Harry Potter and Universal Studios

I might never go to Disney World again after a trip to Universal Studios in Orlando to see the Wizarding World of Dragon breathing fire atop Grigott's bankHarry Potter. The magic of activating animatronics from the wave of a wand, the perfection of detail, and the absolute visceral experience of the food, the rides, the shops, and the wonder of it all brought my inner child out to play. In this brilliant rendering of the settings of the Harry Potter series, dragons roar fire. Wands work. Butter beer, which is non-alcoholic, tastes like butterscotch-flavored root beer. Moaning Myrtle whines in the Girls bathroom.

The candy store sells chocolate frogs. The rides are fast and tip forward, backward and take rapid turns, so riders have to offload packpacks, purses, and loose items in lockers beforehand. I wish I had taken my cellphone to capture images of the twisting passageways and interior of the building leading up to the ride. We were told to leave anything we couldn’t secure in a pocket in the lockers, so I left my phone and bag in a locker. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride (in Hogsmeade inside Hogwarts) exceeded my expectations tenfold. As the ride flies under bridges and over buildings, riders lift their feet as if to clear the objects. My second-favorite ride is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (in Diagon Alley).

Escape from Gringotts includes special glasses for wowza 3D effects. The Hogwarts Express carries visitors between Universal Studios (The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley) and Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade) and is a wondrous ride in itself, full of illusion and magic. When you go, be sure to buy the park-to-park pass so you can travel on the train between the two parts of the Harry Potter’s London and Hogwarts worlds. Riders sit in train car booths just like the ones in the movies. train to HogwartsDiagon Alley is secreted away behind the plainest of entrances in Universal Studios. I adore that we had to hunt for this magical place. Within Diagon Alley in another hidden alley–Nocturne Alley. This is the darkest, coldest place in the world of Harry Potter, a place where Slytherins feel at home and wicked plots are hatched. Okay, yeah, you can also buy glass skulls and ornate t-shirts that cheer for team death eaters. This is a place where wizards wander in costume, both visitors and workers alike. Want your own Gryffindor scarf or robes? They are in Diagon Alley. Need a wand? They are available in a shop with crooked shelves stacked higher and higher and higher.

WeGringott bank teller dined at the Leaky Cauldron on British-style food with family. Fish and chips, bangers and mash, cottage pie, and more Butter Beer. The high-beamed ceiling had carved ornaments of horses, dragons, and such at the ends of the beams. And yes, a huge leaky cauldron. The food was far better than usual theme park fare.

Though I live thirty minutes from Universal Studios in Orlando, this is my first trip to see the Harry Potter addition. I suppose there are New Yorkers who have never seen Niagra Falls, and folks in Wyoming who haven’t seen Yellowstone National Park, right? Oh, all these years to miss something so spectacular in my own back yard….sigh.

The level of detail is stunning. Every walkway, passageway, building, shop, and ride evoked a wondrous sense of being in the world of Harry Potter. I almost bought a wand just for the map that came with it. If I had been ten years old, I would have used my hard-earned allowance to walk around Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade to use it. The special places where the wands can be tested are marked on the ground with a circular inlaid brass symbol. I watched a girl of six wave her wand according to her father’s instructions and the wand triggered the lights in a building to illuminate.

Scott and Sonja at Hogwarts

Scott and Sonja at Hogwarts

After finding the perfect ministry of magic t-shirt, I signed the receipt with a feather pen. The details were spot on at every turn. Even the shop clerk was in character as he warned me in ominous tones not to pretend to work for the ministry of magic because it might carry consequences.

Elizabeth and the Hogwarts Express.

Elizabeth and the Hogwarts Express.

If you’ve seen the movies or read the books–or like me, have done both–then skip Disney, go experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando. Play like a kid again. You will salute J.K. Rowling with a Butter Beer.