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.