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World of Wizardry

Ali Donaldson and family take on the new Diagon Alley theme park at Universal Studios, Orlando and share their tips on how to make it the most magical experience possible.

We were definitely in the right place, deep in the vaults of Gringotts Bank in The Diagon Alley theme park at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We were also here at the right time... only two months after it opened and just four days after American summer holidays ended. I want to stress I am not a theme park person. My limit is about an hour before the heady combination of sugar, crowds, screams and meltdowns does me in. But to call this a theme park is a travesty. This is like stepping into the Diagon Alley... on a popular day for Muggles.

Magic tip #1
Beware US holidays like Thanksgiving.

The wizards and witches working were quick to point out that just a week before, the queues for the star attraction ride – Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – stretched up to seven hours. Now the crowds had pretty much all gone and the wait was under five minutes.

Enter Universal and head to the streets of London, past Kings Cross Station (where you can walk through the brick wall to Platform 9¾ and take the Hogwarts Express in to the castle and Hogsmeade) and, hidden behind a brick wall, you slip into Diagon Alley.

Cobblestone streets, lined by all the shops of the wizarding world tunnel your vision towards the giant dragon straddling Gringotts. Every now and then, without warning, the 60-foot Ukrainian Ironbelly blows real fire! This is the entrance to the park’s latest ride: a state-of-theart 3D rollercoaster that is thrilling yet not terrifying – great for parents like me who swore off big dippers years ago. I did this one twice.

Magic tip #2
Stay on site at Universal.

Following this tip means you don’t have to pay $17 for parking; it’s just a short walk (or free boat ride) to the theme parks and you’re welcomed into Diagon Alley one hour earlier than most. It also gives you a free Express Pass on rides.

Having a one-hour head start meant we had Ollivander’s almost to ourselves. Surrounded by thousands of wands, a witch encouraged us to experience ‘Let the Wand Choose the Wizard’ – and we were led into a secret chamber behind the shop. Here a wizened soul tests various wands on volunteers until the exact fit is found. You know this is a marketing exercise and even though you don’t have to buy, having your own wand in this fantasy world adds about 150 per cent to the experience. Around the streets are little magic symbols that you can practice your spells on. You’ll make chocolate frogs jump, make a whimsical iron umbrella ‘rain’ and utter “Wingardium Leviosa” to send a quill flying.

Universal Studios Orlando is open daily from 9am to 8pm. Book tickets online and you’ll save time waiting in the ticket queue and enjoy $20 off the gate price of all multi-day tickets and receive a coupon book with $150 worth of value on all multi-day park-to-park tickets.

Image credit: Universal Studios Orlando

Magic tip #3
You really don’t have to buy a thing.

Diagon Alley is ‘experience shopping’ at its very best – just wander through, explore, play and marvel at the imagination of JK Rowling.

I also now believe there is no better cure for jetlag than downing a Butterbeer before 9am. With one of those massive sugar hits under our belts, we were ready to pull our first 12-hour day in a theme park – without planning to.

Somehow we had walked straight past the Leaky Cauldron where we could have had that better-known muggle stimulant (coffee)... but we did return to this traditional English inn for a hearty lunch a few days later and would highly recommend it for its ‘wow’ factor.

The three-storey Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes – the magic shop identical to the set from ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ – is where we stocked up on Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans and chocolate frogs. Real die-hards could pick up a broom at Quality Quidditch Supplies or head to the Magical Menagerie for their own plush-toy Cornish Pixie or owl. Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour had Pumpkin Juice and soft-serve including a divine Earl Grey and Lavender flavour.

However, my favourite place was down Knockturn Alley. Magically, of course, day is plunged into night, the temperature drops, the eeriness creeps in and the shadows come to life. Here you’ll find Borgin and Burkes selling skulls, Death Eater masks and spiders. It is home to all things Dark Arts and within its gloom we heard darkened windows whispering, and a witch sidled up to help our son make an enchanted giant skeleton dance.

Image credit: Universal Studios Orlando

Magic tip #4
Make sure your pass has Park-to-Park Admission. It’s the only way you can ride the Hogwarts Express.

The only way we were going to be drawn away from this magical place was on the Hogwarts Express. My husband must have used the word ‘immersive’ about six times during that short trip. Safe in your cabin you’re really not sure which way to look. Through the window the view changes from London to the English countryside, then Hagrid flies past sharing a few words. Outside your door, silhouettes of Ron, Hermione and Harry are busy chatting. The attention to detail is enchanting and by the time you get out in front of the towering pines of Hogwarts, you are bewitched in the nicest way.

Magic tip #5
Check if there are any events planned.

On our last day we tried to head to Diagon Alley for twilight, but it closed early for a conference.

Returning at dusk lifts the atmosphere to a whole new level. You can pop into Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions and try on a robe. If you do succumb to cape wearing, an ‘authentic’ robe will set you back a bit over $100 – but they are very good quality. The firebreathing dragon at night is truly spectacular and coupled with fireworks it becomes a show all of its own. There may be lots of other muggles around, but at night you notice them less and the mystique more.

Image credit: Universal Studios Orlando

Image credit: Universal Studios Orlando

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