When last we left our travel story we had just finished four days at Disneyworld. We were now ready for part 2 of our trip-Universal Studios.
(Paul’s already written all about it here and here.) Paul and I had been there once, many years ago, when it was smaller and newer and we were there as part of a library event. I only remember 2 rides from that outing. I wasn’t really sure what to expect-in my head Universal is somehow crasser than Disney, but now they’ve got the whole Harry Potter thing. And make no mistake about it–that’s basically the entire reason we were going. We were all super excited to see what the Harry Potter world was like, go wand shopping, and ride the Hogwart’s Express. As we watched the first 4 movies at the end of the summer it only heightened our anticipation.
When we arrived it was so immediately different than Disney-a parking garage, for starters! And you have to walk through their “Citywalk” before getting into the parks and it is a nightmare of every giant “fun” chain you’ve heard of-Margaritaville, Bubba Gump Shrimp, Hard Rock Cafe, etc. But once you make it through that gauntlet (which prompted Paul to remark “A-ha! It’s like Disney’s tacky cousin!”) you enter the park. There are two parks and we got the tickets that allowed us to go between them, so each day we spent time in both. Happily, everyone was feeling well and healthy for these last two days. That said, we couldn’t persuade Clark to go on the Revenge of the Mummy ride. The rest of us eagerly rode it (Tabby twice) and were thrilled by the effects. And effects are definitely where Universal excelled. They have some big scary traditional roller coasters (which I was pleased Tabby was finally not tall enough for so that ended any discussion about getting on one that I was too afraid of), but they have a lot of rides that are combination roller coaster or moving seat, effects, video, and 3D video. Like Star Tours to the nth degree. Like Disney’s Hollywood Studios there were recreated sets and backdrops, and these were cool. After the mummy ride we walked through “San Francisco” and “London” (I was charmed to see that the bookstore-just a front-was the store from 84 Charing Cross Rd (I think so since it bothered to say Charing Cross, don’t correct me if I’m wrong), which was a book and movie I really enjoyed and I wondered how many people who visited the park were excited to see that.) and then, wait! What?! Paul and I spied Springfield. As in, The Simpsons’ Springfield. Now, we knew that there was as Simpsons ride and we were psyched to ride it, but somehow had no idea that there was a whole section filled with things from The Simpsons. Like Moe’s…
friendly faces like Chief Wiggums…
And that’s before you even enter the giant clown’s mouth and go on Krusty’s ride.
Which was phenomenal and we laughed and laughed and laughed. And thrilled! You’re in a car that goes on a crazy ride through Krustyland and you really feel like you’re flying through the air, being chased by Sideshow Bob, and more. It was pretty funny because the kids really had no idea why we were so excited. Even though Paul and I are fans, they’ve never watched it yet. It was so unexpectedly wonderful and funny that we forgot all about the main attraction-HP! Before heading over there we settled in to eat an actual Krustyburger and some fish tacos from the Bumblebee man. Fortified and delighted we went back to London to go through the brick wall and into….Diagon Alley. And…WOW. Diagon Alley is cleverly hidden so that you can’t see it from the outside, you have to walk through an opening in a wall and then voila! there it is! You are in Diagon Alley. And you gasp in wonder because you are suddenly and truly surrounded by the magical world of Harry Potter. Gringott’s bank is in front of you with a gigantic dragon atop it, the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes shop is to your right, Ollivander’s Wand shop is there, as are the robes shop and the bookshop, and many other shops that just storefronts with wonderful window displays and names. And while we were standing there taking it all in, to our delight and surprise (I can’t believe we didn’t know this would happen) the dragon roared and breathed fire.
We were overcome with taking in all the details, checking out the shops, exclaiming over magical and funny things. In this section there is just one ride, and it’s a big one–Escape from Gringott’s. You enter and are immediately inside Gringott’s, complete with the troll bankers busily working on either side of you. Down you go until you are loaded into your car. This ride was, hands down, one of the BEST RIDES I’ve ever been on. Except for the one part where our car (and it was a 4-across, which was nice for us) tipped us forward and dangled us and I shouted out “I don’t like this! i don’t like this!” (it’s the one sensation I particularly dislike in rides) it was amazing. Your car goes up and down and all around, but not a crazy roller coaster-the thrill is in the combination of that and the story playing out in combination video and other effects around you. The very best part was when a gigantic solider type thing reached out and grabbed us and threw us to the side. The soldier wasn’t real but it sure felt like it since our cart did go whirling off into space. It was exhilarating. A refreshing butterbeer was just the ticket after that.
We were all very eager to try this and it tasted like a Butterscotch Lifesaver to me. The other very exciting part of this whole experience was the wands. Ollivander’s Wands is a wand shop just like in the book. The shelves are crooked and packed with long thin boxes. They offer for sale a different wand for all the major characters, plus Ollivander’s original designs. You can also go in and watch a special wand choosing, which we did. You get taken back to a little room where the wand shop manager picks a child and basically recreates the scene in HP when Harry gets his wand. He has the child try different wands and different effects happen until music swells, a light glows and a specific wand picks the child. How thrilled were we all that Clark was the chosen?! He was so excited, it was wonderful. And of course we got him that special wand. Tabby also got one, and they were both the interactive models.
This meant that they got a cool map that showed different locations in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade where you could stand, cast a certain spell, and see what would happen. It was really cool and both kids loved going around and doing all the spells and seeing the results (water spurting from a fountain, a feather levitating, marionettes dancing, etc.) Speaking of Hogsmeade…this is in the other park and you can get there by riding the Hogwarts Express. We went to King’s Cross Station (looking like a regular British train station) and squeal! Went through the brick wall on Platform 9 3/4!
And oh look whose luggage and owl are there too!
The train is more than meets the eye. Yes, it does take you physically over to the other park, but what’s really cool is that in each direction things actually happen looking out your window and in the corridor so that you really seem to be traveling as Harry did.
And then you disembark and find yourself in the magical village of Hogsmeade and it is enchanting and charming.
More shops! (See Honeydukes back there? The candyshop? Just like in the book and selling all the things mentioned in the books. You’d better believe that Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans and Chocolate Frogs were purchased.) More spells! More butterbeer!And Hogwarts itself!
By now it was evening and we were all pooped so we just had a sneak peek before taking the train back and then leaving for the day.
But we were back the next day, ready to fully explore Hogsmeade, including the Hogwarts ride. This attraction was phenomenal even if you didn’t go on the ride because you actually get to go inside Hogwarts and it’s exactly as you read in the book/see in the movie. The portraits on the walls talk, you peek into Dumbldore’s office, you see the pensieve, and Ron, Harry, and Hermione come out from under the Invisible Cloak. We really loved immersing ourselves in this magical world. Eventually we shook off the magical spell and went into the rest of the park. It felt strange going to the next section, which was based on Jurassic Park. It seemed so outdated now, and sadly empty, but wow was it a great replica of the movie.
We went on the river ride and it’s a testament to how great and frightening the dinosaurs were that I forgot we were essentially on a flume ride and thus was completely startled and screamed like crazy when we went down the 85 foot plunge. There are other sections and cool rides, which Paul describes more, but I’ll just point out the strange (but pleasant) section based on comic strips. And old Sunday paper comics at that. A strange concept (what kid is going to say, “Ooh! look, it’s Mark Trail!”), but it was visually a lot of fun and there were great picture taking setups all over.
So, that was our two days at Universal Studios. We were absolutely enchanted by the world of Harry Potter and it was so much fun for us to all share in the excitement of that. (And the rest of the park was fun too.)
Despite some bumps in the road it was a great vacation. Lots of fun and lots of great memories.