How many wands does one child need?
After visiting Disney World we headed over to Universal Orlando. Our first stop? The newly opened Harry Potter universe. Universal has done a pretty good job recreating Diagon Alley and Hogwarts Castle. Let's start with Diagon Alley.
You enter Diagon Alley through a little side street in what looks like an old part of London. The side street is easy to spot, because amidst all the details that make up a small London neighborhood, you'll see the Night Bus. Go around a brick wall and you'll pop into Diagon Alley.
This is a fair recreation of what you see in the movies. All the shops look the the part. You can exchange buy wizarding gold and use it in all the shops. If not paying by gold all the shopkeepers will mention that you're using muggle money, and if you use a credit card when you sign they say, "sign for the ministry please". It's cute.
At the end of the alley is Gringott's bank. This is also a ride consisting of a roller coaster combined with 3D visual effects and movies. It's a pretty fun ride. By the way, Universal Orlando loves to spray you with tiny amounts of water for effect. Dragon's spit water or fire which makes it more immersive.
Speaking of dragons there is a giant dragon on top of Gringott's bank.
Every once in a while the dragon makes some noise and belches a huge fireball. You can feel the heat anywhere in the alley and it surprises everyone who first encounters it.
There's no better place to buy a wand than Olivander's. Universal has made this into a pretty neat experience. First, Olivander's shop is filled to the brim with wands and you can peruse around it. There are wands modeled after each wand in the movie, but there are also many other unique wand designs. The wands aren't just sticks, either. Each wand contains what looks to be an IR emitter, and you can cast "spells" by waving them in certain patterns. This can cause fountains to turn on, things to move in shop windows and other hidden secrets all over Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. It almost makes it seem worth spending $40 on a plastic wand.
Olivander's also has a form of show. One person from the crowd will be chosen at random and an actor playing Olivander himself will go through the motions of measuring the person and trying several wands until the right wand is chosen. There are even special effects in the wand shop that go along with the wand choosing. Cole was really keen to be chosen and, after we went through it a few times, he was.
On to Hogwarts
Hogwarts castle is in a separate section of the park from Diagon Alley. you can walk to it, or you can take the Hogwarts Express. They've built a train station in London that looks very much like a smaller scale version of Kings Cross Station. You take a walk through a column and end up on platform 9 3/4. The train "ride" does't take you far in reality, but they've made it seem like it is a huge journey. The train car windows are really high resolution monitors simulating you traveling along the countryside. There are shadows that appear in the window of your doorway that make you think Harry and the gang are walking the corridor. It's pretty neat.
You get off the train in Hogsmeade and it is a short walk to Hogwarts Castle. There are a couple of roller coasters, and the castle itself contains another mixed coaster and 3D movie ride. And more shops. You can by beer here -- both the buttered variety as well as the real stuff. I love 'Merica.
And all the rest...
Ok, there's a lot to see in the rest of the Universal park but there's not as much of a story for it, so....pictures: