It’s taken three months to find the time to post about my long-awaited trip to Florida to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Mainly because whenever I try to write about it, I am consumed with misery that I’m not racing around in the Florida sunshine any longer.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that for someone in their 30s, my passion for Potter is borderline peculiar, but luckily for me, Adam’s just as much of a geek and was every bit as keen to head Stateside to see what they’d made of the phenomenon.
Naturally, my expectations were too high, but as I was reminded, there’s only a certain amount of space available to create this magical world, and the team at Islands of Adventure, where WWOHP is located, have really thrown themselves into the project to create a jaw-dropping experience.
As we’d booked with Virgin Holidays, we were awarded early entrance to the WWOHP on our first day, and as such, we were the first car parked in the epic multi-storey network that plays host to the Universal and IOA parks’ guests every day. At 8am, we joined the other privileged guests to race through Islands of Adventure to get access to the corner of the park dedicated to Potter and pals. On strolling through the arch, beneath the Hogsmeade sign, we entered a whole new world.
With Hedwig’s Theme playing in the background as the glistening snow-capped crooked shop-lined street beckoned, we were greeted by the sight of the gleaming scarlet Hogwarts Express, before wandering past Zonko’s, packed with quirky treats and japes, Honeydukes, home to hundreds of sweet and unusual confections, the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head before finally arriving in the shadow of Hogwarts castle itself to ride the signature Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride – one of the most popular in all of the state’s theme parks.
I’m not going to spoil the ride, it’s surely best to experience something like this with no idea what to expect. But what did impress me is the effort that the creators have gone to to make the waiting time less of a chore. Queues for the ride can reach two hours in peak season, but that’s possibly the only way you’d get to experience all of the wonderful surprises… mandrakes in the greenhouses, a greeting from Dumbledore, an argument between the talking portraits and a pre-ride warning from the Sorting Hat. We rode the Forbidden Journey around six times during our holiday and every time we seemed to spot something new.
The other rides at the attraction are the Dragon Challenge – spiralling and looping Hungarian Horntail and the Chinese Fireball dragon coasters, and the Flight of the Hippogriff, for younger riders. But fantastic as the rides are, it’s Hogsmeade itself that proves such a draw for visitors…
Honeydukes is a colourful, swirling shop packed with Fizzing Whizzbees, Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (Adam has since eaten an entire packet and confirms that alongside the cherry, cinnamon and apple you will unfortunately stumble across earwax, dirt, pepper and, I kid you not, vomit), all in perfect packaging. The queues are long but browsing is an endless joy. Zonko’s sees visitors stocking up on extendable ears and pygmy puffs while at Dervish and Bangs and Filch’s Emporium you’ll find entire school uniforms, house robes and scarves, as well as a range of T shirts and tri-wizard championship shirts.
The longest queue by far is for Ollivander’s wand-shop, a tiny little store which only holds around 20 people at a time, all of whom watch as Ollivander invites a would-be witch or wizard forward to allow their wand to choose them – crashes, bang, music and lights make the experience really enjoyable and I met one little girl who queued four times before she was finally called forward to find her wand. To be clear – I was a bit narked in my geek way, because as we all know, Ollivander’s isn’t in Hogsmeade, it’s in Diagon Alley.
Talk of sweet treats brings us, of course, to Butterbeer; the drink of choice for young wizards. WWOHP does a roaring trade in Butterbeer, both in the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head, as well as on olde worlde style carts in the street. The flavour is as sickly sweet as you can imagine – think Cream Soda that coats your teeth, with a whipped topping, but everywhere you turn, someone’s sipping a flagon of it. Possibly because JK Rowling put the kibosh on the ‘land’ selling Coke, Pepsi or other fizzy drinks. That said, there is also a frozen variety, which tastes like melted vanilla ice-cream and is infinitely preferable, apart from the brain-freeze.
The food served in the pub isn’t too bad at all – massive sharing platters or English style meals of pasties, salad and chips and fish and chips, all served at wooden tables in the cool, darkened interior as a welcome escape from the sun.
While I could easily have advised on acres and acres of attractions based on the series of novels, I managed to keep my expectations in check and marvelled at some of the attention to detail. Amongst the other details at the theme park are the performances by the Hogwarts choir – accompanied by their over-sized animatronic frogs – the graceful ladies of Beaxbatons Academy and the young men at Durmstrang. With various photo opportunities with them, as well as chances to have your picture taken with Sirius Black’s ‘Wanted’ poster and the Hogwarts Express conductor, it’s a veritable holiday album in itself.
The piece de resistance for me though was finding out, when I went to the bathroom, that the creativity team haven’t missed a trick and that Moaning Myrtle’s gurgling babble keeps you company throughout – something I’d hoped they’d think of. I was saddened that they hadn’t incorporated more of the series, and it seems mad not to have lookalikes not strolling the street for photo opps – elsewhere in IOA you can have your snap taken with the Green Goblin or Spiderman after all, but I guess the main masked characters are Death Eaters, so it might be a little too much for younger visitors.
I wonder how many years it’ll be before the conventions start here as the Star Wars ones have at Disney, and fans descend every year for the chance to have their snaps taken with cast members and everyone from Fang and Buckbeak to Crabbe and Goyle – if only that actor hadn’t taken it upon himself to start smoking pot and get involved in the riots; he might just have been made for life…
I’ve also seen that plans are afoot to expand the world, but this time, in the neighbouring Universal Studios park – with concept drawings showing a plan to replace jaws with Gringotts Bank and other attractions. Perhaps Diagon Alley will be based in US and Hogsmeade will remain in IOA.
That’s sure to take several more years, so there may be more theme park holidays in the offing. Either way, my tickets are booked for next February, with the whole family in tow this time. I just hope they can keep up.