I’ve been so excited to write this post like you don’t even know. HARRY POTTER. FLORIDAAA. JURASSIC PARK. ROLLERCOASTERS. Eeep. Although editing the pictures has just me wish I could go back and re-live it all over again.
Seriously, I think I’m homesick for a theme park, guys.
I’d been looking forward to our Orlando time a hell of a lot, because what big kid doesn’t just love a theme park? Despite having a big ol’ money panic not long before buying my ticket (it got sorted because my brother is an actual hero), I had THE best day. And now I’m gonna spam you with pictures and gushy statements about how amazing it all was. Okay?
On our Atlantic Dream trip, we had one full day in Orlando and were able to make the choice of either heading to Universal Studios or Disney. Which is a pretty tough choice. I mean, a big part of me wanted to flounce around in a pair of Minnie Mouse ears and take selfies outside Cinderella’s castle.
But, I really bloody love Harry Potter. And I couldn’t miss the opportunity to get all emotional at my childhood up in Hogsmeade. Luckily, the rest of the group were all pretty keen on a trip to Hogwarts, so we all rolled into the van bright and early for our day at Universal.
The amount of detail that had gone into everything was bloody astounding. Everything was detailed down to the smallest elements, like the slightly worn-looking paint and intricate window displays. I’ve been to the WB Studio Tour (twice), and that was amazing in itself, but the Wizarding World at Universal was a whole new level of OMG. Walking into Diagon Alley, I could totally imagine myself actually being there. I mean, in the fictional destination that’s actually basically a real place in my head. Because magic is real. Okay. Okay.
And the dragon on top of Gringotts actually breathed fire. See. Total magic, and definitely not proficient pyrotechnics, right there.
We also got the chance to go on our first ride of the day, which was the Escape From Gringotts ride. (I’m realising now, if you’re not a Harry Potter fan, all of this is probably getting lost on you. Scroll down, there’s some bits about dinosaurs and Dr Seuss). Anyway. The Gringotts ride had perhaps the most intricate and detailed queue decor I’d ever seen in a theme park (at least until a couple of hours later, anyway).
Basically, we weren’t just queueing for a rollercoaster, we were legitimately going through the fictional (magic is real, magic is real) bank from the stories. It made the time seem to pass so quickly, as we were too busy looking around at all the detail that had gone into putting the ride together to get annoyed with not moving too much. Actually, it moved quite quickly anyway – at some points, I even wanted the queue to slow down so I could drink everything in a little more. It made the whole experience an exciting one, way more than just 40 minutes of standing and shuffling for three minutes of adrenaline-fuelled fun.
The ride itself was actually more simulator-y than an actual coaster, but the incredible visuals and video made it so immersive, I felt like we were actually travelling round the enormous interiors of Gringotts at high speed, on an awesome adventure. It’s incredibly cinematic, the kind of ride where you clap at the end. And honestly, our ride experiences didn’t go downhill after this first high point. More on that to come.
Off-topic point, yep, I know, my hair is ridiculous and it looks like one of those retro fruit salad sweets and WHAT ARE THOSE ROOTS. Two weeks of sunshine and swimming and having to wash it every day cause sweaty camping in 30+ degree heat is a bummer. But. Never mind. Because MILLY IS A FREE ELF.
Not all of the shop fronts were actual stores that you could go inside – but quite a few were, and we spent ages having a nose around them at all the weird and wonderful things you could pick up. We took in a wand demonstration in Ollivanders, and wondered just how many boxes of Bertie Botts’ Every Flavour Beans would take our cases over the 23kg baggage allowance for the flight home.
Okay, what comes next is awesome.
GUYS, WE ACTUALLY GOT TO RIDE ON THE HOGWARTS EXPRESS. Universal Studios are pretty smart, because the Harry Potter exhibits are actually split between two parks (the main Universal Studios park and Universal’s Island of Adventure). So to see both, you do have to pay a bit more than if you were just visiting the one park.
But I got to ride the HOGWARTS EXPRESS so I don’t care.
Stepping aboard, we found ourselves a carriage, and settled in for the journey to Hogsmeade. Okay, the journey to Hogsmeade was actually just a video on the window, but it was incredible and actually felt like we were on a proper train ride. To Hogwarts. There was a whole story to it – I won’t spoil things for you, but if you get the chance to visit, the train ride and attractions in the Island of Adventure side of the park make it SO incredibly worth paying a bit extra.
Once we’d arrived at our destination, we stepped off the Hogwarts Express and into an incredible, magical world. Just as amazing as Diagon Alley, being in the Hogsmeade area of the park basically felt like Christmas, with snow covered rooftops stretching ahead of us. Well, apart from the fact that it was August and boiling and bustling with fellow tourists, anyway.
After having a wander around and a good upwards-gazing gape at how amazing it all was, we took our next ride of the day – the Dragon Challenge, where two seperate coaster tracks twirl around each other in a high-speed ‘duel’. The Flight of The Hippogriff was a slightly less intense experience, but still really enjoyable.
However, the real star of the day in terms of rides was definitely Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, where insanely impressive ride technology takes you on a journey around Hogwarts castle. Similar in style to the Escape from Gringotts ride, the majority of movement was actually created with visual elements – and I’d not even thought it possible, but the queue area itself was even more impressive. Because, y’know. Walking through Hogwarts.
Once we’d had our fill of the rides (except, not really, because I wanted to go on the Hogwarts ride again and again forever), we went into Honeydukes to gaze at all the sweet treats. Alright, a lot of it was very souvenir-y, and obviously intended to get people to spend ALL the money, but the amount of effort put into turning a shop into a whole experience was pretty ace.
Harry Potter may be one of my all-time favourite series, but Universal’s Islands of Adventure also had an area dedicated to one of my all-time favourite films. JURASSIC PARK. Yay dinosaurs!
There wasn’t actually much in the way of rides in the area, but the Jurassic Park River Adventure was so very good. Hopping on a boat, we actually went through the Jurassic Park gates, and through scenes of dinosaur carnage with ACTUAL DINOSAURS. Alright, they were animatronics. But still, super cool. At the end, there are two flumes – a little one, and a big, 85ft plunge into the darkness. The bigger one made quite a splash, which was very welcome after the relentless midday sun. The perfect mix of thrills and immersive action.
Annoyingly, after exploring the Jurassic Park world, my stomach and head were feeling a bit peaky, probably due to a mix of sun and excitement, so instead of going on the remaining ‘big’ rides, two of us took a wander around the rest of the park. We ended up stumbling across the Dr Seuss area, which was ADORABLE.
We went on a couple of the ‘kids’ rides, which turned out to also be really fun. Not quite as epic as journeying through Hogwarts or almost getting bitten by a velociraptor, but twirling around as The Cat In The Hat unfolded was a nice way to take a break from the big thrills.
One of the last areas of the day we visited was one most people will recognise from a classic show. Yep, there’s a whole area dedicated to the Simpsons. The park have basically created their own Springfield, with all the iconic buildings – Moe’s, Krusty Burger…and you can even take your picture with the iconic Duff Man.
The queue for the Simpsons ride was probably the longest of the day – even though there were screens around the queuing area showing episodes of the show, which were fun to watch. The ride itself also took a long while to actually…get to the point. But when we actually got into the seats of the 3D simulator, it was awesome. If there’s one thing Universal do well, it’s creating an immersive experience (I dread to think how many times I’ve used the word immersive in this post).
As the sun went down, we made a final rush for souvenirs and last rides before heading to our pickup point, where the van was waiting for us and a McDonalds stop-off was definitely the order of the day.
Driving away from the park, we saw the fireworks overhead to end a long, tiring and incredible day. Universal Studios is an amazing place. It comes second only to when we went to Port Aventura in terms of my favourite theme park experiences – and very much first in terms of the actual rides.
And just in case you missed it…I GOT TO RIDE THE HOGWARTS EXPRESS.
Previously on my East Coast USA trip: It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia | Sightseeing on Two Wheels in Washington, D.C. | Falling in Love With Nashville | An Hour in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame | Exploring New Orleans
Check out the full TrekAmerica Atlantic Dream itinerary.