Universal changes in Orlando, Florida
By Helen Wright
Standing in the beaming sun, I close my eyes and take a minute to enjoy the heat bouncing off my shoulders. Blinking, I glance at the scene around me. Everyone from adults to children, to tiny babies appeared to be dressed in a peculiar uniform of black capes and warm, wooly scarves. Not exactly what I was expecting to see in the humid Florida climate.
Of course, one person is to blame for around 15 million tourists a year overheating in black nylon – JK Rowling – author of the best-selling book series in history, Harry Potter. Since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal Studios Orlando in 2010, fans of the magical series have been delighted by its state-of-the-art ‘Forbidden Journey’ simucoaster [simulator roller coaster] and the imposing Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which casts its shadow over the town of Hogsmeade. In July last year, a new, even more fantastical area of the Wizarding World opened – Diagon Alley (not ‘Dragon Alley’ as I heard one uncool dad referring to it). A cobbled nook of quirky shops and attractions, including Madam Malkin’s Robes for All, where wannabe wizards can pick up their uniform and Ollivanders where “you don’t choose a wand, a wand chooses you”. Magic wands are for sale here and can be used interactively throughout the park for supernatural surprises.
You arrive at Diagon Alley via the interactive Hogwarts Express, an English steam locomotive and the attention to detail will impress even the most die-hard train spotter. Getting off at King’s Cross station, you could be fooled into thinking you’d fallen asleep and woken up at home in the UK. The station is identical to the actual Kings Cross, even down to the wall tiles and signs for the toilets. I know, because I commute through there every day and had a slight panic that my summer holiday was over before it had even begun.
Even those who aren’t familiar with the books or films can’t fail to be wowed by the wizardry wonderment. It’s incredible to think that everything you see, down to the Fizzing Whizzbees and Chocolate Frogs from Honeydukes sweetshop once existed only in JK Rowling’s imagination. Just short of 500 million people have read the books and now they can see it for themselves. I’m sure she can’t believe it either. Of course, that imagination is a very strange place with owl emporiums, Demetors and flying football (Quidittch). The brand new ride ‘Escape From Gringotts’ is a 4D hologram-rollercoaster-video-special-effects adventure that was so good I had to go on it twice to really take it in. The ride is yet another step further in the development of theme park attractions that thrill seekers only 20 years ago could only have dreamed of.
Orlando has always been one of the most desired holiday destinations for families with the lure of Disney attracting worldwide visitors. But by a stroke of magic, Universal Studios has managed to achieve the once thought unachievable – Harry and his Hogwarts buddies have finally stolen the spotlight from Mickey and Co. In the 1990s, Magic Kingdom ruled supreme but now Universal Studios and its sister park, Islands of Adventure is THE place to go for theme park fun. Like the Quidditch World Cup, crowds flock to Orlando with the Wizarding World in their sights and everything else takes second place.
Part of the success is that Universal Orlando is desirable to adult only groups and couples who have grown up with the stories behind its attractions, giving the ‘Orlando Holiday’ a fresh lease of life. Of course, the Universal parks are still ideal for families too, with almost 70% of attractions available for all ages (taller height restrictions apply for the big roller coasters). Throughout the year, the parks host a calendar of extra events to keep the crowds coming, including a high energy Mardi Gras celebration – complete with free concerts from the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Jessie J and Trey Songz, Halloween Horror Nights and the ‘Grinchmas’ festivities.
Universal by Night
After hours, you can carry on the party at Universal City Walk – a strip of bars, restaurants and shops that stay open until 2am. After a long day of all things Potter, The Simpsons, Transformers, Jurassic Park and Marvel fun (to name but a few of the 21 attractions), I was ready for a feast. If like me you’ve had your taste of the classic theme park burger and chips fayre, head to Vivo Italian Kitchen. Make sure you have worked up a sizeable appetite, as even the meatball starter is giant enough for two. Later, rock up to Rising Star karaoke bar. Here, instead of doing your favourite number in the corner of a noisy pub, wannabe superstars can take to the stage with their own backing singers, strobe lights and smoke effects. For three minutes I was Tina Turner, which was probably a lot more enjoyable for me than the audience…
Luckily I didn’t have to stumble far to reach my hotel after several hours of super strong Mardi Gras cocktails. The Hard Rock Hotel is part of the Universal resort and is about as rock ‘n’ roll as Orlando gets. You aren’t allowed to trash the rooms (I asked) but I heard a rumour One Direction stayed there. Make time for a swim in the sprawling pool, music plays underwater so there’s no excuse not to have a dip… be sure to remove your Hogwarts cape first though.
Getting there from the UK
British Airways now fly direct from London Gatwick to Orlando twice a day. With a stay at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort, prices start from £899pp (based on two adults for seven nights).