Touring Trumps America – Part 5: Orlando, Magic at Universal Studios

December 2018 – Mark Vawser

Marking the halfway point of my road trip through the southern states of America is Orlando Florida, home to Disneyworld and Universal Studios. To my Australian readers, Florida is comparable to Queensland, it’s hot, humid and full of theme parks. So let’s look at one of them (Disneyworld is coming next) and determine if the high price of admission is worth a trip to the swampland of America. Let’s look at Universal Studios Orlando home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Gringotts Guardian (2018)

The Gringotts dragon is by far the best focal point in the park. Every 10 minutes it breaths fire and roars. Time it right and you can capture it. It took me a few goes but it was worth it!

Universal Resort Orlando is made up of a number of parks, Volcano Bay, Island of Adventure and the main park simply called Universal Studios Florida. The City Walk leads to the entrances of all three parks, lined with restaurants, bars and a cinema. There is no entry fee to enter the city walk, after getting through a security bag check park goers all but sprint through the city walk to get to the parks. That is not to say the City Walk is without its charms, there’s a Bubba Gump seafood restaurant, a large cinema, a huge Hard Rock Café shaped like the Roman Coliseum, and a lake with the iconic Universal stamped world spinning on its axis. Passing the Universal sign and walking under the art deco arches you find yourself entering the largest park, Universal Studious Florida.

Universal Studios Florida

The Florida park has several main attractions, Springfield: Home of the Simpsons, Hollywood, San Francisco, New York, Worlds Expo and Woody Woodpeckers kids zone. All of these are lackluster areas, each a mish-mash of pop culture movies and roller coaster rides. Springfield wasn’t too bad, but the challenges of making a cartoon city look believable in real life remain, giving it a very plastic feel. It is at this point I should mention that we did not go on any rides, the lines were extremely long and the prospect of waiting for two hours did not appeal to me. This may have coloured my view of the park, not experiencing all it had to offer, but I had hoped for a little more points of interest other than a roller coaster. Unfortunately I failed to find it most areas of the park, the gigantic Optimus Prime was impressive but otherwise, there wasn’t much that excited me other than the one area I had come to see. Diagon Alley.

Diagon Alley is located at the back right-hand side of the park, coming from the World expo side the first thing you’ll see is the purple Night Bus proudly parked outside Grimwald Place. An attendant dressed as Stan Shunpike stands at the open doors of the bus for photo opportunities. However, it may be better if you’re short on time to walk around to the rear of the bus, the bus exit provides another step free from lines allows for an easier photo opportunity.

Walking through a hole in the wall next to Grimwald Place you enter Diagon Alley itself. Immediately to your left Weasleys Wizard Wheezes stands out in brilliant purple and orange to your right and the Leaky Cauldron complete with meals for order is located to your left. A passageway just after the Leaky Cauldron drew me in, the words “don’t let anyone see you down there, people will think you up to no good” echoes through my head as i read the sign “Knockturn Alley”. The alley was dark, very dark, so much so it was hard to see people moving around inside. Bourgin and Burkes was the sole resident of Knockturn Alley and it was fantastically ghoulish. A mermaid skeleton occupied the window lit with an ominous green glow. Inside dark artefacts are displayed such as the hand of Glory, bird skeletons and the infamous vanishing cabinet. All the death eater merch could be found here, complete with wanted posters and cursed necklaces.

Diagon Alley (2018)

Street photography can be very satisfying with its straight lines and symmetry. Diagon Alley is satisfying for the opposite reason, it’s asymmetry gives it a unique character no other street can match. Also a dragon, did I mention the dragon?

Outside the rear exit of Knockturn Alley were the restrooms but you had to be careful. An umbrella stature located over one of the entrances would pour water from its edges seemingly at random. It was only after ten or so minutes that I realised it was children waving there wants at the umbrella that would activate it. You are able to purchase interactive wands that trigger events when signaled, a suit of armor moves, a fountain spits water, a shriveled head talks. It was a very nice touch to add some magic to this muggle world, but given the price of the wands were $50 USD, and they only work at universal, I decided to buy a non-magic wand replica instead. I’d be lying if a part of me wasn’t jealous of those lucky kids!

Every store in Diagon Alley had its theme and its own fantastic merch. Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions had all the school attire, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor had its deserts, and Olivanders was chock full of wands. The stores all had their own charm and were faithful to the cinematic vision of Harry Potter. The centerpiece of the alley was Gringotts Wizarding Bank and the massive Dragon perched atop its roof. Every ten minutes it would grumble and growl, pause, then breath fire with a roar. The heat of the blast could be felt from below and the cheers that followed each blast were genuine in their awe. It was by far the highlight of Universal studios.

Optimus Prime
Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes
Mermaid Fountain

Islands of Adventure

Universal’s Islands of Adventure park is the second largest in the resort and is home to Jurassic Park, Marvel Superhero Island, Seuss Landing and Hogsmeade Village. Built around a manmade lake water was everywhere and most of the rides involved splashing of one sort or another. Luckily the Florida weather was obliging even in winter with 28-degree heat and high humidity.

Marvel Superhero Island predates the MCU and Marvels sale to Disney so it was no surprise that it was based entirely on the 90s cartoon series and not the modern cinematic incarnations. The buildings to either side of the lane are clad in comic book facades and heroes in action directly out of the Saturday morning cartoons. Around midday, the speakers announced “Hero’s Incoming” before several of the most popular heroes appeared on quad bikes to take photos and defeat supervillains. Spider-Man as the most popular character was not walking the streets but retreated to a green screen room for more professional photos. When their time was up they all jumped on their quad bikes and rode away. A simple show, but quite entertaining nevertheless. Jurassic Park offered a couple photo opportunities underneath a Terex but little more, and Seuss Landing had a carousel.

Hogsmeade Village for me was the main event in this second park, and judging by the crowed I wasn’t the only one. Just like Diagon Alley Hogsmeade was packed, a single street with shops on either side attendants had to manage the flow of the traffic with signs. The stores in Hogsmeade were all true to their harry potter counterparts, The Hogs Head and Three Broomsticks pubs are combined to make a single tavern for meals, Honeydukes Sweetshop provided all the chocolate frogs one could eat, and another Olivanders sold wands. The two main features of Hogsmeade were Hogsmeade Station complete with the Hogwarts express, and Hogwarts itself looming large over Hogsmeade. The photo opportunities for both are worth the price of admission, even though you can’t enter the castle on the hill I hope one day they will build a working replica for Potterheads like myself.

Hogwarts Gates
Hogwarts Express
Jurassic Park

Universal Resort Orlando had plenty to see but none could compare to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Compared to Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley all the other areas looked outdated and lackluster. The reliance on rides to make an area interesting makes standing in line for hours a necessity, a necessity that I did not want to commit to. Despite this i still enjoyed my time, Springfield and Marvel Island were both still entertaining, but mostly due to nostalgia. At the end of the day if you are going solely for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter its worth the steep price, but for anything else, save your money for Disney World.

The Hogs Head (2018)

This wall display was behind a functioning bar in Hogsmeade Village. People were everywhere and bar staff focused on serving. I waited for 10 minutes for a spot to clear just to take this shot. Worth every second. Patience often yields rewards in photography.

*All photos taken by me unless otherwise stated

Published by castleforgephotography

Hi, I am an Australian History Teacher & Photographer living in London.

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