Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

At the end of October, we took a trip to Orlando, Florida to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. My mom, Aaron, me and my two sisters, Shannon and Lauren, had an epic time totally immersed in both awesome theme parks and had so much fun.

I wanted to share my trip to "Harry Potter Land" (as we dubbed it) on my blog as a kind of travel-log that I could write to myself to remember what a great time we had. This way I could share a bit more about our experience and get more in-depth than just uploading a bunch of photos to Facebook. I thought it would also be better to give my friends and family the option to read it, instead of just a big giant album that they would be forced to see, especially if they weren't all that interested in looking at it in the first place.

So, if you are into it, and I'll admit that this is a photo-heavy and text-heavy post, I'd love for you to join me as I reminisce about this amazing vacation.

We went for six days in total: two travel days, three days at the park and one day to just chill at the hotel and relax. My goal for this vacation was to make it as relaxing and fun as possible. There are two parks that make up Universal Studios: Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. Both have different sections of Harry Potter Land: Hogsmead and Hogwarts at Islands of Adventure, and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios. We got park-to-park tickets which allowed us to do both theme parks and ride the Hogwarts Express Train that connects the two lands. We specifically bought the Harry Potter Experience package, because that is all we wanted to do on this trip. I'll admit that we pretty much ignored the rest of the theme parks (we did walk through them and look around a bit), but ultimately we were there for Harry Potter and nothing else!

Day One: Hogsmeade and Hogwarts

Our first day was spend in Islands of Adventure at Hogsmead. We got to the park at about 8:30 am and it wasn't too busy to start. We were able to wander around fairly freely and take some photos without the crowds surrounding us which was awesome.

Because we booked the Harry Potter Package, we were able to make breakfast reservations at the Three Broomsticks Restaurant. This was probably the best breakfast we had at the park (the SCONES), and it was a perfect way to start our day. There was hardly anyone here, so service was super fast and since we were all so excited, it was a good time to just chill and get a coffee.

After breakfast it was time to explore Hogsmeade!! All the buildings are super wonky and tilted and every window has some really detailed storefront. Every time we came back we would notice something different. If you had an interactive wand, some of the windows had sensors that would react to "spells". We ended up buying Harry's wand to share and messed around with a few of the spell windows. This is possibly the only place in the world where you can be any age and wave a magic wand around and not feel like a total dork about it, and it was admittedly tons of fun to try to get the spells to work.

Both of my sisters love candy so we ended up going to Honeydukes (and Sugarplums in Diagon Alley) several times over our three days. We were all grossed out by Mad Eye Moody's candy eye that Shan is holding in the picture above.

The Owl Post is connected to Dervish and Bangs and they stamp postcards with a special Hogwarts Postmark. I bought a set of postcards just to get the postmark as a souvenir and we split them between us so we could all have one. The cashier witch told me the postcards were "Muggle free" which made me laugh.

I have been threatening my family that I would be wearing a cape the entire time we would be at Harry Potter World. I didn't end up actually buying a cape (I mean, really ...) but we did play dress up and put on some robes just for fun. One of the only gripes I have about the whole park was that anything inside a building was so dark. It was impossible to get good photos inside anywhere, all of my pictures from inside the Three Broomsticks are blurry and inside the castle as well. Eventually I stopped attempting to take photos inside and just tried to memorize everything with my eyeballs because it was better to see it for real than look at a fuzzy photo later.

The park really picks up after 11:00 am so we bee-lined it for Hogwarts to ride on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  Before you get on the ride, you walk through a tour of the castle and get to see a few sets inside. The line moves fast (and it's totally dark inside) so I felt like we didn't get to really explore the castle, but you can peek at the Portrait Room, the Greenhouse, Dumbledore's office, the Defense Against the Dark Arts Classroom, and the Gryffindor Common Room. This all tells you a little storyline that preps you for the actual ride through the castle where you sit on a bench and it whorls you around through a 4-D ride. What's 4-D? A 3-D screen where you fly with Harry and Ron on the Quidditch Pitch, zoom around after a dragon, get attacked by puppets of giant spiders and dementors and get blasted in the face with hot air as the dragon blows fire. I got sprayed in the face with water by the dementors too which was totally gross but fun. It was probably the most fun ride (my mom and sisters liked Gringotts better, more below), but Aaron and I ended up going about 4 or 5 times on Forbidden Journey.

Our Dream Home!

There is so much to see around Hogsmeade! We stopped for a butterbeer break, visited the single washroom in Hogsmeade and listened to Moaning Myrtle whine.  (According to Aaron, she was also in the boy's washroom crying). There was a squeally little mandrake in the window of one of the shops that became like a soundtrack, everywhere you went you could hear it yowling. There are lots of little carts with pins, memorabilia and food and of course, lots of stores to shop in. We ended up going to Mythos restaurant in Sinbad Land (none of us could really explain why Sinbad was still a thing), because I had heard it had lots of vegetarian options for Aaron and it was a good thing we did because it was getting quite busy and very hot. We had a fairly long lunch and head back into the park for Round 2. Unfortunately the Hogwarts Express wasn't running our first day, so we just hung around Islands of Adventure for the first day, checked out Jurassic Park and walked through some of the other lands, but we came back to Hogsmeade and spent the majority of our time there.

We visited Hagrid's Hut at the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster, but no one was home.  You could hear Fang barking from inside however. Once you get on the ride you can spy Buckbeak lounging in the grass while you fly by. We did this roller coaster a few times when we came back at night for our last day which was super-fun. There was a lot of laughing. There is one other roller coaster in Hogsmeade, the Dragon Challenge, which was a flip-you-upside-down roller coaster. Only Aaron was brave enough to do it and he said it was awesome, but all of us girls wimped out about it.

Day 2: Diagon Alley

We had early admission to the Universal Studios side of the park because of our package, but we ended up going at about the same time as the day before. It wasn't super-packed so it worked out quite well. Before going into Diagon Alley, you walk through Muggle London where King's Cross Station is located and you can catch the Hogwarts Express. But first we visited Number 12 Grimmauld Place, which we could see but no one answered when we knocked. If you looked carefully in the second floor window, Kreacher was keeping an eye on the place every so often.

I stood at Grimmauld Place for long time to get a good photo of Kreacher peeking out the window. Worth it!

On Thanksgiving, before we left and just for fun, all of my family (even those who weren't going to come with us on the trip) got sorted into Hogwarts Houses on the Pottermore website. My mom and Shan got Gryffindor, Lauren got Ravenclaw, and Aaron and I got Slytherin. Aaron was absolutely beside himself to get into Slytherin, but I was less excited (I mean, come on!!!). Stan Shunpike at the Knight Bus gave me a hard time about my house, but at least the shrunken head didn't tell me I looked like unicorn barf, which I overheard him say to another park goer.

Shan and I tried to get into the Ministry for Magic at the telephone booth, but it was out of order. (Dial 6-2-4-4-2 for MAGIC to be connected!) Beside Kings Cross Station is the Leaky Cauldron and we all know where that goes!

Once we got inside we made another dash for the Escape from Gringott's ride. We ended up going twice because it was so much fun and my mom and sisters liked it better than Forbidden Journey. It is a similar 4-D ride but you are in a cart this time and follow Bill Weasley underground to get a tour of the bank. Of course, things go wrong and you end up trying to escape from Bellatrix Lastrange and Voldemort himself. There is hot air and water spray on this ride as well and some spinning around which is really fun. Walking through Gringott's before you get on the ride is similar to Hogwarts where you walk through some sets of the bank and see some neat props. There are goblins inside and the gorgeous crystal chandeliers from the movies, but again, it's fairly dark and hard to take photos.

We had breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron after our tour of Gringott's, also part of the package. The breakfast here was English-inspired (we are close to Muggle London, you know) and it was harder to find something without lots of sausage on it. We persevered.

My family liked to tease me about how many photos of the dragon I took. I will admit, there are a ton. Aaron told me I had 600 pictures and about half of them were just the dragon. I loved him so much!!! If you were patient and lucky the dragon would breath fire out overhead. I managed to get a photo of the fire-breathing and it made my whole day! Even in the Florida heat you could feel the rush of hot air when he exploded fire. My mom and Lauren saw it lots of times, but the dragon was curiously quiet when I was outside ...

We took a break on the steps of the bank to try to wait for the dragon fire. He refused to make a sound so we carried on.

One of the goblins inside Gringotts, working away. This one would speak randomly and all the other goblins in the room were animatronic and would move, scribbling notes and counting gold.

Shan was in love with Diagon Alley. Every storefront had something amazing in it. We went into the shops many many times. It seemed like you always saw something new when you went in. We ended up going through Ollivander's Wand Shop here and watching the wand choosing ceremony. It was pretty cute and afterwards we looked at all the wands available to buy. Pretty much every character in the movies has a wand you can purchase. Some of the coolest designs belonged to Snape, Voldemort and Dumbledore (Elder wand, oh my!). You could even buy Molly Weasley's wand, which made us wonder who would have bought something so obscure, but I heard a dad ask his daughter if she wanted Cho Chang's wand, so maybe it's not so strange.

We stopped for butterbeer ice cream from Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour and mom and Aaron took a ride on Hagrid's motorcycle. Beware all of the drinks in Harry Potter Land. Butterbeer, pumpkin juice, whatever they make the lemonade out of, it's super sweet. I think we all got cavities after drinking the pumpkin juice. It was good, but we learned that cutting everything with water made the drinks tolerable. Pro-tip, bring your own water to the park if you can. Gilly water (literally just plain water in a plastic bottle) will cost you $4.50 USD. There are fountains by the washrooms, but we found they tasted weird. We are probably just sensitive to whatever they treat it with in America.

Anyways, after ice cream it was time to explore Knockturn Alley! It was pitch black in here with a fancy cloud-covered, star-speckled animated ceiling. Borgin and Burkes was here and there was memorabilia you couldn't see anywhere else in the park.  Lots of cool skulls, shirts and relics. Here you could buy Salazar Slytherin's Locket (horcrux and all), Malfoy's Death Eater Mask, Deathly Hallows shirts and glasses. This was the only place we found a shirt with Voldemort on it (Aaron bought it). There is also a Vanishing Cabinet that if you listen close you can hear faint chirping ...

Aaron really leaned in to the whole Slytherin House. His hat also says Slytherin.

Shan and Lauren ended up getting house hats too!  Aaron actually bought two (I told you he was into it) and I wore the black one for most of the second day to keep my head from burning in the Florida sun.

I wasn't kidding when I said I liked the dragon!!

I found Nagini in the Magical Menagerie (she didn't come home with me). There is a much larger and more talkative one if you go around the side of the building and look in the window. One of the things that I really wanted to see was the performances put on in Carkitt Market. We saw both Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees (who sang about four songs of wizard-themed tunes, including Molly Weasley's favorite "A Cauldron Full of Hot Strong Love") and the impressive puppet performance of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, The Three Brothers. The puppets were lovingly made, and I was very impressed by both the large and small version of Death.

Then it was time to board the Hogwarts Express. The train was running today so we hopped it back to Muggle London and boarded Kings Cross Station. There is a cute vanishing wall where you can watch people disappear through Platform 9 3/4" and there is a small area where you can see Ron and Harry's luggage waiting to get loaded on the train, complete with Hedwig blinking at you disdainfully from inside her cage.

The train is a ride in itself and connects Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade. You sit in a traincar and watch a screen on the window side and a projection on the inside where characters from Harry Potter wander past and try to get a seat. Both ways on the train are different, so it was worth it to go both from Kings Cross Station to Hogsmeade and the way back again.

On the second day my sisters and I wore matching shirts to show our school spirit and grab a photo at the castle! Aaron did the Dragon Challenge again, mom bought a ton of candy and chocolate at Honeydukes. We went for lunch at the Three Broomsticks and sat on the patio with an awesome view of the castle. It was also quiet back there so it was a nice break. After a few more hours wandering around, we head back to the Hogwarts Express and back to Diagon Alley where I waited for the dragon to breathe fire a little while longer before we left.

Day 3: The Pool Day

On the third day we decided we needed a break to just chill out around the hotel. Unfortunately for me, I happened to catch some kind of bug and got a sore throat. Everyone else enjoyed the Florida weather while I tried to sleep off my cold (it didn't work). This is why there are no photos of the third day, because I was down for the count. We ended up going to CityWalk for dinner, which is the restaurant and shop pre-park that you must walk through before going to either Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios. We had dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe and milled around for a little while to watch all the people flood in for the Halloween Haunt event at night. None of us particularly like being scared silly, so we opted out of the Halloween stuff, but it was pretty fun to people-watch. We had ice cream at Coldstone Creamery for dessert and visited our hotel's giftshop for more Harry Potter merchandise and cough drops (for me) before we head to the room.

Day 4: Our Last Day at the Park

Our last day was reserved for anything and everything we wanted to do again. I was still feeling sick but I toughed it out to get the most of our time at the park. We started at Diagon Alley (Shan's request), did Gringotts twice more, Knockturn Alley again, messed around with some of the interactive wand spells and Aaron bought an entire wardrobe of Slytherin clothing at the Quidditch store. We went back and forth on the Hogwarts Express again and skipped through Forbidden Journey just because. Aaron and I ended up staying a little later than my mom and sisters, wandering around at some of the stores, but it was so busy we couldn't get on any of the rides so we head back to the hotel.

I managed to convince my family to return to Hogsmeade after dinner that night by telling them that Hogwarts would be all lit up. We journeyed back to Islands of Adventure at dusk and we were able to go on the Forbidden Journey twice more at night and Flight of the Hippogriff three times as the lines were so low. This was super-fun and so worth it as all the lights come on in Hogsmeade and some of the window displays are easier to see.

I didn't even notice these little skeletons in the window at Honeydukes when we were there before.

Seeing the castle lit up at night was amazing. I'm so glad we went back to see it. Of course, it was hard to get a good photo of it, this was the best I could do. Everywhere you go in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, the soundtrack of the movies is playing, so it was like creeping around with Harry and the invisibility cloak at night. The night castle was even more magical (can you believe it!?).

This was pretty much the most fun trip I have ever been on. Everything worked out amazing (except for me getting sick, which I paid for terribly when I got back to Canada with a terrible head cold and laryngitis, but it was worth it!). I did a ton of research before we left to find out when the best timing was to get on the rides, what little secrets there were so we would see everything, how we would get from the airport to the hotel (we got a shuttle service which was great), from the hotel to the park (a different shuttle provided by the hotel) and it all just worked out fantastic. I would recommend that anyone who is a fan of Harry Potter make an effort to go to Orlando. Even Aaron, who said he was a casual fan before we left (he had seen the movies but not read the books yet), came back a super fan because of how amazingly immersive the park was. It was like being part of Harry's world completely and utterly.

If you managed to read all of this, I'm super impressed and thankful! I hope you enjoyed seeing the photos of our vacation, it was honestly so much fun. I wish we could do it all over again! I have so many more photos (mostly of the dragon ...) but these are the best of all of our pictures to show our adventure. I took most of the photos in this post, but there are a few sprinkled in there from both my sisters.

Now who's ready for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them!!??

Thanks for reading!


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