Skip Town: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Updated: Sep 5, 2018
Photos by Brian O’Neill
Even on the last page of seventh book, it didn’t feel final. After all, we still had four more years until the last frame of the last movie flickered across the silver screen. Now July 2011 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 have come and gone, leaving Potterphiles like me wondering how to resign themselves to the ordinary Muggle world. While J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore will launch next month as an online encyclopedia intended to enhance her bestselling series, many fans long for a more physical way to remain under the spell of their favorite books.
The ticket to lasting enchantment leads not to Little Whinging (home to the Dursleys), the Scottish highlands of Hogwarts or even to London. It’s actually found in a landlocked city in Florida best known for housing a certain mouse. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in Orlando in June 2010 and brings the magic of Rowling’s books to life for the first time.
But before you book your flight, hotel or portkey, be warned. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is not a standalone theme park. In fact, its 20 acres comprise just three rides that count as only one section of Islands of Adventure, Universal Studio’s newest theme park that is also home to Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent and Seuss Landing. An adult ticket for Islands of Adventure costs $85 for one day, but for $35 more, you also gain access to the original Universal Studios, where you can meet E.T. and flee from Jaws.
Of course, once you step foot inside Hogsmeade Village, you probably will no longer care how much that ticket cost. As the steam clears, the engine of the Hogwarts Express emerges, as though you’ve just disembarked from the train that begins at Platform 9 ¾ at London’s Kings Cross station and terminates in Hogsmeade. The village itself looks every inch the way it appears in the films, from the uneven cobblestones all the way up to the rooftops of each building sagging under the weight of the snow. (Snow! In Florida!)
Then you catch sight of the marvelously familiar names on the signs and find yourself making a beeline for Zonko’s Joke Shop and the sugary treats of Honeydukes. For something a little more substantial, order fish and chips next door at The Three Broomsticks and adjoining pub The Hog’s Head. While in those establishments, you simply must order a butterbeer, preferably frozen. What butterbeer lacks in alcohol (as in it has none), it more than makes up for in taste, combining the delectable flavors of cream soda and butterscotch into something truly unique. Butterbeer is also available fresh from the tap from roving carts in Hogsmeade and can help make standing in line outside Ollivanders Wand Shop a little more enjoyable. Inside the small store, 20 visitors enter at a time to watch as one child from the group experiences the thrill of being chosen by a wand a la Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If you’re lucky, you might witness some real-life magic when the kid’s face lights up in awe of the “wizardry” at play.
Of the three rides in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, two are roller coasters that were repurposed from other Islands of Adventure attractions. But even though dueling coasters Dragon Challenge and family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff lack some of the purpose-driven detail of the surrounding village, they are still worth checking out, if only to see Hagrid’s Hut and its many creatures.
The most bewitching jewel in The Wizarding World’s crown is indisputably Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which can be found inside Hogwarts castle. Nestled on high, the turrets of Hogwarts can actually be spotted throughout Islands of Adventure, and up close, it is no less breathtaking. Luckily, the queue for the Forbidden Journey winds through the castle’s grounds and interiors, giving you a chance to explore each detail. The wait can stretch for hours in peak times, but time goes quickly when you find yourself in Professor Sprout’s herbology classroom (and the many refreshing drinking fountains and shaded coverings certainly don’t hurt).
Unlike traditional coasters, the Forbidden Journey utilizes a robotic arm that takes you along a track, providing a much greater range of motion that finds riders flat on their backs, dangling over scenes while whipping forward. That can be a recipe for motion sickness, and copious signs warn about the ride’s potential to nauseate. The full-range action also requires that riders store all belongings in lockers, which are secured by fingerprint scan, before entering the line.
After winding through the castle’s passageways, seeing messages from projections of Harry, Ron and Hermione and finally being tightly secured on a magical bench, you begin your flight, which takes you through the Forbidden Forest to meet the descendents of Aragog, flying across the quidditch pitch, battling the whomping willow and even facing some soul-sucking dementors through a mixture of practical and projected effects.
After the Forbidden Journey’s end, you may be a newly crowned champion of Hogwarts, but you are still deposited in a gift shop. Yet soon it you’ll realize that Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods is much more. From enchanted parchment to house scarves to Death Eater uniforms, this shop is a Potter fan’s dream. Sure, you’ll also spot the standard T-shirts and coffee mugs, but what you’ll find yourself wanting most is a time-turner so you can experience The Wizarding World of Harry Potter all over again.