There is one, and exactly one, reason to go to Orlando: to visit theme parks. The city itself is a forgettable conglomerate of suburbs and amenities for themepark visitors.
Good thing I came to visit a theme park – no, not Disney world. I have been to Disneyland in Paris, and am not such a big disney fan that I’d need more. I came to visit the Universal theme parks, and more specifically the new “wizarding world of harry potter”.
Enough reason to make Orlando one of ten stops around the world? Look, I needed to stop somewhere on the east coast of the USA, and have traveled there extensively before, so it’s as good a stop as any. Besides, a harry potter themepark is one of those things that you would not take a whole long trip just for it alone, but you also cannot see anywhere else, so perfect to put it on the around-the-world itinerary.
I loved the fact that, true to form and according to the theme, there are no huge signs, and nothing overtly magical, pointing you to the harry potter themed area. You walk by a replica of King’s cross station, and you would almost pass by if you did not notice all the people streaming into it.
You pass through at platform 9 3/4 (google a video, if you want a spoiler), and find yourself in an extremly well done rendition of diagon alley. That dragon is sitting on top of Gringotts bank, and yes, it does breathe fire.
Which is also the major ride in the hogsmeade portion of the harry potter area. It’s very well done, even if it relies a bit too much on 3D effects and video, rather than a real ride (which one could say for a lot of other rides in the Universal park, too – but hey, it IS themed for a movie studio).
Everything is exactly as seen in the movies, so you really feel like you are inside a movie set. As for me, I have not even watched all the movies, preferring the books, but it’s a very good imagination of what is described in the books.
The girl in the picture is holding and waving her wand – there are lots of spots in the whole are (some clearly marked, some a bit hidden, some “secret”) where you can wave your wand and make “magic” happen (usually a puppet moving, a light going on etc). For which you have to of course buy a wand (in a convicing rendition of Ollivanders wand shop, where else), and of course that piece of plastic is fantastically overpriced, and activating the magic feature costs extra. But if I had come here as a kid, I would have absolutely loved it.
The theming is very thourough and comprehensive, down to the toilet signs.
Unlike at disney world, all the shops are real, working shops – you can really get ice cream at Florian Fortescue’s , buy prank gifts at geh Weasley’s joke shop, and get butterbeer at the leaky cauldron.
Which is, of course, in hogsmeade, the other part of the harry potter area. It is really worth it to get the entrance ticket for both parks (Universal runs two separate partks next to each other – diagon alley is in Universal studios, hogsmeade in Universal islands of adventure), so you can take the hogwarts express in between the two.
It’s not just a prop, but a real train that actually moves you between the two parks – although the “windows” of your carriage are actually screens showing the simulated ride between London and Hogwarts. Very nicely done.
I think Hogsmeade is the older part – it seems just a little less lovingly crafted, with fewer details and less to discover, than diagon alley, but still very nicely done.
And has Hogwarts castle, of course. Which is the major ride of the hogsmeade area (there are some smaller or barely re-themed rides in the harry potter area, but the main draw is the athmosphere, not the rides).
Again, a cool ride, but maybe relying too much on videos. And how much cooler would it have been if you could actually walk through hogwars castle yourself?
Of course, the Universal parks have plenty of areas and rides besides harry potter.
And some of those are rather cool – like the Hulk rollercoaster, one of the more intense coasters I’ve ridden.
All in all, a nice stopover, and well worth it if you’re in the area and love harry potter.
Next up: leaving America to go back to Europe, well, first Iceland.