“I sense a very powerful magic in you.” My eight year old daughter looked at the Wand Expert standing in front of her in the heart of Ollivander’s wand shop on Diagon Alley, eyes wide and full of wonder. She was passed another wand to try and as she did music from the Harry Potter films swirled around the room, lights flickered and a wind blew through. The wand had chosen the wizard.
This incredible, magical experience in this faithful recreation of the infamous wand shop Ollivanders, filled with creaky shelves crammed high with wands of all shapes and sizes was just one of the many highlights of the wonderful Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Here in the heart of Universal Studios Orlando the magic was very much alive. We hadn’t stopped smiling since we’d arrived.
We flew in to Florida with Virgin Holidays. Just the sight of their plane at Gatwick Airport, ready to whisk us off, made our hearts leap. When the chill is setting in across the UK there’s nothing better than knowing you’re jetting off to the sunshine for a family holiday to top all family holidays.
The flight was smooth and whizzed by as we settled back to watch films, the kids engrossed in the latest movie releases – ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ and ‘Despicable Me 3’ while we took the opportunity to watch programmes ourselves, a documentary on cats in Istanbul for me (seriously, it was wonderful) and ‘Baby Driver’ for Mr G. When the fab ice lollies came around it felt like the perfect treat.
I love flying with Virgin, the food, entertainment and most of all service is top notch – friendly and couldn’t be more helpful. The kids had packs with a book of activities to entertain them and we enjoyed a couple of gin and tonics to really feel like the holiday had started. I thought the children’s meals were really great with favourites like YoYo Bears and Sabra houmous pots together with some cheesy pasta – food my kids actually eat.
Once we landed we were picked up and transferred to our hotel for five nights, the absolutely gorgeous Loews Royal Pacific Hotel. We loved the Pacific Island vibe here with some beautiful interiors and a fantastic pool area complete with sandy beach and mini water park. It really was a destination in itself and the perfect place to relax after a long day out exploring the parks.
We spent four days in the parks, we must have walked for miles but it never felt like it, there was always so much to see and do. One of our first stops was the new Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon in Universal Studios which we thought was fantastic. In fact it’s my eight year old’s favourite ride now. Whizzing across New York you race Jimmy through the streets, past famous landmarks and even to the moon. It’s a thrilling sensational ride which leaves you breathless. We really enjoyed seeing the displays of the show’s memorabilia too – It made for a great immersive experience.
We rode the absolutely terrifying simulated roller coaster (well I thought so, the kids loved it) on the Simpsons Ride in Krustyland three times and could have ridden it over and over – helped by being able to skip past the queues with Universal Express Passes, which I really recommend.
We took to the air with the Pteranodon Flyers, soaring across the Islands of Adventure park and we cuddled up to Dr Doom and Green Goblin in the Marvel Super Heroes area.
It is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter which stole our hearts though. I could stand and look at the area next to the sign for the Leaky Cauldron where you walk through and discover this secretive, magical world, all day long. Seeing people step through for the first time and the look of pure emotional wonder on their faces as they came across Diagon Alley for the first time, bustling, ready to explore, a fire breathing dragon overseeing it all. It really is a special place and one that we just can’t get enough of.
As we were staying on site in one of Universal’s hotels we took advantage of the extra hour in the parks you get as part of the stay, got the children up early (jet lag helps with this) and were first in line to get in to have Diagon Alley almost to ourselves which, as the sun started to rise, was just magical.
The children made real spells come alive in front of their eyes (if you buy wands here they actually work at various sites around the parks) and you feel so immersed in the world of Harry Potter, watching the ‘Monster book of Monsters’ snapping and growling in its cage, a shop selling cauldrons all stirring themselves in the window and barrels of foaming Butterbeer being served out to queues of happy customers. Exploring through the streets where you can walk from the Leaky Cauldron to Gringotts Wizarding Bank, where an incredible ride into the bank vaults awaits, it’s easy to believe you’ve been transported to this wonderful world for real.
We took the Hogwarts Express over to Hogsmead, the second Harry Potter Park in Islands of Adventure and wandered around this snow covered setting which seems so odd to see in the heat of the Florida sun.
Aside from the Wizarding World Of Harry Potter we also spent time at my personal favourite, Seuss Landing. I just love this quirky area with the sights and sounds of Dr Seuss everywhere you look. My six year old and I regularly read his books so we delighted in taking the trolley ride with the stories calling out as we travelled through and then running around the quirky playground where you never know when the water will appear to give you a mini soaking.
It was also fantastic to head to Universal’s third park, Volcano Bay, the water park we saw being built last year. The experience here is done so well, as you join the Waturi islanders (those mythical, Universal people) on their Pacific island land with the amazing Krakatau volcano towering over everyone as soon as you enter, spraying out water from its bubbling top, atmospheric music playing.
We rode the two lazy rivers over and again and shot down water slides that twisted and turned. We spent time in the wave pool and enjoyed cooling off in the waters under the Floridian sun.
We loved Volcano Bay, a great compliment to the other two parks.
Somewhere we also loved exploring on this trip was City Walk, Universal’s area just outside of the main parks and which you can visit without a ticket. We ate so well here, trying out some of the cheap eats like Panda Express, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and a huge breakfast in Starbucks with sit down restaurants including a fun meal at The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium where the milkshakes were like meals in themselves.
Our favourite restaurant experience was the wonderful Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville where we ate tacos and the largest plate of nachos any of us had ever seen and drank margaritas and mocktails as the sun set over the river making us breathe in that warm Floridian air and feel so happy to be there.
On our final night we headed out to the wacky, zany Blue Man Show, set again in Universal’s City Walk, where huge inflatable balls, changing colour every few seconds, dropped from the ceiling for the audience to push up into the air again and where the children howled with laughter when the, “You’re late, you should have been here twenty minutes ago” song came on, lights focusing on a poor couple blushing, heads down, who were indeed late and the Blue Men stood to point them out to everyone.
Universal Resort Orlando is somewhere to make children’s dreams come true. Whether it’s to become a Minion on the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, help save the day in Skull Island: Reign of Kong, fly with Spiderman in The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man or board your N*E*S*T vehicle to help save the world with the Transformers. It’s one of my children’s favourite places to be and despite having four full days of park fun they didn’t want to leave and begged us for “one day more”. It’s rare to find somewhere that can be filled with smiles all day long but Universal really has this mastered. It’s certainly our happy place in the world.
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