"Yer a wizard Harry," so said Hagrid, the half-giant gamekeeper of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With these words, the lives of millions of readers and movie-watchers around the world were changed forever, opening our eyes to the magic around us. The internationally bestselling book and movie series captured our imaginations and has grown into a generational phenomenon spanning the globe. People everywhere wished they too could receive and owl-delivered letter of acceptance to the school so that they could join in the fun, the mysteries, and the thrill of doing magic on a daily basis. While you may not be able to become a real-life, flesh and blood magical wizard/witch like Harry and his friends, you can visit Harry's favorite places from the books!
In 2010, Universal Studios Orlando opened a massive park expansion and wowed the world with nearly exact replicas, familiar sites and faces, shops, rides, and more from the famous series. Receiving applause from the international critic community, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is every bit as magical as stepping inside the movies or books.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter spans two theme parks, moving from the Islands of Adventure into the Universal Studios Florida main park. There are two major areas of the Harry Potter park, namely the all-wizard village of Hogsmeade and the popular wizard shopping destination, Diagon Alley, an expansion that opened in 2014. Both work to recreate particular scenes from the seven-book series from the style of architecture, the souvenirs, and goods sold at the themed shops, to the rides fashioned after specific events in Harry's life at Hogwarts.
First, let's explore Hogsmeade Village, where no muggles are allowed in and wizarding visitors are free to roam, shop, ride, and explore to their hearts' content. Arrive on the Hogwarts Express, a full-size replica of the steam engine which connects King's Cross Station in Universal Studios to Hogsmeade Station in Islands of Adventure. To get here, walk straight through the barrier between platforms nine and ten, just like Harry. The barrier, a clever little trick, looks just like a wall so you can fool the muggles and escape to Hogwarts. Arrive and find yourself face to face with snow-covered roofs, excited little wizards running from Honeyduke's to the Three Broomsticks and beyond.
You can buy all your "school" supplies and stationery at the Owl Post or send a postcard to a friend with the Hogwarts seal on the stamp. Run over to the Three Broomsticks and grab a butterbeer or pumpkin juice and cauldron cake with your groupmates but be sure to look up because you can find house-elves and ghosts wandering the rafters above your heads. If the Three Broomsticks is too crowded, try visiting the Hog's Head pub or go down to Dervish and Banges or Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods where you can find movie props, familiar souvenirs, and much more. Finally, make sure you stop by the famous Honeyduke's sweet shop, a place so full of Harry Potter themed candy that just looking at it all will give you cavities.
Guess what else is in Hogsmeade...Hogwarts of course! The main attraction in both areas of the park, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is located inside the castle. The ride is a tour simulation of the castle and grounds, starting with introductions, instructions, and directions from Professor Dumbledore, Harry, Ron and Hermione before you board the moving bench and start your tour. Through the grounds and castle, you'll see full-size animatronics of the Whomping Willow, dragons, a Quidditch match, dementors, and giant spiders among other familiar faces.
Other rides at Hogsmeade include the family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff and the thrilling and deadly Dragon Challenge roller coaster. Both are fabulous although one is perhaps better suited for young children. The Flight of the Hippogriff is a charming roller coaster perfect for even young kids who would love to see Hagrid teaching his Care of Magical Creatures class and then board a hippogriff (a wicker one used for student practice) and take off over the castle. The Dragon Challenge, however, is a bit more thrilling as the only chasing inverted roller coaster in the world. With dual tracks that overlap and intertwine, the Dragon Challenge is not for the faint of heart, much like the Triwizard Tournament to which this ride pays homage.
Next, it's on to Diagon Alley, the premier wizard's shopping destination free from the prying eyes of muggles. First, have lunch at the Leaky Cauldron restaurant then head over to Gringotts to ride the flagship attractions, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, a 3D motion-based roller coaster dark ride that takes you around Gringotts, the wizarding bank. Enter and be greeted by the surly goblin Bogrod then let Ron's brother Bill Weasley host the simulation as you tour the deadly and treasure-filled bank.
Where Hogsmeade Village has most of the riding attractions, Diagon Alley keeps the majority of the shopping and dining. Weave your way through the exciting buildings and visit shops like Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions, Magical Menagerie, Quality Quidditch Supplies and Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment. Take a wrong turn down Knockturn Alley and see Borgin and Burkes, step inside Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes and buy a joke gift from Fred and George, or grab a sweet treat from Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour.
You'll most certainly want to visit Ollivander's Wand Shop which is something of a live show mixed with a shop. Only 20 people or so are allowed in at a time because once you enter, a special person in the group will be chosen by Ollivander himself to choose a wand, or should I say, let the wand choose the wizard. Light and sounds, thunderclaps and sparks will fly before a wand is rightfully picked and then everyone can grab their own souvenir wizard's wand.
Live shows are found all over the parks and range from the musical stylings of Celestina Warbeck and The Banshees, a band noted by Molly Weasley in an early book, to the Knight Bus interactive show on the London waterfront or even the Tale of the Three Brothers puppet show.
Whether your student group sticks to one park or the other, believe in the magic of the place and you'll find it in every detail of the park. Visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter this next vacation season and fall into magic.