Its no secret that Georgina loves Harry Potter. For her 30th birthday present we went to Universal Studios in Orlando for 3 days staying on site at the Sapphire Falls Hotel and the whole experience was outstanding.
I had visions of how I thought this part of the trip would go, Georgina running around with her wand casting spells with me becoming increasingly bored about being in a kids theme park and I couldn’t have been more wrong - well, apart from the wand bit. The guys and girls at Universal have got it right on every level, the hotel was fantastic, the set and level of detail on all of the rides is amazing and the customer service from everyone in the park was unbelievable - I have no idea how these people keep happy and cheerful all day long, I struggle after 5 minutes. One thing I did take out of it is that all the staff genuinely seemed to love their jobs which makes a huge difference to the park than the 18 year old student grunting at you in Alton Towers!
A perk of staying at one of the resort hotels is to gain access to the park one hour before general admission, something i thought that could prove useful as we were visiting mid June. This even includes your first day before you’ve even checked in so we headed to the hotel around 7am, parked up and surprisingly checked straight in and were given our room keys that we would use for early admission. The whole process was pain free. We then took a free water taxi from our hotel along the man made creek to Universal City walk - a restaurant/shop area that separates Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure. After collecting our 3 day, 3 park tickets we were straight though into Islands of Adventure making a bee line straight to Hogwarts Castle!
I had deliberately kept as much of this from George as possible, she only figured out we would be there the night before because I knew she would get too overwhelmed by it all. As we walked into Hogsmeade village and past the Hogwarts express it was clear to see how much it meant to her, something i’ll never forget (i’ve kept the receipt to remind me). Even I was a little impressed by everything to be honest, the scale is a lot bigger than I imagined, especially the castle located at the back of the village.
We quickly got in the line for the Harry Potter ride, checking our bags into the fancy fingerprint scanner lockers which are free to use. The detail didn’t stop inside with all sorts of things on show, George with a better idea of what they were than I did admittedly. A geeky (genius) thing Universal have done is to add interactive windows in both parks that work with infa-red wands to appear as it the wizard/witch/muggle is performing magic. I say genius because the interactive wands are $50 a pop and every other person there had one - including George!
Anyone who knows the films/books will know that you simply don’t wander down to Tesco and buy a wand, you have to visit the famous ‘Ollivanders’ wand store where the wand will choose the wizard! George had ear marked a wand out of her birthday cash from a friend so as we passed Ollivanders I suggested that we go in, thinking a queue to the left was a queue to get in. We joined the queue and then figured out it was in fact a queue for a performance in the store. As we entered the small wand store, Ollivander himself was there to help the next would be wizard become acquainted with their wand. As the door closed the small room of future wizards/witches waited in anticipation for Mr Ollivander to make his selection…..! I’m not sure whether it was George's genuine excitement or that Mr Ollivander thought we looked flush but sure enough George was picked out to find her wand - much to the disappointment of the little kids in the room. Mr Ollivander got George to try a number of wands and spells before eventually matching her up with a wand - after 4 and a half years together I don’t think Ive ever seen her as happy! The assistant pulled her to one side to explain the wand is $50 and we don’t have to buy it if we don’t want to, to which I thought she was going to punch him! Of course I want it, this wand chose ME!! Absolute proper geek!!
We then escaped the general admission crowds that head straight for Hogwarts and took in a few other rides, King Kong being one of the better ones before returning to Hogsmeade to take a ride across to the other park on the Hogwarts express (you can only ride this is you have park to park tickets). The Hogwarts Express was another impressive set, with a full scale replica taking you across to the other park and into Kings Cross Station, complete with replica signage and even a busker. As we explored the mock London street outside Kings Cross I noticed a few people coming out from behind a wall so suggested we go for a look. To my surprise and Georges amazement a full scale Diagon Alley was behind complete with all the stores from the film and even a Gringotts Bank complete with fire breathing dragon on top. It was all a bit much for George so we agreed to save it until later and headed back to the hotel for a much needed break.
That night we headed back to Diagon Alley to explore all of the shops and take a ride on ‘Escape from Gringotts’ - a 3d roller coaster type ride complete with full scale bank lobby as per the film with elves working the cash registers. All very impressive stuff! We finished our first day in the park by taking in the 9pm light show over the water celebrating the studios history, you forget how many amazing films they have done.
The second day I managed to persuade George that today would be the best day to use our early admission passes for the newly opened (1 month) water park - Volcano Bay. We arrived bang on the 8am entry time, having read that after 10am wait times can be 4 hours long and managed to ride pretty much all the slides before 9:30am. I think the early admission paid for itself that morning. The Hawaii based water parks centre piece is a huge 150 foot volcano, complete with 3 ‘drop-door’ type chutes, one straight down and the other 2 looping around the Volcano to the bottom. We didn’t actually know that all 3 slides had the drop door starts until we were at the top so I was very impressed that George didn’t wimp out like she did on a similar slide in Dubai a while back.
As the park filled up we headed back to the hotel and then back to the other parks to tick off some of the rides we missed yesterday and then headed for dinner in the Leaky Cauldron which serves typical British food to keep with the theme.
That night (and the following night) we wandered around Diagon Alley practicing spells and just generally enjoying the experience, helped by the warm evening sun.
Our last day in the park was spent revisiting all of our favourite rides before heading out at closing time again to drive a short distance to our budget hotel nearby for the night.
I can honestly say we had the best 3 days exploring Universal, it puts anything in the UK to shame and for anyone planning a trip to Florida and who is unsure whether or not it would be their thing I would highly recommend that they give it a go.