It’s hard to believe 20 years ago this week J.K. Rowling introduced the world to Harry Potter. My family was late to the game, picking up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 2007, ten years after it was first released. Our oldest son was seven at the time and my wife would read the book to him every night before bed. I would stand outside his door and listen and quickly became captivated. I’ve never been one for fiction, but as soon as they finished the first book, I picked it up and started reading. We had a deal, no movie until the book was complete. Like I said we were late to the Potter party so we only caught Half-Blood Prince and the two Deathly Hallows in the theater.
Our son became obsessed with the boy wizard, dressing like Harry Potter for most of the Halloweens from 2007 until he stopped wearing a costume. Our family also has had a chance to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter twice at Universal Studios in Orlando. The first trip came in 2010 and a portion of Islands of Adventure had been transformed into Hogsmeade and Hogwarts. Rides like the Harry Potter & The Forbidden Journey, Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge added to the excitement of all the shops, including Honeydukes Sweetshop and Ollivander’s Wand Shop. There are places to get your fill of Pumpkin Juice, Butterbeer and Gillywater.
In 2014, the Wizarding World expanded into the Universal Studios side of the park. Now, you can hop aboard the Hogwarts Express and take it back and forth, assuming you have a ticket to both parks. The train ride is reminiscent of the movies, it’s by far the most relaxing of the five Potter-themed rides at the park. Speaking of other rides, the only other new ride added with the addition is Escape from Gringotts. Because it was new at the time, the wait was between 60 and 90 minutes (in October), although on our last day there, we went straight to that ride when the park opened. Our wait time that morning was about 40 minutes. It’s a 3-D thrill ride with twists and turns, but not nearly as jostling as the Forbidden Journey ride. But a little kid did barf on the way out and right in the path of where people were walking.
On top of Gringotts Bank is a giant fire-breathing dragon. Almost like clockwork every 10 minutes, a ball of fire shoots from his mouth. There are plenty of stores along Diagon Alley, including Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and the Leaky Cauldron. We ate lunch at the Cauldron, and although pricey, it was delicious. I had the Bangers and Mash. The one interesting thing is there are no basic drinks in the restaurant. It’s all Pumpkin Juice, Butterbeer, or Gillywater (which is a bottle of water with a $4.25 price tag). You won’t find a soda on the menu. After we sat down and started eating, we were offered a complimentary cup of water.
One of the other really cool parts of the whole Wizarding World Experience now is the interactive wands they sell in addition to the usual collector’s wands. These interactive wands can be used at the various storefronts (that have a special marking in front of them) and the holder of the wand can perform some magical task. A sensor in the window reacts to the sensor in the wand to make things happen. There’s a cake topper that dances around, a tape measure that comes unrolled, among other things. It’s neat, but again, an added price of about $50 per wand.
Compared to most of the other attractions and experiences at Universal, it’s obvious Harry Potter and his posse are breathing new life into the theme park. They’ve managed to cast a spell on my family and millions of others. While not on the same level of Disney’s magic, the folks who built this portion of the park have done a great job.