The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
My children's exposure to Harry Potter has been very different than my own.
I read the books as an adult, waiting impatiently for J.K. Rowling to finish each installment. When the movies were released, I saw a few of them but didn't rush out each time. I was glad to have the opportunity to read most of the series before watching the films so I could conjure up my own version of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and its neighboring village, Hogsmeade.
My kids watch the movie after they finish each book and have come to envision the sets and characters as they appear in the Warner Brothers' adaptations.
That connection to the movies made their visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando all the more wondrous. They were beyond excited when we told them that during our trip to Florida, we would have the chance to visit Ollivanders wand shop and sample Butterbeer, a staple at every Hogwarts celebration.
I'll admit I was pretty excited, too. I rushed them through Seuss Landing in Universal's Islands of Adventure to get to the original Harry Potter attractions, located at the back of the park. (This summer, Universal opened a Diagon Alley addition to the Wizarding World on the Universal Studios side of the park.)
The Wizarding World has a distinctly different feel than the rest of the park. It's easy to imagine that you have arrived in a small village in the English countryside.
We were eager to check out Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a ride that lets you enter by walking through Hogwarts and viewing several iconic spots including Professor Sprout's greenhouse and the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. Once you board the ride, prepare to soar about the castle and its grounds, reliving some of Harry's most memorable adventures. Kids who haven't finished the book series may be in for a couple of minor spoilers. My oldest son exited the ride asking: "When did Ron join the Quidditch team?"
Unfortunately, my youngest was not tall enough to ride this motion simulator. The park does allow non-riders to take a walking tour of the castle, which he enjoyed.
From there, we headed to the Flight of the Hippogriff, a coaster made for younger kids with only minor dips and turns.
The line winds you around Hagrid's hut and pumpkin patch. While waiting in line, my other observant youngster pointed out that in the books Hagrid's hut is made of wood. At Universal, however, the hut is made of stone to match the rest of the village - and the movies.
Since neither kid was tall enough for Dragon Challenge, we skipped it.
We spent a good deal of time meandering through the village. We loved the little touches like the "wanted" poster of Sirius Black and the haunted bathrooms. Butterbeer tasted as good as we had imagined.
I was a little overwhelmed by the extent of the commercialization. You can buy a wand, chocolate frog or a "Sneakoscope," which is used to detect people who are untrustworthy. The gift shops also sell oodles of Hogwarts merchandise depicting the Gryffindor lion and other house mascots. We managed to get away with just one purchase - a $40 wand.
During our visit last fall, the Hogwarts Express was a stationary train that served as a good photo op. Now that the Harry Potter expansion has opened, a working version of the train takes visitors from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley, the wizarding marketplace.
My kids don't even know about the expansion, which doubles the size of the Harry Potter attractions at Universal, and they already are planning a second visit.
For fans of the series, visiting the park is an exciting way to bring the books to life.