Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Orlando: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Let's be upfront. The only reason for our trip to Orlando is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!!! I'm a big fan and have been wanting to make this pilgrimage. So thank you, Panda, for fulfilling my wish. Now I can go in peace. Omm.

Day 1 - Where's Diagon Alley?

It was the Labor Day weekend and we arrived at Universal Studios in the late afternoon. We spent so much time at the Orlando airport queueing up for car rental and getting checked in at the hotel, it was 4pm by the time we reached. 

Still, that didn't dampen my Harry Potter spirit. I ignored all other attractions and bounced straight to the newly opened Diagon Alley.

It took me a while to locate the place. I went past the inconspicuous No. 12 Grimmauld Place (like any muggle would) and the triple-decker Knight Bus. Stan, the weird bus conductor, was taking photos with his fans beside this magical form of transportation.  

Just as I was wondering where Diagon Alley is, I noticed a few people coming out from the side of a plain brick wall. Thinking it would lead to a dead end or the rest room, I peeped in. 

And Merlin's beard, it's DIAGON ALLEY! 

I stood near the brick archway entrance for a good ten minutes, partly in awe of the life size setting, partly because there was so much to take in. 

Gringotts Wizarding Bank, Wesleys' Wizarding Wheezes, Ollivanders, Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions, Quality Quidditch Supplies... 

I pointed out the different shops and features to Panda. I wasn't sure if he understood. He could have thought I was hyperventilating since I was speaking so rapidly. 

Unlike the set in London which only has storefronts, visitors can enter the main shops and browse through the merchandise. Obviously, the shops selling wands and robes are the most popular. Even in the sweltering Florida heat, there was a handful of people donning Hogwarts uniform. 

What I found most amazing was the new interactive wands. At a cost of $45 (excluding tax), these wands allow you to perform 'magic' at different locations. You can choose to get your own wand, or buy the wands of famous wizards such as Dumbledore, Voldemort, Harry and Hermione. All interactive wands come with a map indicating the magical spots. 

Illuminate a light, make it rain, unlock a door or silence noise. Say the incantation with a swish and flick! 

Another must-try at Harry Potter Land is Butterbeer. There are three choices to choose from: regular Butterbeer, frozen Butterbeer, and Butterbeer ice-cream. I chose the frozen version. I was worried that it might taste like root beer (which I hate!) but was so pleased to discover that it tastes like vanilla ice-cream. It's foamy, sweet and slurpy!

We also checked out Gringott's Bank, where you can exchange actual currency to be used in the park, as well as Knockturn Alley, where Borgin and Burkes and other dark arts stuff can be found.

Then, we had a late afternoon snack at the Leaky Cauldron. Love the interior!

The final highlight of Day 1 was the train ride from King's Cross Station to Hogsmeade. (You would need a park-to-park ticket for this.)

We wondered if we would be passing through a magical wall - and we did! We saw people 'vanishing' into a wall leading to platform 9 3/4 as we were queueing. Of course, it was an optical illusion using a glass panel. But I thought that was pretty neat. Panda and I faked a run into the wall for the people queueing behind us, just for fun.

At platform 9 3/4, Hedwig was there waiting with Harry's luggage. Then, the Hogwarts Express arrived and off we went!

The ride was short but impressive. We anticipated scenery changes from the carriage window, but we didn't expect the silhouettes of Harry, Ron, Hermione and the Trolley Lady through the carriage door. We even had chocolate frogs leaping on the door. Nice touch!

I chose to take the return ride immediately to save the magic of Hogsmeade for the following day. By the time we got back to King's Cross, the sun has set.

Night ime Diagon Alley was even more magical with the brightly lit shops. On the main street, everyone was waiting for the fire-spitting dragon atop Gringotts. 

In retrospect, I should have been braver and visited Knockturn Alley one more time. It must be quite an experience, having witches follow and stare at you in this seedier part of Diagon Alley after dark. 

Before saying goodbye to Diagon Alley, I tried my luck at queueing for the Escape from Gringotts - the only ride at Diagon Alley. The line had been horrendous in the day. (The longest wait time since opening in July was 7.5 hours, by the way.) I thought I might be lucky and get a short queue since it was near closing time.

Fat chance. 

Two giggly teenage girls went in before me. A second later, the doorman told me the ride was closed. I was the first to be rejected for the night. 


Should have cast the Imperius spell there and then.

But that would be an unforgivable curse, wouldn't it? 

Day 2 - A visit to Hogsmeade and Hogwarts

Panda's gout problem was acting up, so we decided to take it slow on Day 2.

Unlike the jaw-dropping, wide-eyed reaction I had from Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade was more of a laid-back stroll.

We took shelter from the heat in shops in the village, like Honey Dukes and Dervish and Banges. I wanted to send a post card from Hogsmeade but one of the staff at Dervish and Banges told me they do not sell stamps in the village.

It was strange because I thought we could do so at Owl Post; we could even get a special Hogsmeade postmark. Have they changed that?

Panda also got conned into taking the Hogsmeade rides because I told him they are family-friendly, that is, not thrill rides. Needless to say, he never trusted me again after taking the first ride, which was the Dragon Challenge. He didn't enjoy being turned 360 degrees without warning, especially with his legs dangling. My bad!

Fortunately, the Flight of the Hippogriff was a breeze, and he was blown away by Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

The latter took us through a dark, winding journey inside the Hogwarts Castle, including familiar places such as Dumbledore's office, the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, and the Gryffindor common room. Harry, Hermione and Ron made appearances along the way.

The castle walk-through culminated in the best ride of our lives! We were initially fooled by the 4-in-a-row, single carriage on a convey belt kind of setting. But kid's ride, this is not. We should have guessed with the overhead harnesses. 

Once the ride started, we were flung wildly in front of a ginormous screen. We flew high and low with Harry and friends, escaping dragons, quaffle balls, dementors and what-nots. The ride was interspersed with life size dragon heads, dementors and so on. At times, we swung so close to the props. I screamed like mad the entire time because everything seemed so real. 

Two thumbs up for the whole experience!

After the rides, we calmed our souls with a late lunch at Three Broomsticks, which was just beside Hog's Head Pub. Was tempted to get a real beer, but I didn't want to pass up the chance for more Butterbeer in Harry Potter Land. So Butterbeer it was to accompany our ribs and corn mid-day meal.

Then, toilet stop at the public restroom where Moaning Myrtle disturbed our concentration to have a pee.

It started to rain heavily in the afternoon after our lunch, and everyone flocked to the restaurants and shops for shelter. We forgot to pack our ponchos that morning, but we didn't want to join the sweaty, smelly crowd either, so we hid under an archway. 

The rain provided a big relief to the hot, stuffy weather. I was seriously ready to melt.

We finally bid Hogsmeade goodbye after the rain, thereby completing our Harry Potter journey for Orlando. I still hope that one day, I will be able to visit the real set in London, and check out all the filming locations.

So farewell for now, wizarding world!


  The writer, like many others, wishes that she had graduated from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Alas, she did not receive a letter when she was 11.   

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