FTC Disclosure: I received complimentary park tickets to Universal Studios so I could share my experiences with you.
Orlando, Florida: land of the many parks. While my native Southern California has the wonderful Disneyland and ever popular Universal Studios, Florida manages to take the parks up a few notches. While we have Disneyland and California Adventures, Florida has four Disney parks to boast: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot. Flying can take quite a bit out of anyone, but for “day zero” of my Harry Potter Celebration vacation, I decided to stop by my favorite Disney park for a bit: Epcot. Epcot is a tour of the world with various sections from around the world, including Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, and China as just some of the countries represented within the park. While I didn’t have much time to enjoy in the park before we had to go, I was able to enjoy walking through the different areas. I hadn’t been to any of the Walt Disneyworld theme parks in some time, and getting to experience everything after having been away for so long was refreshing. Unfortunately, I was unable to see most of the shows that are normally throughout the park, although we did stay for the fireworks show, Illuminations. The show itself was a blast with a fantastic soundtrack, pyrotechnics, and lasers going across the World Showcase Lagoon.
The real event started the next day, though. Day One of Harry Potter Celebrations at Universal Studios Orlando was a whole day of excitement and wonder. In addition to being the first day of a wonderful celebration, it was the first time I’d ever been to the Harry Potter themed area of Universal Orlando. Because of this, I had to experience everything! We started going through the Celebrations Expo area first, where you could get sorted by the Sorting Hat into one of the four Hogwarts Houses: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin. From there, we entered a large building that housed a great number of props from the movies, a large wall where people were writing what the series meant to them, and a place to show House Pride both to everyone on Pottermore as well as friends and family among other activities. I added my own words to the wall, got some photos of the various props, and watching in awe as fans from all over shared their own experiences with the series. There were fans who had been into the series since the very first book and newer fans, fans of the books and ones who had only ever seen the movies. Everyone was bonding over their love of the series and what it meant to them, and reading some of the words written on the writing wall was an excellent reminder of the impact that a series like this can have on someone’s life.
From there, we went to the King’s Crossing part of Universal Studios, where we saw the Knight Bus and went through the bricks into Diagon Alley. The first thing that hits you is the building facades; Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes lies directly to your right, while ahead the signs for Flourish and Blotts and Olivanders can be seen. This doesn’t just look like Diagon Alley, however, but also sounds like it. All around, there are the sounds of various patrons looking to buy a wand. It was impossible to take a step without seeing someone sporting their house colors in some form, be it as a scarf, a beanie, or even the actual school robes. While we didn’t see the Olivander Wand Show, we did go into the store. The selection of wands that they had was almost overwhelming; you can get a replica wand from almost any character, although only some are interactive, and you can also get an interactive wand based off of the Celtic trees for any important date. I got myself Horace Slughorn’s wand as well as an Ash wand as a more personal wand. The interactive wands can be used throughout the Harry Potter part of Universal at various locations. Waving the wand correctly will cause things to happen; I watched many kids make it rain in one part of the park, much to their delight and the slight horror of those standing nearby.
Although we started in Diagon Alley, we only stayed there for a little bit before we jumped onto the Hogwarts Express. While there are other ways to get between the areas of the park, the Hogwarts Express is the way to go for those going between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley/King’s Crossing. It’s a great experience that changes based on which direction you’re going: towards or away from Hogwarts. Stepping out of the train and into Hogsmeade was unlike anything. Once again, there was a sea of robes and house colors, shops to peer into, and in the distance the sound of the attractions. Screams could be heard from the Dueling Dragons roller coaster, shrieks of delight came from the Butterbeer stand, and it was as if we’d been transported straight into the books. I tried there different types of Butterbeer while walking through the park: cold (which is akin to a soda with heavy foam on top), frozen (which can only be described as a slushy with foam, although it’s thicker than a slushy), and hot (which is very much what it sounds like). Be warned, those who are looking to go during the summer: Hot Butterbeer is apparently not served in the summer months.
In Hogsmeade we went on two rides: Forbidden Journey (which is in Hogwarts castle) and Dueling Dragons (which is outside of the castle). Forbidden Journey was fantastic. The line queue takes you through Hogwarts castle, from the dungeons where you enter through one of the greenhouses and into the Gryffindor Common Room. There’s talking portraits, statues from the castle, and all sorts of props that Harry Potter fans will get a kick out of. The Trio escorts you through the castle, and you get a tour of the grounds, although it goes a tad off course very early on when Hagrid asks if anyone’s seen a missing dragon. Things get worse from there, although the ride itself is fantastic! We went on that twice, enjoying it thoroughly each time. Dueling Dragons is a fun ride for roller coaster lovers. The whole ride is Tri-Wizard Tournament themed, with props in line that come from the fourth movie. The golden mermaid eggs can be seen, as can the Tri-Wizard Cup. The ride itself consists of two coasters: the Chinese Fireback and the Hungarian Horntail. While we only got to experience the Chinese Fireback during our time there, it was a lot of fun. It’s a hanging coaster that goes upside down in loops and barrel rolls, which I loved.
By the time we finished those, we had enough time to do some shopping and go back to Diagon Alley for a bit. What trip to Diagon Alley would be complete without robes and a wand? The first thing that we did was make a beeline for the shops to get basic supplies. I opted to show support to my own house, Slytherin, although they have robes, ties, scarfs, and other items for all four houses. There are even accessories such as coin purses, journals, and even throw pillows for those who want them. Even though I mentioned wands earlier, it bears repeating that there’s a huge selection of wands to choose from in the park. From the main characters to lesser known favorites, there are plenty of wands to choose from.
This is where our normal day starts to wrap up and I started shifting to other activities. While the day ended for most with opening ceremonies to celebrate the first day of Harry Potter Celebrations, I made my way to the meeting place for our group and got ready to talk to some of the people who worked on the movies. We went back to the Gringotts bank area in Diagon Alley where we started to get group pictures taken when we were surprised by the appearance of James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George Weasley) and Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood). They stayed for a bit, chatting and taking pictures with us before they had to head to their Q&A, and we moved inside of Gringotts. From there, we talked to some of the people involved in translating the words of JK Rowling and what was shown in the films into what we saw in the actual theme park, including the set designer and graphic designers for the films. We got to ask them questions and learn from them before going on the Escape from Gringotts ride. The ride itself is set during the seventh book, during a crucial scene that involves a dragon and Bellatrix LeStrange. For those who haven’t read the books, I will refrain from saying anything else, but it was certainly a unique and fascinating ride. It combined coaster and track ride elements with theatrics and special effects. It was an exciting way to end the day, which is exactly what happened.
Although the day was short and we did a lot, I am constantly stunned by Fandom and what it does. As a writer for FangirlNation, I proudly take on the title Fangirl, and sometimes it’s easy to forget what that entails. Today, though, it was clear to see. While it might not always go by the name Fandom, it’s everywhere during the Harry Potter Celebration. When prompted to write on the wall in the Expo area, I realized that what Harry Potter gave me was the same thing that Fandom does: community and unity. This was never more true than celebrating a wonderful story with many like-minded fans. During the course of the day, I made friends with other people and bonded over a shared love of a story that had an impact in all of our lives. With two more days left to go, I’m looking forward to what other lessons the weekend has in store for me, proving once again that Harry Potter and his friends aren’t quite done teaching me just yet.