Seeing Harry Potter come to life.

posted in: Blog, North America, UK | 8

It’s impossible to over-stress the importance of the Harry Potter books. They inspired a generation to realise the power of the written word and to get immersed in a literary adventure. As impressively, they continue to do this. The books are still hugely successful.

And of course there’s an education connection. Without Harry Potter, there would be no Hogwarts, a school which is among the most famous ever to be created. And with the eight Harry Potter films, Hogwarts was brought to life.

In the Great Hall at Hogwarts, Harry Potter Studio Tour

It’s now possible to see two different “real-life” Hogwarts in person. One actually brings you into the real thing, via the Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour in Leavesden, just outside London. The other introduces you to a version which cost around $250m to build and which contains an astonishing theme park adventure ride. But it’s a little bit further away – in Orlando, Florida. I have recently been lucky enough to visit both.

Let’s start with England and the studio tour. Even though I am not a huge HP fan, I thought this was incredible. It’s very special to walk into the Great Hall or amble along Diagon Alley. They’re so familiar from the books and films, and then, there they are, in front of you.

Dumbledore’s study, Studio Tour

There is a huge amount to see and it takes a long time (be warned: it’s tiring). But it is actually quite magical to see Professor Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor common room and the “real-life” Dobby. You can find out how the films were made (the attention to detail is quite remarkable), have a photo outside the Knight Bus and see all kinds of props and costumes. You can also try Butterbeer (which was quite delicious. It tastes like cream soda) and be fleeced in the shop (the downside of the day. There is not really anything priced at pocket-money levels).

Outside the Dursley’s house on Privet Drive, Studio Tour

This is not a cheap day out, not by any means (a family ticket for four costs £85), but it is a very special one. It also works via timed entry, so although you still have to queue, it’s not for too long.

Diagon Alley, Studio Tour

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal Orlando Resort is a totally different experience. It opened in June 2010 and became an immediate success.

The Wizarding World is part of Universal’s Islands of Adventure Theme Park and their newest (and star) attraction (a similar one is now being planned for California). We were desperate to visit, but also extremely worried about the possible queueing time for the main attraction, a ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. We had heard that you end up waiting for hours on end for a four minute ride. However, we had also heard that the ride was the best in the world, using remarkable new technology and taking place inside Hogwarts castle.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Orlando

The first thing to say is that if you get to the park early, the waiting time is not that bad. We were there by 8am and when the park opened (just before 9) we ran to the Harry Potter section. We then queued for about 25 minutes. However, within about half an hour, the queue was up to 90 minutes, so be warned…

Luckily we didn’t have to wait this long – but this was only at around 9.15am!

There is some entertainment during the long wait. As you make your way around the castle, you see talking portraits (including Dawn French as the Fat Lady), the Sorting Hat and a marvellous hologram of Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. The queue also sets up the idea of the ride, as Harry, Ron and Hermione appear (also in hologram form) and try to persuade you to skip a lecture and join them on a tour of Hogwarts. You are told to take some floo powder and are strapped into seats on a bench (I know, that doesn’t sound too glamorous) in groups of four, before taking off.

The ride itself is a spectacular mixture of roller coaster and simulation. The idea is that you are flying on a broomstick, around Hogwarts, through a quidditch match and just past the whomping willow. In my son’s words, it was “awesome” and “the best ride ever” but I couldn’t tell you much about it I’m afraid as I’m not a ride person and had my eyes closed for nearly the entire thing. I caught quick glimpses of some quidditch, Harry and a scary looking dementor but that was about it (and it was more than enough for me, as I realised afterwards when I was wobbled off, pale and feeling sick…)

There are extremely long queues for all the attractions in the Harry Potter section, but there is also a lot to see in Hogsmeade. We visited Honeydukes where we bought some Every Flavour Beans (they were slightly cheaper than the ones on sale in the UK) and Zonko’s the joke shop too. We peeked in at the bookshop which had a window full of books showing Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart (these were very funny) and had a quick look at The Three Broomsticks. There is an astonishing amount of themed merchandise on sale everywhere, ranging from chocolate frogs and cuddly owls, to gloves, scarves, socks and robes for all four of the Hogwarts school houses.

We also queued to visit Ollivanders, the wand shop, where there is a short show during which one lucky person is picked to find the right wand for him or her. I say short, because the whole thing lasts for around five minutes. It’s great, but I’m not convinced I would think so if I’d been standing in line for an hour or more to see it.

Ollivanders itself is full of different types of wands (at $30 each). You can buy a “famous” person’s (Harry’s or Ron’s for example) or choose your own. The shop was doing a roaring trade and I had to smile at the assistant who warned a small boy not to use his in front of muggles. The whole “world” here is full of excellent touches like this.

Hogsmeade, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Orlando

There are also two other rides, a “family” rollercoaster called Flight of the Hippogriff and also a super-scary one (which you won’t be surprised to know that I didn’t go on) called The Dragon Challenge which consists of “duelling” rollercoasters going at top speed.

The two experiences were fantastic (albeit extremely expensive; a one day pass for the Islands of Adventure costs $88 per adult, although this does include other parts of the resort such Marvel Super Hero Island and the gorgeous Seuss Landing. There are also various other ticket options available). I loved the studio tour, and would imagine that it’s far more likely that readers of this blog will visit this one, than the Wizarding World in Orlando. However, if you have kids and are planning a holiday of a lifetime to Florida, you really should not miss it.

More on Harry Potter:

Read about our visit to the real King’s Cross and how you can try out Platform 9 3/4

A Harry Potter walking tour in London



8 Responses

  1. Gretta

    Sarah, we loved the studio tour but can’t wait to visit the one in Orlando, and will follow your advice to get there early and run for it!

  2. BavarianSojourn

    We have a huge Harry Potter fan in our house in the form of my 8 year old little girl. We had been hoping to visit Hogwarts when we were in Florida, but it wasn’t meant to be. I will definitely take her to the one in London at some point! 🙂

  3. Staci

    The tour sounds amazing! I can’t wait to experience it. I’ve been to the Wizarding World of HP and Diagon Alley in Orlando and the attention to detail is superb. I was lucky enough to go to Diagon Alley after hours so the lines were so short. If you haven’t been back, I recommend you make another trip. The new ride, Escape from Gringotts, gives the Hogwarts ride a run for its money. I get giddy just thinking about it!

    • Sarah Ebner

      Oh we would love to go back to Diagon Alley when it is quiet and try the new ride! But you need to come to London and try both this and also the Harry Potter walking tour. Both are great fun – and you can go to King’s Cross too (the real one, not the one in Orlando…) and visit Platform 9 3/4!

  4. Amber Primdahl

    This sounds like so much fun! I have been thinking of doing this at some point within the next year, so thanks for the tip on the waiting time for the ride! I’m sure I would love to try it, but not if it includes a 90 minute wait time! I’ll be sure to head there first.

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