Adventures of a Wannabe Wizard — Hitting up Harry at Universal Orlando

There’s not a lot that will get me out of bed before 6am, especially while on vacation. But today, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning. Surrounded by other kids on Christmas morning. Too many kids. Possibly hundreds, if not thousands, all fighting over presents. Shoving each other out of the way to get to the biggest, best gift of all: Harry Potter.

With the sky still streaky pink from the recent dawn and the gates barely opened, we file our way into the wonderland that is Universal Orlando, giddy with excitement, as well as the delirium that comes from lack of sleep. There’s no stopping us though — my friend Sandra and I — as we march with purpose straight through the park to our main destination.

We’ve been given some insider info, courtesy of our knowledgeable taxi driver the day before (he definitely earned his five-dollar tip), for visitors heading to the park for just one day. “What you want to do,” he explained, as we leaned in, listening eagerly, “is make a beeline for Hogwarts Castle, right at the start of the day. It’s at the back of the park, but if you don’t get distracted by the other rides along the way, you’ll beat the crowds to one of the most popular rides, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.”

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando.

The looming towers of Hogwarts greet us as we head to our first ride

Thanks buddy, done and done. Though it’s hard not to stop and stare at everything around us, within ten minutes we’re nestled happily in the line-up that’s snaking through Hogwarts, heading to the ride. It moves fairly fast, and during the wait we’re entertained by holograms — sorry, ‘apparitions’ would be more appropriate — of Ron, Harry and Hermione as they perform a few spells, including showering the waiting crowd with a burst of ‘snow’. I’m in awe of all the excellent props around us. In fact, I’m taking a few home decor tips as I eye glass potion bottles, crystal balls, and other magical curiosities.

Soon enough, we’re strapped into the ride itself and being flung about the exterior of the castle, thrown straight into a Quidditch match, and taken deep into the Forbidden Forest. Truth be told, the ride’s a bit of a blur. Sensory overload is in full effect and I’m physically shocked by the force of the motion. Though thoroughly thrilled, I’m feeling a little fragile as I exit. Clearly I’m showing my age.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando.

Butterbeer and pumpkin juice help revive the weary park-goer

We grab a Butterbeer to calm our nerves (tasty, though alarmingly sweet) and continue on to the other Harry Potter attractions on the Islands of Adventure. Flight of the Hippogriff proves a nice come-down from Journey, with its family-friendly rollercoaster offering tamer thrills, and a stroll through Hogsmeade brings out our inner fan-girls in full force. Of course, we simply must stop in Ollivanders to buy a wand, the ultimate Harry Potter souvenir, and I agonise over which to call my very own. In the end, I bypass the one paired with my birth month, and choose a simpler design, that feels solid yet light in the hand. Yep, I’ve gone full Harry. Call me a wizard. (Or witch?)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando.

At Ollivanders choosing your wand is serious business

Later, over at the newly opened Diagon Alley, I discover my magic skills need a little work. Despite my best efforts, no amount of furious wand-waving outside the brand-new Gringotts ride reduces the incredibly long wait time: two hours and counting. It’s a bummer — the ride sounds amazing, but the midday heat and now thronging crowd puts our patience on the thin side. Instead, we settle for a slow crawl around the epically impressive Diagon Alley shops and get lost in a wizarding fantasy. Around every corner is a new yet familiar sight, all of the wizards’ favourite locales brought to life. We browse for Quidditch supplies and preppy Hogwarts accessories — I’m keen on a Slytherin backpack although question how well it will coordinate with my wardrobe. Joke gags from Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes are an obvious gift for friends back home, and the Magical Menagerie offers cute and creepy furry toys for littlies.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando.

Diagon Alley is a feast for the imagination. Look out for the fire-breathing dragon that guards Gringotts!

It’s been at least 15 years since I set foot in a theme park, and I’m glad I waited for Harry. At my advanced age, a one-day pass proves perfect for my waning energy levels and low tolerance for crowds. With a little strategic planning courtesy of our all-knowing cab driver, we’ve hit up most of the essentials, and left room for a return trip some day soon. I’ve no shame in admitting, now I’m back home, my wand sits proudly on display. I’ll even confess to waving it about now and then, just on the off-chance my magical abilities suddenly appear. Perhaps I’m a late bloomer?