I’M NOT a bibliophile but I enjoy a great story. For over a decade, J.K. Rowling’s boy wonder enchanted everyone. She introduced us to a fantasy world of magic and wizardry, where good triumphs over evil. We welcomed Harry Potter into our imagination. Though I never considered myself a fan, I found reliving the story quite a treat when I visited the Orlando theme park and their studios in London with other Harry Potter landmarks.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter
When the theme park opened at Universal Studios, production for Book 7 was still under way. The build-up to the last chapter was so intense that I had to get my fix in Florida. Flights were booked and we were on our way to meet Harry.
Cue the soundtrack. A medieval archway greeted us at Hogsmeade—the wizarding village. To our right was Hogwart’s Express landing, complete with a steam train. (A note for the suggestion box #1: A working rail service that could usher in visitors would be popular.)
I got goosebumps and I navigated through the crowd with wide-eyed wonder. Wizards and muggles, donning togas that showed their affiliations, darted around town. Although the park was small and the foot-traffic made it congested, it felt like a portal into Diagon Alley. The main street was lined with familiar shops—Honey Dukes, Spintwitches, Leaky Cauldron, to name a few. The Three Broomsticks served wizard grub and Butter Beer. The “beer” is nonalcoholic, foamy butterscotch-flavored soda specially created for the park—think liquified caramel popcorn with fizz. If you get the souvenir pilsner, you can go bottomless.
Speaking of tchotchkes, you need to be prepared to spend some serious dough. Across the street is Garrick Olivander’s shop, where he guides wizards-in-training as they choose their wands, or vice versa. It is connected to Dervish & Bangles, a merchandise haven where all your lemmings are up for grabs, including Harry’s Firebolt. (Suggestion #2: If you sell magic brooms for $300, make sure they fly. Just saying.)
The park has a couple of out-of-place coasters but the main attraction is the Forbidden Journey at Hogwart’s Castle. Waiting time can be ridiculous but the castle interiors won’t leave you bored. Once you’re inside, the walk-through doubles as a museum tour. Most impressive were the talking portraits scattered all over. After an hour, the gasping halts and the journey begins. A virtual reality ride unique to Potter-land spins you around, simulating broom flight. It’s a spectral experience not to be missed.
If you’re staying the entire day, make sure you go back at dusk. The evening stroll is hypnotic. (Suggestion #3: A Weasley Fireworks show headlining the castle would be extremely awesome!)
I was in awe of the overall craftsmanship and details in the park. It’s like looking through our hero’s spectacles. It was certainly more magical than the Magic Kingdom.
But my journey was far from over. And this adventure took me to Potter’s motherland and beyond …
Last month, when I visited my family in the UK, my sister planned a trip up north. She wanted to show me the English countryside. Part of the tour was a hike to Malham Cove. Tourism increased after the Potter crew filmed here. You can see it in the “Deathly Hallows” film, it was one of Harry and Hermione’s pit stops as they sought one of the elusive Horcruxes.
A climb to the limestone pavement led us to the campsite—a sweeping vista that left us breathless. Situated below was a bird sanctuary, home to Peregrine falcons and owls. As bonus, Hedwig awaited us … not really, but there was a Snowy Owl, much like Harry’s pet, perched on a tree. We were told that she had been sitting there for days waiting for her mum and dad to feed her.
There were vast graze lands walled with stone fences dating back to the 16th century. Where grass is abundant, sheep are found. A two-tiered waterfalls could be found on the other side of the cove.
The Making of ‘Harry Potter’
The adventure continued next day. With my sister and good friend, Leah, we drove to Leavesden, just outside of London. Busloads of muggles were unloading when we got there. There, we found the Warner Brother studios that churned out magic the past decade.
The tour began with a brief screening of the Potter phenomenon and what to expect inside. After the showing, Harry, Hermione and Ron unveiled the doors to Hogwart’s Castle.
We were led to the Great Hall, which looked ready for dinner. It was peppered with decorations from each house. Next door, we found props from all eight movies. Some rooms and sets were left intact, including my favorite, Professor Umbridge’s office. It was adorned with her animated kitties, much like the talking portraits. There was something both saccharine and sinister about them. Another section was the simulation room where you can “experience” flight. You can ride the broomsticks and the flying car, complete with wind machines.
The back lot had outdoor seating where you can enjoy Butter Beer. The perimeter holds Hogwart’s Bridge, Potter’s Cottage and Privet Drive. One can also get on the triple-decker Knight Bus, the Ford Anglia and Hagrid’s motorbike.
There was the house of puppetry and animatronics where hundreds of creepy, life-like masks gawk and creatures hover. The next studio led us to Diagon Alley, where every element had been kept intact. I wish we could actually shop in each store (take a hint, Warner Brothers). A galley with drawings and initial studies led us to Hogwart’s Castle. The scale model used in all the movies filled this ginormous room. You can spend hours admiring this masterpiece. The tour was capped by a visit to a merchandise store that was just begging to be ransacked.
Overall, the behind-the-scenes experience encapsulated the experience of making Harry Potter. This oversized storage is a museum of sorts for fans to enjoy.
In and around London
The city of London became the urban backdrop of the series. Probably the most memorable was the kid’s first trip to the school of magic via the Hogwart’s Express. They found their way to King’s Cross station where they reluctantly went though Platform 9 3/4. But in real life, it doesn’t exist. Instead, a faux platform, complete with an embedded trolley, was built for fans and tourists to enjoy an obligatory photo-op.
You can then navigate your way to Thames via St. Paul’s Cathedral and find the Millennium Bridge. You can continue your stroll along the river that would bring you to Tower Bridge and Big Ben. Continue on to Picadilly and Oxford Circuses to complete the experience.
Closing the book
If you want an interactive, family-friendly vacation, Orlando is the place to be. If you don’t fancy the vertigo, London would be your cup of tea.
I was fortunate to experience them both. I reveled in the magic of such a fascinating journey. I became the boy who lived to experience the World of Harry Potter.
The ultimate Harry Potter fan tour
Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Orlando, Florida, USA
Village of Malham
North Yorkshire, United Kingdom
King’s Cross Station
Central Line stop
City of London, United Kingdom
The Making of Harry Potter
Warner Brother Studios
Leavesden, United Kingdom
If you don’t have time to plan, a tour company can do that for you. These excursions can cost around $4,000 and up and they do not include the return flights. Frivolous as it sounds, it’s the most extensive tour I’ve seen. Check them out at www.hpfantrips.com.