I will never get over the bizarre feeling of strolling through a snowy British town in air so hot and so humid I could boil pasta in the palm of my hand. Nor will it ever feel natural to gaze upon Hogwarts, flanked by its iconic boars—and the palm trees that surround it—from afar. But (sorry, mayor of London), there really isn’t a better place than Florida for the wedge of Harry Potter paradise that is Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter. After a few minutes, the superb detailing of the attraction fully distracts from the environmental ironies.
Months ago, I attended a press preview of the theme park on behalf of my website, The Leaky Cauldron. During that preview we were given a quick tour of the still-under-construction park and offered samples of food from its Three Broomsticks restaurant. After all the deliciousness that ensued, I started joking that we fans were going to enter the park, which officially opens this week, as our normal selves, but walk out fat and poor.
Fast-forward to Memorial Day weekend, when all three hosts of The Leaky Cauldron’s PotterCast—John Noe, Frank Franco, and I—gained entrance to the park during its soft opening period. We get a lot of tips in our inboxes, and quite a few of them indicated a soft open around the end of May. Nothing was certain, but we knew there would be a theme park "experience" for people who had bought a certain vacation package, so we figured, why not just spend Memorial Day in Orlando… just in case? The gamble paid off. It turned out that a guest at one of the Universal Resort hotels could get into the park an hour before it opened to everyone else—and that was how we got into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It closed after a few hours, but we spent those hours making the most of everything and my wisecracking prediction came true inside two hours. Three butterbeers, five souvenir pins, a Hog's Head Ale, a pumpkin juice, a Cauldron Cake, a set of wax seals, a Hogwarts shirt, and an annual pass later, my stomach had grown as my bank balance diminished—and I can honestly say it was the happiest I've ever been under such conditions.
At 7:30 a.m. sharp on May 29, we stood on line with roughly 400 other people, awaiting entrance to the Promised Land. Every last person there was part of the largest human train I’ve ever seen, speed-walking like ducks all the way to the back of Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure theme park to get into Hogsmeade. We squealed like children as the arch, with its wrought-iron sign that reads “Please respect spell limits,” drew near, and almost ran to get right into Hogwarts and onto the Forbidden Journey ride, the park’s signature attraction.
Sadly, we never got on: As we were reminded, the soft opening was like the technical rehearsal for a show. We instead spent 20 minutes wandering around the magnificently built Hogwarts, ogling the so-real-looking moving portraits and trying to restrain ourselves from hopping into a seat next to the Gryffindor common room fire, before the queue came to a standstill and a mild-voiced announcer evacuated us.
Who cared? We had all of Hogsmeade to explore—a life-size recreation of the world I’ve immersed myself in for nearly a decade. We moved on to Ollivanders, the wand shop from the franchise, where a wand master carefully selected two young children from our group and performed tests on them to determine their wands. Of course, in true theme park tradition, this meant they would have to buy them in the neighboring shop.
The shops themselves (all of them) are small. Be prepared for jostling and a few elbows in unexpected places. However, as tempted as we were to become annoyed that it was nearly impossible to leisurely survey the mind-boggling amount of new merchandise, it was hard to ignore that the bustling gave it a certain busy aura reminiscent of the fictional world. (Remember that—and some deep breathing—when waiting 30 minutes to buy a Pygmy Puff or standing in line, in the baking heat, to sample the truly magnificent butterbeer.)
We spent the remainder of our time bouncing around like rubber balls, exclaiming loudly each time we found a new, stunning detail: from Moaning Myrtle’s voice on the loudspeaker in the bathroom, to the shadows of house elves creeping over the walls in the Three Broomsticks restaurant, to the snitch flying around in the window of the sporting goods store. We even tried, without success, to stump the Hogwarts train conductor by asking him to which house his character belonged. He was not permitted to tell us, he explained, but he spoke about all the attributes of the houses in a way that made us think the actor had been (a) very well prepared or (b) a visitor to our website for many years. He even knew where the Hufflepuff common rooms were in the castle.
What makes the Wizarding World of Harry Potter special, though, is not the towering castle or the double-dragon roller coaster or how magnificently Universal has managed to breathe life into the words on the pages of J.K. Rowlings’ series. About an hour into our day, we realized a dream that we—and many other fans—have long held: Our trio ducked off the main Hogsmeade thoroughfare in favor of a booth in the Hog’s Head pub. We clinked our frosty butterbeer glasses together and enjoyed each other’s company in the magical place that had first brought us together. Fatter and poorer? Sure. But what better way to go?
Melissa Anelli is author of The New York Times bestselling book Harry, A History, which chronicles the phenomenon of the Harry Potter franchise. She is also the webmistress of The Leaky Cauldron, a leading Harry Potter fansite, as well as the co-host of the site’s official podcast, PotterCast.