Expecto Patronum: The World of Harry Potter

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Driving 11 hours down to Florida for a mere attraction in a theme park—then turning around after a weekend and driving right back—may sound insane to some people, but those Muggles clearly haven’t experienced the magic of Harry Potter.

From the time my mom, sister and I were in Orlando on vacation in 2009 and first saw a notice announcing the arrival of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter the following summer, we were spellbound. Not going was not an option. I read the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, when I was but 14—exactly half my life ago now!—and soon forced my mom and sister to do the same. (I should note that my mom objected in the beginning, and then years later was the one who would call us up before a new book was released and pepper us with such questions as: “What spell kept Lily and James Potter concealed in Godric’s Hollow, and who betrayed them in the end?” “Um…I don’t recall…at the moment.” “YOU DON’T KNOW?!? Who are you? Not my daughter, surely! You clearly need to go back and read all the books again before you pick up the next one. Get your priorities straight, woman.” )(The answers are the Fidelius Charm and Peter Pettigrew, lest your own mother ever quiz you.)(This fanaticism came in handy a decade later when I landed a gig writing questions for Trivial Pursuit; you better believe seemingly senseless Hogwarts trivia has found its way onto my cards!)

I’m sure I could have finagled some way of attending the opening but a) it was last June during my honeymoon (and as much as I love Harry Potter, I love my husband and vacationing and vacationing in Borneo with my husband a wee bit more) and b) tens of thousands showed up for opening week and I’m not so good with crowds. Besides, I wouldn’t have been with my two favorite fellow Harry Potter lovers, and what fun would that have been? So we put it off six months and finally had a window of time—a very brief three-day window, mind you, just days before Christmas—where the three of us, all residing in different time zones, were able to head down to Florida.

We arrived in Orlando the Friday before Christmas to a sunny 80 degrees; the following morning—Harry Potter Day—we woke up to 55 and drizzle. We got to the park, and the conditions only grew worse. We hadn’t even gone through the ticket turnstiles before the five of us were buying pricey pieces of plastic to keep as dry as possible. (That didn’t work so well.)

But! It ended up being a blessing in disguise as Christmas week is one of the busiest at Islands of Adventure, and the crowds were minimal due to the weather. In fact, we walked right onto the main attraction, the Forbidden Journey, three times without so much as a wait. It was ridiculous! Besides, you hardly envision Harry’s world as blue skies and sunny do you? No! It wouldn’t be Harry Potter without a hearty dose of gray skies and a pinch of foreboding. We were all thrilled to be there, come Hell or high water (which is precisely what we got).

Speaking of Forbidden Journey, my family and I have always been roller coaster fiends, but the three of us and my friend Angie and her sister Rachel who joined us for the weekend, got extremely motion sick from this simulator ride that has you following Harry on his broom through the castle and around Hogwarts, dodging dragons and Dementors and the like.

So you’re wondering why we rode three times then, eh? Because it was still that cool. Even cooler was the fact that you board the ride in Hogwarts Castle, and the line snakes its way through the Potions classroom, the Great Hall and more. Along the way, I spotted Fawkes the griffin who guard’s Dumbledore’s office (I stand corrected by reader Lauren)!

The Sorting Hat!

The talking portraits (they really do move and talk!)!

The Fat Lady!

The greenhouse and the whiny mandrakes!

It was every Potter fan’s happiest dream come true! In between rides, we let our stomachs settle by taking a trip to Hog’s Head and the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade.

OK, so the food wasn’t the best—sub-par, overpriced English pub fare—but the atmosphere was enchanting.

All employees of the park are required to dress in costume, which I found awesome. If things ever go downhill with my travel writing career, I might pursue employment at Hogsmeade.

And of course there was Butterbeer. Oh delicious, sinful, so-wrong-it-must-be-right Butterbeer. It tasted even more heavenly than I expected! I went back for two (and a pumpkin juice). While I dig anything pumpkin flavored, the pumpkin juice was a bit too syrupy sweet for me (still, quite tasty in small doses), but I could have downed 10 more Butterbeers (which tastes similar to cream soda with a buttery aftertaste and a mouthwatering foam).

What I find hilarious, though, is that J.K. Rowling—who insisted on approving every last detail of the Wizarding World—banned all soda from her section of the park (she’s a big activist against childhood obestty), and yet Butterbeer no doubt has 1,000 calories per cup.

I was more than happy to sacrifice my daily allowance of calories for this stuff. Fun fact: A team of chemists created a number of Butterbeer concoctions, took them to J.K. and said, “tell us which one tastes the most like your vision!” And so she did.

Every last detail of the park was ridiculously impressive. The dress Hermione wore to the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was on display at Gladrags Wizardwear.

Moaning Myrtle haunted the women’s restroom.

Other than the Forbidden Journey, there were only two other rides—Flight of the Hippogriff, a more kid-friendly roller coaster, and Dueling Dragons, an existing ride rebranded for the park where two high-speed, loop-de-loop coasters rush toward one another, coming within inches of colliding. But I wouldn’t have even needed to ride anything; I’d have been content strolling through the Owlery trying to pick out Hedwig in the rafters and perusing all the cutesy shops of Diagon Alley all day long.

Harry himself was even there—er, not really. But Kari and Rachel saw this doppelganger and rushed up to have their picture taken with him. In the end, we don’t even think he was a park employee, but I’m sure he didn’t mind nonetheless!

There was the wand experience in Ollivander’s, where the wand chooses you, but the line was too long so we didn’t wait. (It was one of the few indoor activities on such a rainy day.) I hear it rocks, though. There’s Zonko’s, the Weasley twins’ joke shop, and Honeydukes, the candy store, where I wanted so badly to buy a chocolate frog (but not at $10 a pop!).

You can snag postcards at Dervish and Banges and send them via the Owl Post (complete with the corresponding postage), which I did to SVV and my friend Amy, fellow fangirl.

Merlin’s beard, it was a lot to take in for one afternoon. The five of us were like little kids on Christmas morning when we arrived, and I’m pleased as punch to say that as a whole Wizarding World completely lived up to its hype. You better believe if I were a Florida resident, I’d be buying season passes to Islands of Adventure. Until that happens (if ever), I’ll visit as frequently as my mom and sister will join me (and maybe, one day, my husband too).

I forgot to take a lot of video footage like I intended—and what I do have is a bit wobbly as I was just! too! excited!—but you really can’t imagine it without seeing a glimpse for yourself, so hopefully this will hold you over until you have a chance to make it to Hogwarts—I mean Orlando—sometime soon yourself.

COMMENTS
  • February 2, 2011

    sooo cool! I want to go there! πŸ™‚
    nice pics

  • February 2, 2011

    I want to gooooooo! I LOVE me some HP, but sadly right now getting to Orlando is a long, expensive trip. I’ll make it happen someday though, and I can’t wait for that day!

  • February 2, 2011

    Dude, that is so awesome.

    My family and I were beyond obsessed with those books. Half-Blood Prince came out the we would all be traveling together to Cape Cod for our family vacation. We made my younger brother Luke wake up before sunrise to pick our copies of the book up at Wal-mart. Then as my sister and I drove up, (and this is so embarrassing I can’t believe it) my sister Bekah made me read the book out loud to her. NINE CHAPTERS LATER and I was doing the worst British accent you can imagine when poor Hagrid had a line. “ELLLO ARRRRY!”

    Bekah just visited the park and said the Butter Beer was from the Lord. So glad you agreed!

    -Sarah

    • February 2, 2011
      Kristin

      Reason 145,789,201 we would be BFF.

      Also, you like to bake, and I really like to eat. See how seamlessly this BFFdom could work out, Sarah?

  • February 2, 2011

    I like how you say that we don’t imagine Harry’s world as blue skies and sunny! So true, so really it was the perfect day!

    I love these photos, and I am so jealous of your trip!

    • February 2, 2011
      Kristin

      We should organize a WWoHP Blogger Meet-up! Wouldn’t that be the ultimate? Bloggers who are so used to exotic destinations like Laos and Tanzania descent upon Orlando for a weekend of Butterbeer-induced debauchery? πŸ˜‰

      • February 2, 2011

        That is the most BRILLIANT idea I have ever heard! I would absolutely be there. We need to make this happen!!

  • February 2, 2011

    This is the best review I’ve seen of the Wizarding World and I so want to go! I really, really want to go sometime soon. πŸ™‚

    • February 2, 2011
      Kristin

      Sometime when you guys are back from your next world tour and we’re in Tennessee for a stint, we should totally organize a trip. I’d love that!

  • February 2, 2011

    Not gonna lie, that looks super duper fun. I usually have nothing but disdain for amusement parks that focus on anything but badass, terrifying roller coasters. But the way that they seem to have totally immersed you in the complete world looks enchanting! And I would kick a puppy for some of that Butterbeer!

    (Okay, maybe not kick a puppy. Maybe poke him with my toe. Okay, I would poke a puppy with my toe for some Butterbeer.)

    • February 2, 2011
      Kristin

      As long as the puppy is not MY puppy, then yes, I can see poking it with a toe for some Butterbeer. It is THAT good.

  • February 2, 2011
    Rebecca (Bearca)

    SO JEALOUS. I must go there. Love reading your recap!!

  • February 2, 2011

    Looks like so much fun! I think my Dad and I will get to go in October; it coincides with a business trip to Orlando. Woot!! Thank you for sharing this, so much fun!

  • February 2, 2011
    Lauren

    Just thought I should point out that that statue isn’t Fawkes… it’s just a griffin. Probably the griffin that guards the entrance to Dumbledore’s office. It’s not even a phoenix.

    • February 2, 2011
      Kristin

      Wow, someone knows her Harry Potter (and mythology)! I’m surprised you’re the first to catch that. Thanks for the correction; will right my wrong ASAP =)

      • February 2, 2011
        Lauren

        Well, I’ve only read the books about a dozen times, and I remembered the griffin from the movies.

        The article was great though… my friends and I have discussed the possibility of going, and I admit that after reading your article I’m excited about going!

  • February 2, 2011
    sbc

    great review! I cannot wait to see it in person one day, not really sure what I am waiting for as orlando is a mere 8 hour drive away.

    • February 2, 2011
      Kristin

      My tip to you since you live “close” (or rather, within driving distance) is to visit in either the fall or the shoulder season in spring–between Spring Breaks and when schools let out for summer, so late April or in May–and during the week if at all possible. Islands of Adventure is the busiest it’s been in years thanks to HP and it’s taking business away from all the other parks, meaning it’s super crazy during school holidays and weekends I imagine. It was so awesome going during the rain because the crowds were few, and I wish all people could experience the park like that!

  • February 2, 2011
    B

    Thank you so much for writing about this! I’ve been wanting to go since the first time I heard about it, and I haven’t had the opportunity to go there yet. Visiting vicariously through your post will tide me over until I get the chance to visit in person. πŸ™‚ Thanks!

  • February 2, 2011

    I had a small interest in going (also, I LOVE Islands of Adventure in general), but I didn’t realize it was so cool! Now I must go! My coworker said the elder wand picked him (he being a guy who would quiz me on Harry Potter every time I saw him, and I would always apologize because I read most of the books so long ago and haven’t yet reread them).

    • February 2, 2011
      Kristin

      I’m in agreement: Islands of Adventure is awesome, with or without HP–it’s probably my favorite theme park in the world–so the new addition just makes it that more fun! Alas, we only road the Hulk once thanks to the rain (we still rode it while it was pelting–I couldn’t even open my eyes due to the rain!) but mostly because we spent three-fourths of the day inside Wizarding World!

    • February 2, 2011
      Kristin

      P.S. Re your co-worker: that is possibly the coolest Harry Potter anecdote I’ve ever heard (besides my friend Angie, who revisited the park with us, getting to launch the WWoHP as a publicist AND be the cast’s escort for a week!). I’m a little bummed I didn’t get to have the wand experience, but all the more reason to go back (and I undoubtedly will time and time again over the years). It’s supposed to be pretty surreal.

  • February 3, 2011

    OMG. I so want to go there!! That’s it, I just found the perfect reason to travel to the US! I’ll show this post to Pristine later. She will be so thrilled!

  • February 3, 2011

    Awesome post, I recently visited Oxford and got to see the filming location of Hogwarts library and thought that was cool but I’d love to go to Islands of Adventure – I’ve never even heard of the theme park or the Wizarding World before!

    • February 3, 2011
      Kristin

      Natasha, that’s one of my dreams: to visit all the filming locations from the movies. I don’t think I’ve been back to the UK, though, since the first movie was shot! One day…

  • February 3, 2011

    Ooh it looks awesome! And while I’m still miffed that J.K. Rowling didn’t insist they build the park in England (1.30 flight for me rather than 9h flight to Florida!) I have to say it looks and sounds incredibly authentic!
    Next time I’m in the US, I will definitely be heading down there to meet you for a Butter Beer! :0)

    • February 3, 2011
      Kristin

      I just recently found out that Orlando is the most visited city in the world–who knew?–so it was probably easier to build it within a massive theme park that already visited in the most touristy city on the planet. But I agree, it would have a lot more character if it had been built in the English countryside (or up in Scotland where a lot of the scenes were shot!).

  • February 3, 2011

    I loved, loved, loved it. But we went on a super-hot day, so it was mobbed and I didn’t get to do many of the things I wanted to do. Nonetheless, had the butterbeer and went on the ride. Dude, I felt so ill afterward. But it was completely worth it.

    • February 3, 2011
      Kristin

      What is up with that? I’ve been on hundreds of roller coasters and simulators, and none have made me feel as sick to my stomach as the Harry Potter ride!

  • February 3, 2011

    Well I think I’m the only person on the face of the earth who hasn’t read the books or seen the movies, but I have heard really great things about this park. I can see how it would be so much fun to be immersed in the setting of the stories you’ve read/watched! Great review. I’ll get around to reading the books one day…

    • February 3, 2011
      Kristin

      You’ve still go plenty of time =)

      The great thing about reading a series and watching the movie long after they’ve come out is that you don’t have to wait years for the next one. You know you have seven books and eight movies to go through once you get around to it. That’s what Scott and I are not doing with TV series via Netflix (Dexter, Big Love, Breaking Bad and now Damages and Battlestar Galactica!).

  • February 3, 2011

    I was so hoping you’d describe what butterbeer tastes like! Inquiring Harry Potter nerds want to know!

  • February 3, 2011

    I want to go SO BAD.

  • February 3, 2011

    I went in October and this makes me want to go back SO BAD!!

  • February 3, 2011

    Ahhhhh. It was already on my list, but now it has an asterisk next to it and is underlined and bold! p.s. major fan of the last shot.

    • February 4, 2011
      Kristin

      Well, the good news is that living in D.C., it will only be a quick, inexpensive two-hour flight for you =)

  • February 4, 2011

    Oh! Just imagine if I could live there. ☺

  • February 4, 2011

    i’m not even a Harry Potter fan (I know, I shouldn’t say that outloud), but I’d go to Florida JUST for the Harry Potter amusement Park experience. You have no idea how big of a deal that is. your salemanship knows no bounds. if you ever quit travel writing…

    • February 4, 2011
      Kristin

      Well then, I consider that a huge compliment! For the life of me, I cannot see the appeal of the Lord of the Rings franchise–and I’m a HUGE fan of all things fantasy–so I know how you feel in a way about not being a Harry fan =)

  • February 4, 2011

    OK. As a theme park nut — though not the biggest Harry Potter fan — I am now officially jealous. Have you built that bucket list yet?!

    • February 4, 2011
      Kristin

      I recently started a Word doc on my desktop and add things to it as I read travel stories and blog posts! But you’ve just planted the thought that maybe I should make that a separate page on my blog. Good idea =)

  • February 4, 2011
    JeJe

    I wanna go! I wanna go!

  • February 4, 2011

    I AM SO JEALOUS!!! πŸ™‚ Glad you had fun, hon.

  • February 5, 2011
    helen

    great recap! i was so sick from the castle ride and i only went once! glad to know i’m not the only one πŸ™‚ the walk through the castle was the best part about that ride for me. loved, loved, loved it all, though. especially the butterbeer. my husband and i couldn’t help it and went back for seconds, too. couldn’t believe the chocolate frogs were $10 either–i envisioned them as bite size–were they described as that large in the series???

    • February 5, 2011
      Kristin

      I don’t remember the size from the books, but in the movies at least, I think they were. Remember the scene on the train when Harry buys one and it hops away? I think it was close to the size of a real frog. (Scott and I went back and watched all six movies before the seventh came out, which is the only reason I remember that!)

      And having other people say the ride made them ill is consoling me a bit–I was starting to think I’m becoming a wuss =) But yes: walking through the castle was totally the best part–it’s probably why we rode it three times!

  • February 5, 2011

    Oh that makes me want to pack my bags and head straight to Florida! Hogwarts, rather.

    Congrats on the nomination of the 2011 Bloggie best travel blog. I had a little something to say about you over at my place. πŸ™‚

  • February 6, 2011
    Stacey

    This looks so great! I would love to go one day. I think I would like this way more then Disneyland!

  • February 10, 2011

    I’m running a half-marathon in Orlando and you know what I’m doing after my race? (well besides Disney World because, really) I am going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Hell yeah! Now I’d like to make someone levitate.

  • February 12, 2011

    I really want to taste butter beer and play quidditch. Excited to one day go to Hogwarts

  • September 6, 2011

    ahh.. i want to go sooooo badly! your description and photos of the park make me want to go even more πŸ™‚ I just forwarded this post to my friends.. we’re going down to florida in February and were debating on whether or not to go see Harry Potter (because of the price tag.. boo.) i think this post will help make up their minds.. and for me- I don’t care if I have to go alone!

    • September 7, 2011
      Kristin

      I really hope you do make it there! It IS expensive, but I think the butterbeer totally justifies the cost πŸ˜‰

      And if no one will go with you, I’ll meet you there in the spring when I’m back in the US, ha! Dying for a return visit.

  • September 14, 2011

    I have to go!! I Live in Tampa. I have no excuses for not going to see Harry potter. Except that I had to watch all the movies. I finally did and hopefully the crowds are less after summer and bc it has been open for a while.

  • September 29, 2011

    Looks like so much fun… even in the rain! I want to go there so bad!

  • October 24, 2011

    Fun stuff! The line though seems scarce. The two times I went it was packed. How did you manage this!? I would’ve ridden the ride more than twice.

    • October 24, 2011
      Kristin

      A combination of timing (we went the morning after most kids were out of school for the holidays, and also the Saturday a full week before Christmas) and the terrible rain!

  • November 3, 2011

    I saw this on a tv commercial recently! Is this in Universal Studios? My 4-year-old is itching to go!

    • November 4, 2011
      Kristin

      Not in the main Universal park but in its Islands of Adventure park (side by side). I will definitely be visiting annually what with us being back in Tennessee and within easy driving distance!

  • November 20, 2011

    We are set to go here the week after New Year’s Day! I had to show my kids your wonderful pictures and their excitement level just went up a notch. Hopefully we get the same lack of crowds you did but better weather πŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing!

  • December 31, 2011

    LOL, I bet the crummy weather and bad food just added to the authentic “Britishness” of the whole place.

    Daisy

    • January 8, 2012
      Kristin

      Haaa, true story. I didn’t mind it one bit (other than my feet being soaked through–TOMS aren’t great in the rain!) as it really DID feel like we were at Hogwarts.

  • January 8, 2012

    Oh my goodness, I’m so jealous of you right now!
    Last time I was in Orlando it didn’t even cross my mind to visit the Harry Potter Park. Must really visit one day as it looks beautiful and very authentic!
    Looks like you had a wonderful time πŸ™‚

    • January 8, 2012
      Kristin

      It was worth every minute of the 11-hour (each way) drive! I’ll be doing it again very soon, no doubt =)

  • March 10, 2012

    Looks so amazing! Can’t wait – will be going as part of a stopover next month…a stop really just to go here! This post makes the idea even more exciting!!

    • March 10, 2012
      Kristin

      I don’t blame you in the slightest! I mean, I drove 11 hours each way for just a weekend to see the magic myself (and I hope to do it again soon, too!) =)

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