by Pamela Palmer
Yep, we did it. We took the family to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando over the winter holidays. December 21st, to be exact. A sunny, chilly Forida day that started out in the upper 30's and never reached beyond the low 50's. Standing in Hogsmeade Village, bundled in my fleece jacket, my hands thrust deep in warm pockets, I could almost believe the thick drifts of snow on the roofs were real. That first sight of Hogwarts in the early morning winter sunshine gave me chills. The turrets upon turrets upon turrets hanging from the roof at odd angles, the park employees in their wizarding robes, even the crow on the roof made it feel like we were stepping into that magical world. We were there!
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Being the worst-case scenario thinker that I am, I assumed the park would be crazy-crowded and wanted to get there before it opened to beat the worst of the crowds. My DH, being the family optimist, thought I was being overly worried, but he went along with me any way. I was beginning to think he was right when we drove into the Universal Studios parking garage at 7:15 a.m. (forty-five minutes before the park opened) and were the ninth car there. The ninth. But as we reached the gates twenty minutes after we parked (long walk), we realized the hotel guests had been let in an hour early. The park wasn't crowded yet, but there were plenty of people there. And when they opened the gates fifteen minutes early, at 7:45, and we raced for Hogwarts Castle and the Forbidden Journey ride, we wound up in a long, winding hour-long line. As it turned out, an hour wait for that ride was nothing. By the time we left the park, early afternoon, the estimated wait time was four hours. My concern turned out to be fully justified. Those first few hours in the park were sheer joy. The last couple were pressing crowds and chaos.
We quickly learned that the key to riding the rides in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is to bring nothing that doesn't fit into your pockets, if you can manage it. Unfortunately, we didn't know this and probably couldn't have managed it anyway. Purses, bags, etc. have to be stored in lockers before you can ride either the Forbidden Journey or the Dragon Challenge roller coasters. Though it sounds fine in theory, it turns into a bit of a nightmare when you're trying to fight your way through throngs of people, trying to figure out how to open the lockers (find an open terminal to enter your thumb print into), find the locker you've been assigned, then find your party again (since there's no room for all of you in there together). A warning about the lockers. If you leave your things in there too long (as you can if the wait is horrendous or if, as we did later, you ride the same ride several times before returning), you'll owe money in order to open the locker. That can present a bit of a problem if your purse...and money...are in the locker. Oops. Did it. Fortunately, I wasn't alone and my DH handed me a credit card with which to free my purse.
That first ride, the Forbidden Journey, is fabulous. On a 'flying bench', you join Harry, Ron, and Hermoine on an adventure that takes you from a Quidditch match deep into the dark and haunted bowels of Hogwarts. It's an indoor ride, not a roller coaster, but the flying benches twist and turn at steep enough angles to require the same kinds of shoulder harnesses you wear on the best roller coasters. As much as I enjoyed the ride, my favorite part was the walk through Hogwarts Castle to get there--seeing Dumbledore's office, listening to the paintings talk and argue, seeing Harry, Rom, and Hermoine (life-size projections that were easy to imagine were real).
After Hogwarts, we stood in line for an hour to get into Olivander's Wand Shop. Yes, it's a shop, with thousands of wands, but it's also an attraction as the shop keeper chooses one young witch or wizard from the group (they let you in in groups of thirty or so) and helps them find their wand (as boxes rattle, lights flash, etc.).
Having arrived at the park so early, we were ready for lunch by 10:15. The Three Broomsticks Restaurant was full, but not crowded. We were first in line to order our food and an employee found us a table once we'd picked it up. I was on a hunt for caffeine and ordered iced tea, but the woman who rang up our lunch order told me to be sure to try the pear cider next time. All the employees love it. (I'm not sure if it's available at Three Broomsticks. I did see it offered in the street vendor carts outside.) I never got a chance to try it, but it's on my list for the next trip.
After lunch, we rode the Flight of the Hippogriffs (a mild roller coaster), then graduated to the Dragon Challenge coasters (true thrill rides) where we found no lines at all. I asked one of the robed employees if the lack of lines was unusual and he said no. The families visiting Harry Potter world, by and large, were looking for something a little more tame. That wasn't us! We rode the Dragon Challenge roller coasters (there are two different ones) a total of three times in a row with only one fifteen minute wait in the front row line.
By the time we left the park at about 2:00 p.m., the crowd was so thick we actually got caught in a complete and total logjam where there were so many people trying to go each direction that no one could get through. No one. And this was on the main street! For five to ten minutes we were pressed together like sardines with no one moving either direction. Finally someone shoved her way through the opposing crowd, creating a trickle that ultimately broke the jam.
Will we go back? Absolutely! Especially if they expand the park as rumor has it. And we'll get there a full hour before the park opens with nothing that doesn't fit in our pockets. But we'll definitely go back to live every Harry Potter fan's dream one more time--a thrilling day in that magical, wizarding world.