Inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Magic Wands, Chocolate Frogs, and Dreams Come True
I may run out of exclamation marks for this one.
Recently, I got the chance to spend a few days down in Florida (!) visiting the Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks (!!). Both parks are pretty exciting, but I have to admit there was one set of areas I was especially drawn to…
Okay, like many of you, I’ve been a fan of Harry Potter since the books were first coming out. I stood in the midnight lines. I read hundreds of fanfics. I spent hours considering the texts and subtexts of every chapter. I was PUMPED to go to a Harry Potter theme park. I was also ready to be disappointed.
“I probably won’t buy much,” I told my family on the way to the airport. “I don’t really like cutesy souvenirs with the name of something I like on it.” I figured I would see a few cool-looking shops with over-priced keychains, go on a Harry Potter-ish ride or two, and have fun reveling in a bit of nostalgia. I had no idea what I was getting into.
Right now there are two sections to the Harry Potter World attractions. There’s Hogsmeade over at Islands of Adventure and the newer Diagon Alley at Universal. The two parks are right next to each other, but you need a two-park pass if you want to see them both. Luckily, there’s also a train that connects both areas, so it’s really easy to go back and forth. I’ll get back to that in a bit.
I went to Hogsmeade first and immediately realized I had vastly underestimated the place. You guys, I walked into Hogsmeade. I don’t know who made these parks but I have no doubt they are all hardcore fans. This place wasn’t just a cash-grab. It was an experience made with love and devotion. Honeydukes was there. Zonko’s was there. The Hogwarts Express was there. I went into the women’s bathroom and I heard Moaning Myrtle. There was a stage performance of students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang for the Triwizard Tournament. There was a wanted poster for Sirius Black. Every food cart sold Gilly Water and pumpkin juice. Looking around, it felt like I was an insert in a personalized Harry Potter fanfic. I realized I had forgotten just how much love I have for the series.
When I arrived I was worried about the lines for the rides (seriously, a 45 minute wait is a GOOD one) so I went straight for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. I’d heard the ride was amazing, but it was nearly an hour before I could find out for myself. Luckily, Universal is very good at making their lines fun ones. The Forbidden Journey is inside Hogwarts castle. If you go through the regular line you stand in portions that are the Herbology greenhouses and the castle dungeons. You pass Snape’s Potions classroom and the statue of the witch with a hump that Fred and George used to get to Hogsmeade. At a more interactive stage you go through Dumbledore’s office, a hall of portraits featuring the school’s founders, and a classroom where Harry, Ron, and Hermione come out from under an invisibility cloak. Characters talk to each other and to you to get you excited for the plot of the ride, which is mainly that you’re going to get on a flying bench to watch a quidditch match.
After the Sorting Hat gave me some quick safety tips, I finally got on. Guys, this ride is amazing. If you go to Islands of Adventure and only have time for one ride, this is the one you want.
It takes you from the Great Hall, onto the quidditch field, through the Forbidden Forest, and into the Chamber of Secrets. It’s a mixture of sitting in front of extremely immersive screens and sailing by incredibly well-done props. (Watch out for a close encounter with a very real Whomping Willow.) I went on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey six times before my trip was done. That’s how much I recommend it.
But as impressive as Hogsmeade was, I think Diagon Alley was even better. Just getting there was fantastic. I went on the Hogwarts Express, which I assumed would just be a fancy shuttle. Nope. Even the train had a show for passengers (one that was different both ways). I got to hear Hermione, Ron, and Harry in the hall. I got to be even more immersed in the magical world as a film showed us where we were going. But it didn’t even end when we got to “London”. Instead I walked into an authentic English train station and then out to a London street. I’ve actually been to London and the resemblance was uncanny.
The “muggle” station workers even stayed in character, insisting that there were platforms nine and ten with nothing in-between. Though one DID say he’d heard there was a market somewhere down the road…
Sure enough, on the other side of a brick wall, was more of the wizarding world of my dreams.
Diagon Alley is overwhelming. When I first walked in I didn’t know where to look first. Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes? Madam Malkin’s? The Leaky Cauldron? The huge dragon on top of Gringotts? I wanted to see everything and luckily I had the time to do it. I had breakfast at The Leaky Cauldron. I tasted my first butterbeer. I saw Fleur’s wedding gown and was complimented by a mirror in Madam Malkin’s. I even took a walk down Knockturn Alley. Every shop was amazing (if expensive) and I never wanted to leave. I only wished I’d reread every book and watched every movie to fully appreciate all the details I was seeing.
My best and worst experience was at Olivander’s. You can go directly into the shop, but it’s better if you get in line for the small show they have. My brother and I were lucky enough to have a show to ourselves during a slow part of the day.
We went into a dark room where a witch talked about how wands choose their owners. She picked out wands for each of us to test, but we both just messed up our spells until she realized her mistake and switched the wands. Suddenly a light shined on us. Wind flew through our hair and music played to show we had truly found our destined wands. It was an amazing moment…until we left the room and found out our “destined” wands would cost about $50 each. As someone who was only there through the kindness of family, it was much more than I could afford. It was heart-wrenching, but we had to put the wands back. I pity any parent who can’t afford to buy a wand for their kid after a show like that. The look on the child’s face would probably haunt them for years.
The wands are an interesting part of the Wizarding World experience. There are two kinds for sale. First there are the normal ones that are replicas of the ones in the movies. These are a bit cheaper. (I eventually bought a Fleur Delacour wand, for those interested.)
The other kind includes more unique designs. These are “interactive” wands that can be used to do small spells in specific locations at Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Officially, there are sixteen spell locations, but I got a tip that there were also two secret ones. Overall, I’m not sure if the interactive wands are worth the extra money though. From what I saw they only seemed to work some of the time.
I also spent a lot of time talking to the staff of the parks. Honestly, they might well be people who are reading this article right now, so I want to say something quickly: Thank you for the work you do. Throughout my four days visiting the Universal parks you were the kindest, most helpful, enthusiastic, and fun-loving staff I have ever met.
As for the rest of you readers, I want to make it clear that the staff is really what makes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter such a great attraction. Yes, some of them put on shows, others sell things, and I can’t even imagine how much work goes on behind the scenes, but their greatest contribution is what they bring to the atmosphere. Every single one of them is a hardcore Harry Potter fan. They all work together to make the magic real. They stay in character as witches, wizards, and muggles. They give coy smiles when asked when the dragon on Gringotts will breathe fire. They joke about which house members show the most pride (Hufflepuffs) and which will only buy practical things (Slytherins). This attraction works because they care just as much as the people who come to visit.
One staff member told me that a lot of guests cry when they first arrive. I can see why. For me, going there felt like coming home. It felt like being understood. And, more than anything else, it felt like getting a letter by owl that I hadn’t known I was still hoping for.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a place created by fans and for fans. It’s expensive and, for some, very hard to get to. But, if you can make it, I promise that it’s also the place you’ve been dreaming of.
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