Islands of Adventure

Islands of Adventure

My fall trip to Florida included my first trip to Universal studios. I’ve heard a lot about the parks from others who’ve visited, and I know a lot of the history, but I’d never experienced it myself. Of course, Universal’s newest and most popular attraction is the Harry Potter themed park where they recreated Hogwarts Castle and Hogsmeade village.

I should mention, I’m not a huge fan of Harry Potter. I liked the first four books. In fact, I thought they were brilliant. But the series lost me at book five and never got me back. It wasn’t that the books got more mature or that the storyline got darker, because I’ve read other series that have taken similar turns. It’s more that the fifth book broke my suspension of disbelief, the sixth book wasn’t interesting enough to get it back and the seventh book… well I’ll let another blogger tackle that one.

But I digress. Even if I’m not the biggest Harry Potter fan in the world, I can appreciate bringing a fantasy world to life, letting fans walk through it and experience it in three dimensions. After all the hype from family and friends about this section of the park, it had a lot to live up to.

The nice man at the ticket counter marked a park map for us and offered us the ideal ‘game plan’ for tackling the park. We ignored it, but it was still very nice of him to give us a run down on the best way to hit all the best attractions from an expert’s point of view. Like pretty much everyone else, we bee-lined straight to the back of the park, taking the shortcut indicated by a staff member, to the Harry Potter section. Our plan was to hit Olivander’s wand experience first, but the line instantly filled up so we tackled the Harry Potter ride instead.

Since it was so early in the morning, and we weren’t visiting during a peak month, we only had to wait about fifteen minutes to get on the ride. That was both awesome and disappointing, since I wouldn’t have minded spending more time in Hogwarts Castle (which is the line for the Harry Potter ride). I snapped some pictures of the most interesting bits. I particularly enjoyed the sorting hat and the talking portraits (which don’t show up well in pictures, sadly). I can see why that ride has been the number one attraction since its opening. It’s by far the best blend of physical and screen effects I’ve ever experienced. My only criticism is that you can tell when you’re transitioning from a screen portion to a physical portion because the initial movement is very jarring. But you can forgive it for that because it’s so amazingly well done. Plus it was awesome to see staff members dressed as students of different houses getting into the rivalry. One of my friends was dressed as a Gryffindor, the other as a Slytherin, and the staff members were particularly sassy with my Slytherin friend.

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When we finished in Hogwarts Castle, the line at Olivander’s had died down so we decided to wait it out. Better a twenty minute wait than a two hour wait. Everyone who’d attended one of the ‘experience’ sessions spoke very highly of it. I found it a bit underwhelming, to be honest. After waiting in line about twenty minutes, we stood in a small space which looked nothing like Olivander’s store in the movies (but I guess people wouldn’t be able to see if it did). Olivander picked a young girl out of the pack and his assistant handed her a wand. He told her to flick it at something while speaking the spell name and it, of course, failed. They repeated this with two other wands and, of course, the last one was successful. That lasted all of five minutes (probably less) and then we were done. I’m sure it’s a great experience for the people who get to have a wand choose them, but I didn’t find it all that exciting to watch. My Slytherin friend informed me that they usually talk to the participant more at the beginning, asking them questions to fit them with the best wand. I guess either the guy playing Olivander that day doesn’t do it that way or they cut out that bit for some reason. We spent some time in the wand shop after, but decided to return later for shopping (lest we spend the entire day in Hogsmeade).

I’m not a huge fan of rides that go upside down. I’m short. I tend to shake around in the harness and it gives me a headache. So we skipped a lot of the roller-coasters in Islands of Adventure (which has earned us some criticism from certain husbands). After wandering around a bit, we rode the Jurassic Park ride (there was no wait). It was a fun ride but not as terrifying at the end as some people have built it up to be. While we were already damp from the drop, we decided to ride the Dudley Do Right log flume (nice to see the Royal Canadian Mounted Police getting some representation at Universal). We got absolutely soaked. To add insult to injury, we got sprayed at the end too, after the drop.

Deciding we wanted a chance to dry off, we asked one of the staff members where to go for lunch. They referred us to Mythos, apparently the most popular restaurant in the park. We only had to wait about fifteen minutes for a table. It was certainly an interesting place, decorated according to Greek myths. There was even a story explaining all the different statues in the menu. Unfortunately, the staff weren’t in costume or character, so the atmosphere really didn’t carry through the entire experience. The food, however, was amazing.

We spent most of the afternoon in Seuss land. I actually liked it better than the Harry Potter portion of the park, but I suppose I’m biased. I grew up on Dr. Seuss. Some of the first books I ever read were Seuss books. I still have a mint condition copy of The Lorax, my favorite Dr. Seuss book. In fact, one of the reasons we hung around that part of the park for so long was because I wanted to meet the Lorax. I knew he was one of the costume characters because some friends of mine visited Orlando a few weeks before I did and took a video of the Lorax waving at me. I loved the truffula trees, even though they’re plastic instead of soft, and the Once-Ler’s house.

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Not only did we get to meet the Lorax, we met the Cat in the Hat and Thing One and Thing Two (two of my favorites!). We also stayed to watch the Seuss land stage show. It was made even greater by the little kid sitting in front of us. He must have been local because he knew every step in the dance routine and danced right along! He was adorable. After much deliberation in the gift shops, all three of us bought Thing One/Thing Two mugs that look like two mugs stacked haphazardly, but is actually just one mug.

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At the end of the day we headed back to Hogsmeade for Butter Beer and our final bit of shopping. I have to agree with everyone’s assessment of Butter Beer; it’s happiness in a cup. We had the frozen kind, because both my Slytherin and Gryffindor friend agreed it’s the better of the two (fancy a Slytherin and a Gryffindor agreeing!). My Gryffindor friend wanted to buy one of the Hogshead cups, but was informed you could only get it with beer (to which she’s allergic). It annoyed me, because it seems like a pointless, arbitrary rule, especially when many of the people who want that mug are probably kids. But my Slytherin friend ordered a Guiness so she could get it and it all worked out. We spent about forty-five minutes in Honeydukes while I tried not to buy their entire stock.

All in all, it was a fun day, but I felt out of sorts after we left the park. It took me a long while to figure out why. Ultimately, while I had fun and enjoyed every part of the park we visited, I was disappointed by the Harry Potter portion of Universal. They went to a great deal of trouble to replicate the scenery of Hogsmeade and the castle at Hogwarts. They have cast members in character interacting with guests throughout the day. Yet the merchandise they offer is crap. Aside from the usual theme park mugs and t-shirts, everything you can buy in the Harry Potter area is cheap.

The wands disappointed me the most. They’re all plastic. They’re all cheap-looking. And they all bear a large factory stamp which loudly proclaims they’re cheap to produce and far from unique. Apparently, you can order official wooden wands online, but you can’t buy them at the park. They charge $30 for these cheap plastic wands. It ruins the Olivander’s experience somewhat that the only thing you can buy is a low-quality duplicate. And it isn’t just the wands. The robes you can buy are cheaply made too. They don’t even have a full inside layer. And you can’t buy any decent looking broomsticks in the park either.

Now I’m not the biggest Harry Potter fan. I’ve already stated that, partly to prove I’m not being super fan-girl about this. It disgusts me that the sole purpose of the Harry Potter theme park seems to be to hock cheap crap to devoted fans. My Gryffindor friend admitted she bought a plastic wand at Olivanders because she wanted so badly to go to Olivanders and buy herself a wand there. That was an experience she treasured. And while I’m thrilled she got to experience it, and know that was a choice she willingly made, it saddens me to think that experience is cheapened by the fact that the wand she took home probably wasn’t the wand she wanted it to be. Definitely wasn’t the wand it should have been.

I understand very well the passion with which someone can love a fantasy world. I may not experience it with the Harry Potter world, but there are oh-so-many other places and characters I hold near and dear to my heart. And if one of those settings existed somewhere, filled with cheap, second-rate crap, I too might purchase some of that crap to bring home with me. But that doesn’t make it right. Taking advantage of another person’s passion is never right. It left a bad taste in my mouth and cast something of a pall over my visit to Islands of Adventure.

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