1 Jul
2015
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Universal Studios Florida

Full street view of Gringotts Bank Universal Studios

Walking through the brick wall into Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida is magical in a way I didn’t know existed. Looking up the crooked narrow street leading to Gringotts Bank and the massive stone dragon perched on its roof stopped us in our tracks. It was the Diagon Alley I had envisioned all those years ago when I read the Harry Potter series the first time. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley could walk out of the Leaky Cauldron any minute. The air was electric.

Sign for the Leaky Cauldron Universal Studios

Over the course of three days, each time we walked into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley at Universal Studios, I was awed by what I saw. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a magnificent treat for Potter fans. It’s a place where the beloved books come alive.

sign reading "Mayhem this way"

Diagon Alley is near King’s Cross where visitors can board the Hogwarts Express for a trip to Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure (with park-to-park ticket, of course). Visitors are treated with a magical experience entering platform 9 ¾ on the trip to Hogwarts from King’s Cross. The train ride “view,” entering and leaving London is different, adding to the excitement of the park.

red London telephone booth Universal Studios

After arriving at King’s Cross, visitors must walk a short distance to an unassuming brick wall in order to enter Diagon Alley. More than one person questioned whether or not that was where we were supposed to enter the wizarding shopping district. Also, take a moment to stop at the iconic red telephone box helping set the London vibe.

Shopping at Weasley Wheezes at Universal Stuidos

The Knight Bus, shrunken head and all, is outside the entrance to Diagon Alley. You can’t board the bus, but can walk around it and look inside. Visit the bus when the driver is there. He was extremely friendly and witty. The shrunken head even took part in our conversation.

The sole ride in Diagon Alley is Escape from Gringotts. We’ve been to several theme parks, and this is my favorite and most innovative ride I’ve dared to experience. It’s a roller coaster with sensory effects and amazing holographic elements. It is a must do.

inside Escape from Gringotts ride Universal Studios

The Gringotts queue line is one of the best as well. It puts you in the marble bank entryway under an enormous shimmering chandelier with goblins diligently working on bank business. My camera and phone were stowed in a locker while we rode, but I was allowed to enter the bank entryway afterward with my camera to take photos.  There is a single-rider line as well, which was a much faster way to ride.

dragon perched on top of Gringotts Bank Universal Studios

The dragon intermittently shoots a blazing ball of fire from the roof of Gringotts. It was ridiculous to watch the crowds stand poised with phones ready to catch the fire shot. Just because you don’t have a photo of something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I attempted listening for the warning sounds before the fire in order to get a photo, but I didn’t have the patience. The fire is most impressive at night and thrillingly makes you jump when caught off-guard by the dragon.

troupe of performers at Wizarding World Diagon Alley Universal Studios

A troupe of actors performs stories from the Tales of Beedle the Bard intermittently throughout the day.  Potterheads should watch at least one performance. We caught the better part of two different stories and thoroughly enjoyed them.

two glasses of Butterbeer at Universal Studios

Our two tastes of Butterbeer were in Diagon Alley. The quickest place to get the yummy goodness while we were there was at the Hopping Pot walk-up food counter. We didn’t wait more than a few minutes both times. Butterbeer comes in frozen, soft-serve ice cream and regular. We tried all three variations. They’re all delicious, but frozen was my favorite. It was refreshing in the heat and humidity of June in Florida. No trip to the Wizarding World is complete without Butterbeer.

talking Goblin at Gringotts Money Exchange Universal Studios

Muggles can exchange $10 or $20 bills for Gringotts Bank Notes at the Gringotts Money Exchange. Our oldest son has a foreign currency collection and exchanged $10 as a souvenir. Even if you choose not to exchange currency, walk through the line. A goblin working the counter will answer questions posed to him. We visited a couple of times. Good questions to ask are: What is your favorite color? Will you take me to the vaults? Have you seen Harry Potter? Why are you ears pointy?

Knockturn Alley, with its shops specializing in the Dark Arts is much different than Diagon Alley. There are black lights throughout Knockturn Alley helping set the stage for the shift in good vs. evil. It was perfectly creepy.

four children in front of 12 Grimmauld Place Universal Studios

Outside Diagon Alley is 12 Grimmauld Place. Keep an eye above the door for a peek at Kreacher, the Black family house-elf. It’s details like the Black family ancestral home that Potter fans will truly appreciate.

a family photo with Gru and girls from Despicable Me Unviersal Studios

Universal Studios Florida was our favorite of the two Universal Orlando parks. Despicable Me Minion Mayhem was the busiest ride in both parks during our visit. The wait was around 90 minutes most of the day. We made a point to make it our first stop one morning. The ride is a 3-D simulator like most rides at Universal and has another brilliantly executed queue line. The waits are quite tolerable in most rides because of all the detail and thought put into the queues. There were occasions when we wanted to wait a little longer to enjoy the buildup to the ride.

view of Rip Ride Rockit Universal Studios

a Transformers nest sign inside the ride at Universal Studios

Men in Black Alien Attack tests your alien shooting skills as you train to be a MIB agent. There’s an entire area of the park dedicated to The Simpsons. Our kids have never watched an episode of The Simpsons and really didn’t appreciate the ride. They did like the giant, oversized, pink-frosted donut from Lard Lad Donuts we shared after the ride. The Transformers 3-D ride is another interesting queue line that does a fantastic job of setting up the storyline for the ride. This was another of my favorite rides. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit is an outdoor roller coaster where you can select a music track to listen to while reaching a top speed of 65 mph.

signs showing The Simpsons characters Universal Studios

We took the kids on the E.T. Adventure for nostalgic purposes. The boys seemed bored by the pace of the ride, but I enjoyed the calm nature of E.T. compared to the jolting, action-packed sequences of most other rides across Universal Orlando. My least favorite ride, possibly of all time anywhere, is Revenge of the Mummy. It’s a roller coaster in darkness with fire accents. I despised it so much I wouldn’t let anyone in the family ride it a second time. While the majority of Universal rides are intense, the Mummy ride was also creepy and on the scary side of the spectrum. Never again.

street view at Universal Studios

The biggest surprise at Universal Studios was how much the kids enjoyed Disaster. Visitors become part of the making of a short disaster movie. The actor leading the show was wonderfully witty and entertaining. Parts are chosen for several people using audience members, action sequences are recorded and edited with footage from a short ride through a disaster area. The audience is cued to scream and wave arms around. The boys really got into participating.

water raft ride in Fievel's Playland Universal Studios

Not much at Universal is geared toward younger children. Universal Studios does include Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone with a short family-friendly roller coaster, Fievel’s Playland, and a Curious George-themed water playland. The only issue with this part of the park were the themes. Our children aren’t familiar with Woody Woodpecker and didn’t know Fievel the mouse, which had me kicking myself for not prepping them more on characters. Fievel’s Playland has several climbing areas for children as well as a short water raft ride. The ride wasn’t busy and was enjoyed by all of us. It’s a hidden gem in the park.

iconic Universal Orlando globe

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Universal Orlando. I went in to our visit assuming Universal had far less to offer than Disney. While the amount of restaurants and attractions is less than Walt Disney World, I was impressed with the caliber of the attractions at Universal. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, is amazingly well-thought out and executed. The level of detail is impeccable. I can’t stress how busy the Wizarding World becomes during the day. Diagon Alley feels even more crowded thanks to narrow streets and tall, leaning structures. Arrive at the park when it opens for the Wizarding World or visit during the nightly fireworks show (dependent on the season) at the lagoon in Universal Studios.

family posing with Optimus Prime Universal Studios

I didn’t mind waiting in line at several rides at Universal because the queue lines are attractions in themselves. I enjoyed the storylines given to visitors before the rides even started. If it’s within your means, purchasing the express pass to skip over the regular lines will save you quite a bit of time at Universal. There are several character opportunities at Universal ranging from various superheroes to minor Harry Potter characters to Transformers. A few characters will sign autographs.

I’m glad we purchased Photo Connect to have access to ride photos and the few other photo spots in the parks. The photos from the rides are priceless, even if I am crying in the Revenge of the Mummy photo. We collect elongated or squished pennies and there are several machines throughout the parks. We came home with quite the collection. I’m glad we waited to visit Universal Orlando. I don’t think it would have been as fun with children younger than five and believe  seven and older is ideal. It’s helpful if all visitors are familiar with the different characters they’ll encounter, especially for rides. Although, I’ve watched the Mummy movies and was never scared of the films like that silly ride.

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