This past Monday, I returned from one of the best trips of my life– the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida. Unfortunately, as a Muggle, I wasn’t able to make it to the real Wizarding world of the U.K., but the one at Universal Studios was pretty close to perfect. I made my way around the rest of the theme park, but Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley were by far the stars of my trip. Today, I’m going to take you on a little tour through my favorite parts.
We begin with the Knight Bus and Number 12 Grimmauld Place. In the former, a Stan Shunpike look-alike lounges beside his talking head against the bright purple exterior, posing for pictures with passing tourists. If you walk around to the back and step aboard, you can see the rickety beds and trunks piled close together inside.
Across the green in darker brick than its surrounding fellows is Number 12 Grimmauld Place, headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix and heirloom of the ‘royal and most ancient house of Black’. You may not be able to go inside, but even from the outside, its offsetting antiquity is apparent in the decrepit lace-trimmed curtains peeping through smudged windows.
A little ways down the street is a smaller, non-descript red building. After entering toward a brick wall and turning the corner, a magical sight explodes before your eyes. A ramshackle arch stretches wide in the brickwork; step through it, and you have officially entered Diagon Alley.
One of the main stops along this street is the famous Ollivanders’ (there’s a Gregorovitch wand shop as well, if you happen to share Bulgarian Viktor Krum’s preference). Inside, rickety, tilting shelves line the walls and crowd the floors, stocked to bursting with replicas of the wands of famous wizards and witches, Harry Potter’s among them. In the far corner, however, is a small section for those who want their own wand, a wand that will choose them as a master. About 10 or 11 different wand woods are among them, and descriptions are offered in an attempt to match wand wood to personality.
And of course, one can’t talk about Ollivanders without talking about one’s own wand. I can’t really say that my wand chose me, seeing as I’m a Muggle (the wand chooses the wizard, after all), but I’m certain I found the one that works best for me.
The next stop a young Hogwarts student would make on their journey along Diagon Alley would be Madam Malkin’s, the wizardwear store. It has just what you might expect– Hogwarts robes for all different houses and the matching ties to go along with them– plus a few items for Muggles (or wizards) who wish to show their house or school pride in a less obvious way. On display is a pair of dress robes worn to the Yule Ball: Viktor Krum’s bile-colored robes in a Durmstrang-ian style, and Hermione Granger’s layered pink dress (a replica, unfortunately, but still beautiful in real life).
And now for the cream of the crop: Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes. The one-eared George was nowhere in sight while I was there, but his employees were busily working to keep up with the hordes desperate to get their hands on trick wands, pygmy puffs, and Fainting Fancies. The second floor is off-limits, probably for fear of stampedes, but the first floor is rich in practical jokes, more than making up for it.
And then, of course, there is Gringotts Bank. Once home to a blind but ferocious dragon (who now perches on the crooked roof, sending out billows of smoke and fire to the air when he gets into the mood), it remains a grand-looking place, complete with goblins who, although mechanical, continue to sneer down ungratefully on potential customers.
The ride included in the tour was a bit of a let-down (short and not very exciting, though inclusive of a more minor character, Bill Weasley, along with Harry, Ron, and Hermione), but it was wonderful to see the wizarding bank for the first time.
For those of you with Death Eater-like tendencies, we’ll take a turn down the darker side of Diagon Alley, Knockturn Alley. Fortunately, nothing more frightening than a few skeletons and a window full of talking heads lies in wait. The old standby, Borgin and Burkes, is filled to the brim with shirts and mugs adorned with Sirius Black’s WANTED poster and the Dark Mark, among other things, while Slytherin’s locket rests in a place of honor on display, whole and untouched (except by Voldemort’s magic).
Stumble out of Knockturn Alley into the bright light of day, and make your way back to the Leaky Cauldron.
Pass through the arch again, and you’ve returned to the Muggle world. Despite being geographically incorrect, a red telephone box (the visitors entrance to the Ministry of Magic) perches on the sidewalk a few yards away. Squeeze inside and dial 62442 (MAGIC), and the cool female voice described in the books answers, welcoming you to the Ministry of Magic and informing you that the visitor’s entrance is currently out of service.
Though you may not be able to enter the Ministry of Magic, much better opportunities await: King’s Cross Station, Platform 9 and 3/4, and the legendary Hogwarts express. King’s Cross was a bit unexciting, due to the incredibly long line to get to the main attraction, but the other two were just as wonderful as I had been promised. The illusion (it’s tricky to get magic to work in the Muggle world) of Platform 9 and 3/4 was created with a trick mirror/window to show the people ahead of you passing through what seems to be a solid brick wall– of course, when you get to it, there is a doorway leading to the actual station.
And then there is the Hogwarts Express. It runs between London and Hogsmeade, just like in the books, although the distance isn’t quite as great. Once aboard, you and five others sit in a compartment that looks like it’s straight out of the movie. The ‘window’ shows your progress along the journey– first, shooting out of King’s Cross, then traveling through London itself, through miles upon miles of farmland, and finally, the Forbidden Forest and the Hogsmeade train station. A dementor passes by about halfway through, followed by the trolley witch who urges Harry, Ron, and Hermione to eat some chocolate to recover (a chocolate frog leaps on cue in the hallway).
When you reach the Hogsmeade train station, you disembark into a winter wonderland (keep in mind, it’s about 65 degrees out, so it feels a bit strange). The Dragon Challenge roller coaster zooms past overhead, and beyond the hordes of tourists, Hogwarts sits in its place of honor. The crowds here are worse than Diagon Alley, and it takes a combination of strength and dexterity to fight and weave your way to your destination.
Butterbeer carts are spread out strategically, but the lines still grow to be 20 or 25 long. The butterbeer (made with a top-secret recipe) is absolutely delicious– I’d describe it as liquidized caramel. The warm version is sold inside the Hog’s Head and the Three Broomsticks (which I wasn’t able to try), but the chilled version was surprisingly good. I’ve found a couple of recipes that are supposed to mimic it, but I haven’t gotten a chance to try them yet.
I mentioned the Dragon Challenge– this was by far one of the best rides at the theme park. Inspired by the Triwizard Tournament, you choose to ride either the Hungarian Horntail or the Chinese Fireball. The Horntail was misleadingly not as terrifying as the latter, though both were fun.
And the best for last: Hogwarts, school of witchcraft and wizardry. This tour and ride begins outdoors in the Herbology greenhouses, where you wait for the line to inch its way inside to the real castle. Every classroom and corridor included in the tour (Dumbledore’s office complete with the griffin guardian, the DADA classroom, and the Gryffindor common room, to name a few) is replicated down to minute detail, and talking portraits line every wall, commenting kindly or snidely, as in the case of ex-headmaster and Slytherin alumni Phineas Black, on the Muggles passing by.
The ride itself begins in the Great Hall. All the tables and benches have been removed, leaving behind only hundreds of candles that hang suspended in the air as if by magic. You glide along for a bit, admiring the mirrored walls and the soft, fluttering light, until the car suddenly shoots forward, launching you on your Hogwarts journey.
All the famous locations are included, from the Chamber of Secrets and its basilisk skeleton, to the Forbidden Forest with Aragog as its guardian, to the inside of a tower where a Hungarian Horntail tromps angrily outside. There is a tour of the grounds as well, led by Harry of course. You zoom forward and backward and around corners (it’s a simulation), barely dodging the tops of buildings and trees as you fly about on your broomstick (the story line isn’t made very clear, but you seem to be running away from something).
When the ride pulled to a stop and the entire crew of Dumbledore’s Army grinned, waved, and congratulated us on our success, I was nearly in tears.
I have heard, many times, the words “Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home”, but until this trip, I never truly realized what they meant to me. J.K. Rowling created a world to spark the imagination of even the most tired, boring businessman (even Vernon Dursley, although that may have been influenced by first-hand experience), and a world that brings thousands and thousands of Potterheads together to proclaim, “Hogwarts is my home.” And for that, Ms. Rowling, I thank you.