Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Universal Studios)

I am currently on the road (surprise, right?), working our way from Florida to Pennsylvania on a road trip my mom has been wanting to take for years, to get back to our roots, apparently. It was short notice that we were doing this. I had gone to Orlando with my friends last week to spend two days at Universal. Came home and less than 48 hours later, we were on the road. So hopefully, we'll have some good times to share.

This post is about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter only. I may add a review of the other parts of the Universal Studios amusement parks, but I wanted to get this part done while it was stiff fresh in my very limited memory. 

(Hogwarts Castle & Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey Ride)

I have to first admit, I'm a late bloomer when it comes to "Harry Potter". My friends have tried getting me hooked for years, but after recently moving back to Florida, curiosity got the best of me and I asked a couple of friends, and their Harry Potter-addict daughter to go with me to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. She made me watch all the movies first (marathon style!), then made me go to the official J.K. Rowling website, www.pottermore.com (an addiction all on it's own!) to find out what house I belonged in. I am Ravenclaw. All four of us were in a different house so we were representing everyone. 

We timed it great at the end of September, but I'd say October to April would be perfect. It was still pretty warm and very humid when we went. We went on a Tuesday and Wednesday when the kiddies were in school and "the season" was technically over. Definitely the time to do it if you want to avoid long waits. And be warned, Universal makes you pay a big chunk of money if you want to have a "Fast" pass like Disney offers for free (at the moment...give them time!), so the timing of your visit is important. 

Let me explain something that confused me at first: There are two ends to the Harry Potter world; one end in each park (see this link for interactive map). Therefore if you want the whole experience, you have to buy a park-hopper and I suggest a 2-day minimum. There are other things to see in the parks besides Harry Potter, so give yourself enough time for all of it. Floridians get a special resident discount, and if you want a season pass (there are 3 types of passes, each getting more and more expensive, but hey! They'll let you make monthly payments!). What we would consider the 'original' Harry Potter, which is where Hogwarts Castle, Flight of the Hippogriff, Dragon Challenge and Hogsmeade are, is actually in Universal's Island of Adventure. The newest part of the Harry Potter area is in Universal Studios. The Hogwarts Express, which is a new train ride, takes you between the two parks. It's just like being on the real train. You sit in a cabin, and out your window you see different locations and people from the stories, and on the aisle side, there are shadows of Harry, Ron and Hermione walking by and chocolate frogs escaping and you can hear them having a conversation before they move on. I don't actually think the train moves very far at all, but it seems like it does. I think it's about a 4 minute ride.
The graphics out of the train window were awesome. You see Hagrid, centaurs, and the Weasley twins flying around, popping off fireworks in the landscape. I think we rode the train at least 3 times while we were there. The Hogwarts Express takes you to the newest part, Diagon Alley. Over 1 million people visited in the first month it was open. The Diagon Alley section was much bigger than I thought it would be (it's actually like a small town), but there really aren't that many stores. A lot of false fronts, but the atmosphere is just awesome and trust me, there's no shortage of things to buy or drool over. Be careful stumbling around Knockturn Alley, where it's said light never penetrates. 

And definitely find yourself some BUTTER BEER! They have stands selling it in Hogsmeade as well as the Three Broomsticks. There's a pub at the corner of Knockturn Alley (The Leaky Cauldron) where you can get that or the real thing. In the center of Diagon Alley is Gringott's; the bank run by goblins. The inside of the bank itself is impressive, with the goblins working hard. There is a new 4-D ride there. I actually liked it better than the ride at Hogwart's Castle ride ("Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey"), which almost made me nauseous. The next morning I took the Dramamine before I got to the park. It's getting so hard to tell what is real and what isn't anymore. I don't think we waited longer than 10-15 minutes at any of the H.P. rides. 

On top of Gringott's (which is where "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringott's" ride is) outside is a fire-breathing dragon. I actually liked that ride better than the one in Hogwarts castle. And don't forget to stop at Ollivander's in either Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley and see what wand suits you (it's actually a little skit taken from the first movie). Another cool thing is you can buy a special wand, that actually interacts with areas throughout both park sections. There are markers on the street and if you stand there and wave the magic wand, something magical will happen. 

We had a blast and I can now count myself in with millions of true Harry Potter fans. One of the only things I didn't like (and this was true for many of the rides in both parks), you are required to take all loose items and bags and put them in the free lockers provided nearby. However, whoever thought that up is an idiot because there's one video screen issuing and opening all the surrounding lockers, but you have to wait for everyone to get out of the way and sometimes there are like 4 people trying to get into one locker. It's a bottle-neck situation. One person could probably handle it. And, if you don't keep a phone or camera with you, you can't take any pictures of the inside of the castle or bank while waiting for your turn, and there are quite a few things you might want a picture of (btw...it is possible to take photos "out the window" on the Hogwarts Express as long as you don't use a flash). Also, I recommend being at the gate when the park opens and heading straight for Hogwarts in Island of Adventure. Reason being (and my logic really did work here), everyone wants to see the new part in the other park, especially those who have been to Hogwarts before. We walked right on the Hogwarts "Forbidden Journey", "The Dragon Challenge", Ollivander's, and "Flight of the HippoGriff" rides. As soon as we were headed over to Diagon Alley, those folks were headed for Hogwarts. We had an awesome time and I definitely recommend it for youngsters and adults alike. I see many more visits in my future!

(Entrance to Diagon Alley from "London". Weasley's Wizard Wheezes is on the right)

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