In 2013 we were in Orlando, Florida for the first time as part of a rather epic road trip. As you may remember, we had only a brief stay in town but managed to crowbar visits to three theme parks into three days.
While this provided a taste of what the fun capital of the Sunshine State has to offer, it was clear that we were only scratching the surface and would have to return given our newly-developed addiction to thrill rides. Last year’s summer holiday was to include a full ten days in the city – with three of these to be spent at our favourite park from our first trip – Universal Orlando Resort.
I recommend that you also dedicate enough time, but whatever you do make sure you pre-book your tickets for Universal Studios.
The icing on this already very sweet cake was the announcement from Universal just a few weeks before our departure that the new Harry Potter attractions would be officially opening on July 8, 2014. This meant that we would be among the first visitors to experience Diagon Alley, the Escape from Gringotts ride and the Hogwarts Express.
Aware that this huge expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter would attract an insane amount of interest around the world and that our visit was during summer holiday season, I thought it unlikely that we would be able to get much assistance from Universal in return for a review on this blog – but contacted the media relations team in Florida just in case.
How wrong I was – the PR office were kind enough to provide all three of us with complimentary access to the parks for a whole day and a guided tour of the Escape from Gringotts ride. The latter was an amazing bonus as the queue time for the ride was never less than two hours and often as much as four.
As mentioned we ended up spending three full days at Universal Orlando and for the record we paid for two of these ourselves. I detailed the pricing structure in the article about our 2013 visit and on this occasion purchased two-day, two-park admission with unlimited Express so that we could bypass the regular queues on most rides. Note that Escape from Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express are not included so you will have to wait with everyone else.
I’ll be covering all the other fun to be had at Universal Orlando in an upcoming post but here the focus will be on Harry Potter – so let’s get down to business…
Just to start I should make it clear that we enjoyed the films but are not in the super fan league. I hereby warn readers with better knowledge of the books that the following article may well contain errors that will cause you to spill your Butterbeer in shock. If so I apologise and hope you’ll correct me in the comments sections rather than curse me with one of your spells…
At the heart of the expanded Harry Potter universe is the Hogwarts Express which connects the two Wizarding Worlds. Hogsmeade station can be found near the entrance to the Dragon Challenge roller coaster in Islands of Adventure and the line runs to King’s Cross in the all-new London area of Universal Studios.
For the best experience I suggest starting your trip from King’s Cross to Hogsmeade, spending some time at the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter then boarding the train to return to London and explore Diagon Alley.
The London area of Universal Studios fills the furthest corner of the park from the main entrance – the section previously occupied by ‘Jaws’.
As well as Kings’s Cross station and Diagon Alley (which is ‘hidden’ behind the wall next door) you’ll find the Knight Bus with its slightly spooky shrunken head and amiable driver parked next to a reproduction of the Piccadilly Circus fountain complete with Eros. Okay, technically that’s not Eros but that’s another story…
The old-style telephone box from the films is a popular photo opportunity, as is the row of houses from the Muggle (non-magic) world where Harry and his friends stay.
Entering King’s Cross station passengers are greeted by an impressive replica of the real thing over the pond. Universal have copied the signage, brickwork, uniforms and even rubbish bins from London.
The rotating departures board and announcements over the PA system add extra realism and to top it all the kiosk in the waiting area sells British beer such as John Smith’s and Boddingtons as well as crisps and chocolate bars not often seen in Florida.
There’s plenty to look at while you wait to reach the platform. Check the labels on the luggage piled on these carts for some familiar names and descriptions as the queue snakes past.
Despite the fact that there is no express queue here we found that the line moved fast and the time taken was usually less than that advertised on the board outside. King’s Cross has another trick up its sleeve to make the queue more fun, too…
After climbing the stairs to the platform level it’s time to move into the Wizard world – and that means jumping through the wall to reach platform 9 3/4.
With a clever illusion that’s exactly what it looks like too – at least for those behind you.
I made this compilation video to give you a taste of the new Harry Potter experience at Universal including the magical platform entrance so have a look and you’ll see what I mean.
Once on the platform there’s a little more queuing and a chance to say “hi!” to Hedwig. The staff are now wearing Hogwarts outfits as we are no longer Muggle-side.
When the Hogwarts Express makes its entrance, it’s hard not to be a little awestruck. As with all of the Harry Potter attractions both old and new, the attention to detail is incredible – as is the ingenuity employed by the design team in drawing visitors into JK Rowling’s world.
The steam train itself looks just like the one in the films as it puffs into the station and once inside it feels and even smells like a British railway carriage. This is no coincidence – the interiors and materials were sourced from the UK and I can vouch for the authenticity as will my fellow countrymen when they get the chance to ride.
There are eight passengers to a compartment and once the doors close it’s time to make the journey to Hogsmeade and Hogwarts School itself. Employing a combination of actual movement, video projection on both the window and the inside doors as well as audio effects including dialogue from the film characters, it’s quite a ride.
I’m not going to spoil it for you with all the details but each direction offers a unique experience – as well as a major shortcut compared to walking between each park. Nit-pickers will dislike the fact that the train backs into King’s Cross but building two separate lines would have been a little excessive just to keep that small group happy.
It does mean that you need a ticket with access to both parks, but this is the best value anyway as a day is not enough without rushing; the minimum you should consider is a two day park-to-park ticket.
As impressive as the Hogwarts Express definitely is, it has nothing on Diagon Alley. At first you’ll not even see it as it’s accessed through diagonal (gettit?) passages in the wall on the edge of the London area. But when you pass through you’ll realise where Universal used all that time and money.
Rather than just create a few streets with shop facades, the design team have followed J.K. Rowling’s descriptions and breathed life into the whole experience. You can go inside most of the buildings here and there are plenty of opportunities to part with your holiday money but there’s never any sales pressure so just go ahead and browse if you’re not buying.
Like I mentioned in the beginning, we’re not die-hard fans of the franchise but we were bowled over nonetheless. There’s actually more depth and detail here than in the movies – this is no two-dimensional stage set after all. Apparently Diagon Alley here is closer to that described in the books and will provide hours of enjoyment for hardcore fans who will lap up every single reference.
As well as the variety of shops you can eat well here too at The Leaky Cauldron. Just like in the original Wizarding World there are no junk food suppliers or garish soft drink labels to break the illusion – instead you’ll find quality British pub grub and Butterbeer. Leave some room for ice cream or cake for dessert though – the variety on offer at Florian Fortescue’s is sure to tempt you.
Try the chocolate chili ice cream but be warned – it really does have a proper kick rather than a hint of spice. Apple crumble flavour makes a perfect accompaniment.
Again, it’s not often you see Battenberg Cake or Treacle Fudge in Florida so don’t be shy – get an authentic taste of England in the heart of Orlando 🙂
One of the first sights greeting visitors who enter Diagon Alley is Gringotts Bank with its huge dragon on the roof. Not only does this look very cool, it actually breathes fire every ten minutes or so…
Just round the corner from the Bank is an exchange office where we exchanged Muggle money (i.e. dollars) into Gringotts cheques. It’s all for fun and you can either keep one as a souvenir or cash it anywhere in the park (not just in the Harry Potter areas).
There’s no fee and cash is exchanged on a 1:1 basis but I imagine the goblins at Gringotts are assuming that a lot of visitors will simply change ten dollars (the lowest amount) and keep the cheque to take home. Nice idea, goblins – and yes, that’s what we did…
Even if you resist the aforementioned temptation don’t miss the Gringotts Money Exchange. An eerily lifelike animatronic goblin sits at his desk as you stand in line inside and if you catch his eye he’ll interact. It’s really something to behold and a long way from the jerky robots we became used to in theme parks.
Continuing on from the Money Exchange we passed a stage where a musical number was underway and a female vocalist seemed to have managed to find the only introvert in the US to drag onto the stage. It was a little painful to watch but he got into the spirit of things in the end – I’ll bet my 10 Gringotts dollars that he was a fellow Limey as everyone else we saw practically took over the entire show.
There’s plenty of space in Diagon Alley and although a system was developed where visitors would be given allotted times to enter the area this has not proved necessary. It seems that the time spent in the planning stage as well as the experience gained from the last Harry Potter opening has helped Universal deal with the incredible number of visitors descending on the park. Incidentally Hogwarts Express has already transported its one millionth passenger – since starting up service just over a month before…
Instead of detailing all there is to see and do I’d rather you enjoy the sense of wonder and discovery that we did and go in without knowing it all. But I can’t not mention the wands…
Some have complained about the USD 45 cost and admittedly it is a lot of money, but even the biggest sceptic would have to admit this is a brilliant souvenir. The wand comes with a map showing the locations where its powers can be used – if you look at the picture above you’ll notice a mark on the ground in front of the lady wizard. Standing on or near the mark and waving the wand using the correct motion will trigger an action – in this case the fountain sprayed water on the unsuspecting woman who was watching (you can just about make out the water marks from the previous victim).
Come on, that’s pretty neat, right?
Escape from Gringotts
The major draw in Diagon Alley apart from the place itself is the new thrill ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Instead of taking a scene from the movies or the books, Universal have created a kind of spin-off story in which we visitors play a central part.
The idea is that at the same time as Harry, Ron and Hermione are inside Gringotts Bank to nab the Horcrux from Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault, we are in the same place to open accounts of our own. Ron’s older brother Bill (who has only a minor part in the movies) is due to meet with us to show is around the super-safe vaults deep below the bank.
The adventure begins – as does the queue. Hopefully wait times will steadily fall after the initial rush but don’t expect to wait under 90 minutes for this one. While not as extreme as the ten hours (seriously) that uberfans waited on opening day, I checked the Universal App regularly during our three days in the park and rarely saw times drop under three hours – at the worst it was four. Now that is a LONG time to stand in line for a ride lasting perhaps seven minutes, but there is a lot of entertainment laid on while you wait.
As you’ll recall, we were lucky enough to be escorted onto the ride without queuing but one ride is never enough and I definitely want to do it again – but not at the expense of four hours of rollercoasters. Everyone is different, but we decided that about ninety minutes was our limit so we’ll save riding this one again for a future trip to Orlando.
The Great Hall of Gringotts Bank looks just like the films – with rows of bank clerks keeping an eye on visitors while they carry out their work. Again, animatronics have been employed superbly to create incredibly realistic goblins – or at least as real as I would expect a goblin to look.
As we leave the Hall for the bank offices we pass by what I presume is a more senior goblin who reacts to the movements of our group of guests – it’s both impressive and a little unsettling in equal measures.
We reach Bill Weasley’s office and are introduced to Gringotts and told about our upcoming tour of the underground vaults. We shuffle out and into the lift for the ten mile descent – special effects and video are deployed to make us begin to question the safety measures in place at Gringotts and we emerge to climb a final spiral staircase to find the ‘trains’ waiting for us.
Yes, it all goes a tad pair-shaped and we’re soon careering through the underground caverns pursued by Bellatrix, Voldemort and some enormous trolls. A huge dragon is also involved but you should wait and see the rest for yourselves. The 3D projections are the best I’ve ever seen and the huge range of movement makes for a high-adrenaline ride. The cast from the movies have been reunited to play their roles here too and it’s as close as you can get to being in a film.
Of course it’s a shame when it’s all over and you will be left wanting more – but you will enjoy every second on the ride .
There have been a few teething troubles with Escape from Gringotts (including on day the ride was demonstrated to the world’s media) but the reviews have been unanimously positive. Ours is too – despite a brief delay after we took our seats everything worked flawlessly and Universal seem to have dealt with any initial problems.
In my opinion Escape from Gringotts is one of the best rides in any park – but it is really just a bonus on top of the superb Diagon Alley. Add in the Hogwarts Express and the rest of the Harry Potter world in Orlando and you have an unbeatable experience for all the family – we already want to go back again!