If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
That's what I learned on my first day at Hogwarts.
Yes, Hogwarts. As in the foreboding castle that towers over Hogsmeade at Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Photos by Phyllis R. Sigal
The towers of Hogwarts are visible as soon as you enter the Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is just one of the areas to visit at the Islands of Adventure.
Being the Harry Potter fan that I am, I've been dying to travel to The Wizarding World in Orlando, Fla., since all the opening hype in June. I've read the books; I've seen the movies; I wanted to experience Harry's "world" first-hand.
My "muggle self" was ready for the day; I couldn't wait to walk the streets of Hogsmeade, shop in the shops, check out the wands, sip a Butterbeer and dine at the Three Broomsticks.
What I wasn't prepared for was the very first ride of the day.
We were advised to visit Harry Potter and the Forbidden Adventure first, to avoid the long lines that just get longer and longer as the day progresses. So we quickly made our way to the end of the line, zipping past the train at platform 9 3/4 - well, we did stop just long enough to have our picture taken with the conductor - and all the shops and storefronts.
It started out just fine. (Except for the locker room fiasco - I'll get back to that.)
The line moved fairly quickly to the point where we entered Hogwarts. We walked along the darkened passageway where the moving photographs talked to us, the Sorting Hat sorted us and The Fat Lady was frustrated at all us tourists entering her domain. Dumbledore spoke to us, as did Harry, Ron and Hermione.
Then it was time to step on the moving walkway and make our way to our "car."
Billed as "the most exhilarating theme park attraction ever created," Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey takes guests inside Hogwarts. The adventure, according to press information, "combines a powerful story line with spectacular new technology so effectively guests will be completely immersed in the experience. The ride will take guests on a journey where they will travel by Floo Network, soar over Hogwarts, narrowly escape a dragon attack, have a close encounter with the Whomping Willow, get pulled into a Quidditch match and more."
Sure, it does all that. But if your eyes are closed the entire time - well, you kinda miss the technology, the experience and the journey.
Apparently, I hadn't done my research. I didn't know it was an inside roller coaster that slams you around, this way and that way. At the first swoosh .... (or should I say, "Flooooosh," I started to hold on for dear life. I squeezed my eyes shut. I thought my Crocs were going to slip from my feet (then how would I get around the rest of the day?).
Then, I thought the harness that was keeping me alive right then was going to snap open, and I'd hurtle down to the depths of Hogwarts, never to be heard from again.
And then the ride was over. I made my away out of that contraption, across the moving walkway, to stillness. And safety. And the gift shop.
I had lived. I'd shop again. But, truth be told, I was so shaken up, I didn't even want to be inside Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods.
I hated every minute of the actual "ride." (But, wait ... there's a happy ending ... keep reading.)
Next, we went on the Flight of the Hippogriff, ANOTHER roller coaster ... a smaller, more benign adventure where we traveled by "Hippogriff" above Hagrid's cottage.
By then, I was ready for a Butterbeer.
Delicious. A non-alcoholic version of Harry, Ron and Hermione's favorite treat, is available at little Butterbeer carts throughout Hogsmeade as well as at the Hog's Head Pub. We chose to order up at the pub, where the lines were much shorter.
The sweet beverage tasted a bit like root beer, and the foam top, which was dispensed through a separate tap, was a cross between Marshmallow Fluff and whipped cream. Yummy. You can get your Butterbeer in a souvenir mug for an additional $5. I'd recommend a Butterbeer as an afternoon treat, because it is so sweet.
Once I got my shopping chops back, I made my way through Zonko's, Honeydukes, and Dervish and Banges - all while my husband Bruce went on the Dragon Challenge, a high-speed roller coaster, where "you'll need the courage of a Triwizard Tournament champion as you mount one of two dragons - an aggressive Chinese Fireball or a ferocious Hungarian Horntail - that twist, loop and nearly collide in an intertwining roller coaster chase across the sky," according to the ride description.
Yeah, right. I knew I didn't have that courage. Too many red flags - "twist" ... "loop" ... "collide" - for my delicate constitution!
He enjoyed it. And he said I made the correct decision for myself.
We had lunch at Three Broomsticks, a rustic tavern that offers fish and chips, shepherd's pie, turkey legs, Cornish pasty and more. A children's menu and a "Great Feast Platter," that serves a family of four for $49.99 also are offered.
We shared one shepherd's pie meal and one Cornish pasty meal, and of course tried the Hogs Head Ale - in another souvenir mug.
Three Broomsticks "buffeteria" had a well-organized ordering system and lots of seating, which made for quick service - a real plus if you have a mob of starving muggle children.
We also watched the Frog Choir, a singing foursome of Hogwarts students accompanied by their large, croaking frogs. We missed the Triwizard Spirit Rally, which apparently is a "colorful procession of Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students as they lead the excitement for the Triwizard Tournament," according to park information.
Our last stop of the day at Hogsmeade was to Ollivanders, "makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.," where your wand can choose you. It's worth the wait in line for the "interactive experience" with a Wandkeeper at Ollivanders, before you spill out into the actual store. While we were waiting, we indulged in a bottle of "Pumpkin Juice." Even though it's tasty and a cute little plastic pumpkin sits atop the bottle, I'd have to say it's not worth the $6.
Inside Ollivanders, a pre-teen boy was picked out of the crowd as the 30-or-so of us watched the wand selection process guided by the Wandkeeper. The first two wands were not right, as one caused lights to flash on and off and the second made drawers bang in and out of the wall instead of bringing the ladder toward the boy, as the wand had been instructed to do. The third one worked like a charm, bestowing a bit of a glow around the happy boy whose wand had found him.
A variety of wands are available for purchase at several locations throughout the park. All are $28.95 plus tax.
Depending of course on the wait time for the three rides and for the stop in Ollivanders, visitors should plan on spending about four hours at the Wizarding World.
Other areas in Universal's Islands of Adventure include Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent and Seuss Landing.
At Universal Studios Florida, guests can visit Production Central, New York, San Francisco/Amity, World Expo, Woody Woodpecker's Kidzone and Hollywood for more rides and exhibits.
And if you're not totally exhausted from walking the parks all day, Universal CityWalk offers an evening full of fun. You can eat and drink at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, Pat O'Brien's, Hard Rock Cafe, Bob Marley - a Tribute to Freedom, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., NASCAR Sports Grille, Latin Quarter, Pastamore, NBA City or Emeril's Restaurant Orlando. You can hear live music at Hard Rock Live and Velvet Sessions; sing karaoke with a live band at CityWalk's Rising Star; and catch the latest flick at AMC Universal Cineplex 20. The Blue Man Group also performs shows at CityWalk.
But, back to that lesson learned I referred to at the onset of this travelogue. And the happy ending.
I decided to try, try again.
The next morning we were up bright and early, got the 8:40 a.m. shuttle to the park. I took nothing with me, except for my camera, cell phone, identification and ticket. (You see, you can't take anything with you that doesn't fit in your pockets. You must place your bags in a locker prior to going on the ride; the longer line is for those who must use the locker room. And, the day before, I had mistakenly put my camera in the locker and missed all the great shots walking through the halls of Hogwarts.)
We quickly passed the right-hand line and made our way into Hogwarts in minutes. I took a good, long look at the contraption that would be whirling me around. It looked very stable. I walked with confidence onto the moving pathway that would take me to the car. I chose an inside seat, as opposed to the outside seat the day before. My shoes had straps on them; they would not be flying off my feet.
I was ready. Much more ready than the day before.
And we were off. Off on one of the most exhilarating rides of my amusement park life.
I was having fun! My eyes were open the entire time! I soared high above Hogwarts, keeping up with Harry and Hermione and Ron the whole time. I waved to Hagrid. I laughed and laughed and laughed (at times at myself for being so scared the day before). And I was sorry when the careening car came to a halt.
I walked off the ride, smiling from ear to ear.
And then I headed right into Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods. Today's ride did not scare the shopping out of me.