back.

Me at Number 12 Grimmauld Place
Now I want to hear from you guys! Has anyone else been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? What did you like most? What are some fun things/details I may have missed? Let me know!

***

Here are some helpful websites that helped me plan out how I explored the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. There is a lot of information, hacks, and easter eggs that really helped me (Plus their pictures are way better than mine!):

29 Tips to Make Your Day Magical At the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
10 tips to conquering the magically crowded Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida
Insider's guide to Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Tips for Visiting the Harry Potter Theme Park
A Complete Survival Guide to Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Tips for Planning a Visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

And of course, the main website for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, for all of your general information:
Universal Studio's Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Also, information on the hotel that I stayed at:
Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort
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