December 7, 2011

When my sister and I were making our plans to visit the Harry Potter theme park at Universal Orlando Resort (the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) in Florida, the question we got most frequently was, “How many kids are in your party?”

To which we answered, “None.”

Because we grown-ups like Harry Potter – and theme parks — too. That’s why, along with two adult friends, we spent the first weekend in December checking out the wizarding playground based on the books by J.K. Rowling.

We’re serious fans. We’re the people who buy the books at midnight and spend the next day reading, the people who have bookmarked on their computers, the people who see the movies multiple times – sometimes in costume. My sister even named her youngest daughter Luna, inspired by a Potter character.

The entire site is divided into two separate parks: Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park, which includes the Harry Potter rides, and the Universal Studios Florida theme park. They are within easy walking distance of each other and you can buy one pass for both parks.

Here’s what I liked best:

The Forbidden Journey. This simulated ride takes you out of the castle, through the quidditch pitch, and on a mini adventure with Harry and his friends. I’ll admit it: We rode this six times in three days. We’d read other guides that said to run to this ride immediately upon getting to the Harry Potter section of the park and it was good advice. We never waited long, and the waits we had was off-set by the many things to see in the castle.

Going during the off-season. The weather was still lovely in early December– in the high 60s and low 70s – and we had no problem with crowds, save for inside the HP-themed stores. We never waited more than 10 minutes to get on a ride. Things were even more low-key after dark, when the castle and Hogsmeade looked amazing lit up. We took the opportunity to visit Ollivander’s wand shop then, when there was no line waiting for the brief performance featuring a wand choosing a wizard.

The attention to detail. It was excellent, from Moaning Myrtle’s whining overheard in the women’s bathroom to the clerk who handed me the credit card slip and said, “Could you sign this for the Ministry?” I loved the shop windows: one featured a screaming Mandrake, another a display of Gilderoy Lockhart books, another quidditch bludgers trying to break out of their case.

Butterbeer. While my companions found it a little too sweet, I thought the Butterbeer was quite tasty. I had mine frozen and it was like a butterscotch slushie. We enjoyed ours over lunch at The Three Broomsticks, where the menu included Shepherd’s Pie and Roast chicken.

The employees. I was amused each time they greeted us with a “Welcome, Muggles.” They were patient and helpful, allowing us to try on robes and scarves, generally make a mess of things and take pictures, and then not buy anything. The conductor standing outside of the Hogwarts’ Express never lost his smile, even when my sister gave him a little extra hug. (“I couldn’t help myself,” she explained.)


More rides. There are three Harry Potter-themed rides and only one, the Forbidden Journey, featured HP characters. The other two are roller coasters. One, the Dragon Challenge, is a good coaster, complete with twists and upside down turns. The other, the Flight of the Hippogriff, is a slower, less challenging coaster. (Although my sister screamed on that one, too.)

Also, there are no Harry Potter-rides for fans shorter than 36 inches. The Forbidden Journey requires riders to be 48 inches tall and the Dragon Challenge minimum height is 54 inches.

Bigger stores with more variety of merchandise. Where, we wondered, was Dobby the House Elf? Or any merchandise with Voldemort, scary as he may be? Why couldn’t we pick up a duplicate of Mrs. Weasley’s amazing clock? The stores themselves were also on the small side.

More, more, more! The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is actually a small part of Universal’s Islands of Adventure. We had many ideas for additional attractions: A Gringotts ride? A tour of the Weasley home? According to an Associate Press article published this week, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando will be expanded. Since the attraction opened in June of last year, attendance has jumped by about 50 percent. An additional Wizarding World will be opened at the Universal Studios theme park in Hollywood, Calif. in the next five years.

A few recommendations and observations:

Staying on site is great. You can walk to the parks or take the water taxi from the park’s on site hotel, the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. (We walked every time.) You also have access to the park one hour earlier and a pass that allows you to short cut lines. (In our case, this didn’t make much of a difference.)

Three days is the perfect amount of time to stay. A three day pass to both parks, with taxes, is about $160.
When you’re not Pottering around, there are a few other rides in Islands of Adventure that are worthwhile. I particularly recommend “Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls,” a log flume. Trust me: You will be soaked. The 3-D “Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man” ride was also very cool.

Take the time to visit rides in the other Universal Park, too. We loved the “Simpsons” ride and the “Revenge of the Mummy” simulated coaster. The “Men In Black”ride, however, didn’t do it for me.

Bring your own stamps. Sounds silly, but when you go the Owl Post, you’ll find that a packet of 10 stamps costs $14.95. (Postcards are $1 each.) You can use your own stamps and still get them stamped with a Hogsmeade postmark.

Whip out that AAA card. It’s good for 10 percent off purchases upon presentation. That can add up, especially when wands run $30 and new wizarding robes are $100. (And you’ll be surprised by how many people go around in full garb.)

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