ORLANDO — “Did you bring me home a wand?” my (Diane’s) husband asked upon our return from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. The fact that a middle-aged man inquired about a toy wand (and would’ve loved one) tells you all you need to know about the level of Harry Potter fandom in our households. That, and our results from the quiz “22 Signs You Are a Harry Potter Super Fan” on Buzzfeed.com (20 yesses). But everybody knows that the wand chooses the wizard, so you have to go to Ollivanders wand shop (“Makers of Fine Wands Since 382 BC”) in person, to see if a particular wand — perhaps one made of vine with a dragon heartstring core — is the right one for you. So, we brought home a box of Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavored Beans instead, picking through them carefully to avoid the ones that taste like vomit and ear wax. In this instance, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter may be a bit too faithful to the books!
Authenticity is a big theme here. From the moment you enter the two Harry Potter lands in Universal’s Orlando theme parks, you are thoroughly enchanted — gobsmacked, in Brit-speak. From lifelike goblins to books that bite, the level of detail is astonishing. Given all this, we felt like we had passed the Apparition test (without the unpleasant splinching) and were magically transported to Harry’s world. And that isn’t the Butterbeer talking. (Note to parents: Butterbeer is nonalcoholic, of course. It just looks like real beer, with Fluff-like foam on top.)
Initially, we were skeptical. Theme parks — unless you count Las Vegas — really aren’t our thing. Although Universal Orlando will be celebrating its 25th birthday next year, we had visited exactly . . . once. But, Potterheads to the core, we made an exception for Harry Potter.
Like kooky, much-loved relatives, Harry Potter and the gang were major figures in our kids’ childhood. We read each book the moment it came out, sometimes sleeping over at the local bookstore’s launch party. (The series inspired 5,000 bookstore parties nationwide, we’re told.) The kids were thrilled when Dad brought home a copy of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” from a London business trip before it was available in the United States.
We joined long lines of Potter-obsessed students at the old Harvard Square Theater (many of them decked out in Gryffindor garb) to see the Harry Potter movies on the day they opened. We bonded over those books, helping make British author J. K. Rowling a billionaire, like the queen of England. And we had plenty of company: As the best-selling book series of all time, and the highest-grossing film series of all time, it’s safe to say that Harry Potter was a worldwide cultural phenomenon.
So when daughter Charlotte (now in her 20s, who still rereads the book series every year) wanted to visit Orlando to see the newly opened Diagon Alley, we couldn’t resist. And that is how a merry band of Muggles, in their 20s, 30s, and a wee bit older, found themselves standing at Platform 9¾ on a sweltering day, taking the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade Station.
Everybody takes the Hogwarts Express, because this authentic-looking steam train, complete with dents to make it look old, is the way you get from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade, opened in 2011 at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, to Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida, which opened in July. Got that? What it means is, you’ll need a park-to-park admission ticket to see both (unless you’ve got your own invisibility cloak), and you’ll do some moving around. They say that the story of Harry came to Rowling 25 years ago, while she was riding on a train between Manchester and London, and you’ll get the first glimpses of the world she created as you ride the Hogwarts Express — little surprises that will heighten the anticipation. The MBTA, it isn’t.
And then you disembark, and there it is: Hogsmeade, and the snow-capped turrets of Hogwarts castle. Never mind that you can look across the lagoon and see Jurassic Park; now’s the time to let reality go and let your Muggle flag fly. “It’s . . . amazing!” Charlotte said, stopping in her tracks to take it all in. “Just like I pictured it!” Truly, you could appreciate this place even if you didn’t know Harry Potter from Harry Houdini, strictly on the basis of its set design. “People walk in, drop to their knees, and cry,” a Universal Orlando employee told us. “Teens, preteens, parents, you name it, Potter Fever crosses the generations.” No lie. We saw super-fans, wearing flowing Hogwarts robes and wizard caps, in spite of the 95-degree heat. That’s a fan! And we admired the “Beauxbaton” performers, wearing jumpers and tights as they whirled their ribbons onstage. (The mom in us wanted to check them for heat stroke as they departed the stage.) It was also cool that the (impeccably costumed) street vendors and shopkeepers spoke with (faux) British accents (“ ’Allo, Muggles!”), and represented all ages, not just college kids. “Care for some Butterbeer, luv?” asked a grandfatherly gent. But of course we did — and it was wonderful. “Kind of like cream soda on steroids,” our companion, John, said, tasting the frozen beverage as we passed it around. The heady topper reminded us of Marshmallow Fluff.
The best thing about Hogsmeade — in fact, our favorite thing in all of the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter — was a thrill ride called “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” Following Harry on his Nimbus 2000 broomstick, you’ll fly through the classrooms and corridors of Hogwarts Castle and then soar above the castle grounds, skirting danger as you go. This journey is proof that theme park rides have come a very long way. (For more proof, pop over and ride the sweet little “E. T. Adventure,” with its microfiber stars, so state-of-the-art decades ago.) Even kids like ours who’ve grown up with 3-D and 4-D movies marvel at the vividness of this experience.
We’re not roller coaster fans, but peer (OK, kid) pressure ruled, and so we entered the high-speed Dragon Challenge coaster. It twists and loops and goes upside-down, but really fast, so it’s over before you have time to get queasy. The family-friendly “Flight of the Hippogriff” offers an even milder coaster experience.
At Ollivanders wand shop, they offer a charming demonstration of how the wand chooses the wizard. But beware if your kid (or you) is chosen as a subject, because you absolutely will spring for that wand. The wands are designed to trigger interactive bits of magic at the park; once you get home, it’s more of a collector’s item (even the box is marked ‘not a toy.’) “Wow, that was a close one!” Charlotte said, as the girl standing next to her was pulled out of the crowd. “Although they are pretty nice-looking,” she said, eyeing a wand adorned with a Phoenix tail feather. She passed on it, opting for a life-size Chocolate Frog at Honeydukes sweet shop.
Fortified with a pumpkin juice — a so-so pumpkin-spiced cider with a pumpkin-shaped screw top — we reboarded Hogwarts Express to explore Diagon Alley, where Harry Potter begins his journey as a wizard. Formerly a dirt lot in central Florida, Diagon Alley is like a movie set come to life, but with special effects, not green screens. The mood here is a bit darker than at Hogsmeade, especially at Knockturn Alley, which is devoted to the Dark Arts (note the small details, like the shadowy spiders on the window). The shops, like Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, are actually kind of fun. Charlotte, who proved to be a Harry Potter savant, helped put the shops’ wares in context, as in, “Oh, that’s a Skiving Snackbox from ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,’ when Fred and George . . . ” You get the idea.
Outside, there’s a rumble, and then a roar, as the dragon atop Gringotts breathes actual fire. So of course you join the queue for “Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts,” the big thrill ride at Diagon Alley. Revealing the details would be a spoiler, but we will say this ride through the goblin-run bank will put you face-to-face with the books’ most-famous characters, including “He Who Must Not Be Named,” and you will feel the heat of the dragon’s breath, and you will shriek like Moaning Myrtle herself (said to inhabit the restrooms at Hogsmeade). Even if you ride it twice, like we did, you’ll scream, even though you know what’s coming.
Only later, as you settle in for some cottage pie at the Leaky Cauldron (Potter-land’s best dining spot) will your heart stop racing.
It’s good to be a Muggle — even a middle-aged Muggle!
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.