The highlight of our visit to Universal Orlando Resort was walking into a masterful recreation of Diagon Alley, the crowning achievement of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Before I get into the amazing experience we had during our Facing Fears Together visit to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure earlier this month, I need to put this whole Harry Potter thing into perspective.
We are a family of readers. By that, I mean we enjoy sitting (or lying) down with a good book and getting lost in the pages (or, these days, the digital representation of pages on my iPad Kindle or Nook apps).
Beth and I bonded over the Harry Potter series. How obsessed were we?
In the summer of 2005, we knew the sixth book in the Harry Potter series would be released during our visit to Charleston, S.C., with my mom and dad. So, we pre-ordered the Half-Blood Prince for pick up at a little book store on Meeting Street around the corner from our hotel.
Oh, and we ordered two copies, because we knew that neither of us would want to wait while the other plowed through the pages. This was during a long weekend in one of the coolest walking cities in America.
We spent a good portion of that trip to Charleston imagining ourselves roaming the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Even as we took the ferry out to Fort Sumter, we itched to get back to the room and read.
That should give you a pretty good idea where things stand for us when it came time to step into Diagon Alley for the first time.
I was prepared to be mesmerized. Universal Studios did not disappoint.
First, though, there were other thrills to experience, other rides to ride.
I think my new favorite roller coaster in Florida just might be Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, a 17-story, 65-mph rocket that allows you to create a music video of your ride using music of your choice (I chose Camouflage by the Beastie Boys). It was one of the first things we did with the party of bloggers and their friends and/or family members put together by Toni and Mellisa from Two Traveling Moms.
We also had our insides pureed at Universal Studios on Transformers, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and Revenge of the Mummy. Later, at Islands of Adventure, we ate an incredible lunch at Mythos, acknowledged as the top theme park restaurant in the world by Theme Park Insider from 2003-09.
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The castle looks so real, I half expect to see Harry come flying in on a broomstick.
At Islands of Adventure, we also rode the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, Jurassic Park River Adventure and the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride.
It was all great, the kinds of thrills and wonderful experiences that help put Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure on a world-class level. The proximity of Walt Disney World, Legoland Florida and Sea World demand that of Universal Orlando, anyway.
What takes the two Universal parks into a unique realm, at least in my view, is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Hogsmeade, the Dragon Challenge, Flight of the Hippogriff and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey came to Islands of Adventure in the summer of 2010. It gave J.K. Rowling fans the chance to experience what it’s like to move through real-life versions of the locations made famous in the books and movies.
Then, this year, Universal Studios’ Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express were added.
It’s a game changer on Florida’s theme park landscape. While Disney made great strides with the New Fantasy Land facelift last year, nothing I’ve seen in any theme park anywhere compared to the experience of walking into a place that brought to life a setting I’ve only imagined or seen represented on screen.
Once through the brick wall maze coming in from “muggle” London, the view is … well, magical.
Diagon Alley in the books and movies is one of the best-conceived settings in kid literature. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, it provided Harry’s first, true immersion into the world of magic. Everywhere he turned was something new and delightfully fascinating.
Later, it served as a setting for major plot elements. That new and amazing place of the first book eventually became a place of warmth and familiarity for Harry — and for us, the readers.
The detail of Diagon Alley is spectacular. Anyone who loves the books and movies like we do will feel transported.
A spectacular light fixture, part of the interior of Gringotts at Diagon Alley.
There were many highlights, but the Escape from Gringotts ride took the prize. Frankly, even though the ride itself is fantastic (it’s like you’re inside a wild, magical 3D movie), the re-creation of the interior of Gringotts was what put it over the top for me.
Small but important details, like the painted advertisements on the brick facades throughout Diagon Alley, gave the place a “street-level” feel not even the books or movies could provide. I’ve included a few of my favorites in the accompanying slide show, and I urge you to check out the information available about the Wizarding World on the Universal Orlando’s website.
Because Beth was not able to accompany me on this Facing Fears Together couples trip, she suggested I invite our neighbor, Ken. He had been to Universal with his kids and loved it, but he had not had the chance to see any of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In fact, Ken — even though he has two kids that love to read and are Harry Potter fans — had never seen any of the movies or read even the first book.
He came into it as a Harry Potter newbie. While there, I repeatedly expressed my amazement with how real it all seemed. Ken was impressed at the time, too, but he lacked the perspective of a Harry Potter veteran.
That changed once we got back. He made a point of watching the Sorcerer’s Stone movie shortly after our return, and I got this text from him as he watched: “You weren’t kidding about Universal vs movie! Impressed!”
Disclosure: DadScribe was invited to the Facing Fears Together blogger event co-hosted by Two Traveling Moms and Universal Orlando Resort to review the theme parks, Halloween Horror Nights, Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Citywalk entertainment district. All opinions those of the author.