Postcard from the Edge of Magic

It has been a couple of years since I was last in Orlando, and so was pleased when it was chosen as the location of an SAP conference, as it gave me the opportunity to present, celebrate my birthday in style and most importantly, visit the newly opened Wizzarding World of Harry Potter at the Islands of Adventure Theme Park.

The first couple of days were a presentation blur, but the big day came and Sting came by and put on a concert for me in the evening, which was nice. I was 10 rows from the front and was seriously gyrating to some of the classics, but went out and got drinks during the boring new-age, tree hugging melodies. He was rushed off stage after the concert, so we did not get a chance to catch up, perhaps next year.

The next day, I only had afternoon meetings, so I got up early and arrived at the park half an hour before the gates opened and immersed myself in the huge crowd at the turnstiles. By the time the gates opened a flood of humanity surged in to the park, with everyone seemingly making their way to the Wizzarding World.

I tried to get to the front, dashing through Headache Land (based on Dr. Seuss’ books, the colours and brightness is nauseating), past The Lost Continent (which to be honest, no one would miss if were to go astray) and ended up at the gates of my target. The first thing you see is an enormous arch announcing you are entering the village of Hogsmeade and a large, red Hogwarts express train gently puffing away at the station. Rounding the corner you are literally immersed in J.K. Rowlings world, as you enter the sumptuously recreated village, with a monolithic back drop of Hogwarts – I was stunned.

The shops of Hogsmeade are true to the books and are crafted to the tiniest detail – both inside and out. The shops themselves are covered in fake snow and are seemingly fighting for space, with asymmetrical frontages, and crooked, seemingly unstable chimneys poking up all over the place. The window decoration are gorgeous, in ”Quality Quiddich Supplies”, bludgers and a snitch fight their containment in a beautiful box. In Zonkos, a display of how puking pastels work dominates the bright awnings. Inside the items are familiar – extendible ears and speakoscopes vie for shelving space with cauldrons, wands and Berty Botts Every Flavour Beans. Olivanders has a fine selection of character wands (made in China, at the extortionate price of $29.99 + tax), the ATM is Gringotts branded, moaning Myrtle laments her demise in the mens’ bathroom, the monster book of monsters snaps at you from its cage as you walk past – the list just goes on and on.

From there I moved on to main attraction, the “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” ride. Just getting to the ride was a pleasure, meandering through Hogwarts corridors, meeting Harry, Ron and Hermione, watching the pictures talk to each other and the entrance to Dumbledore’s office, whilst enjoying the banter of the pictures. Eventually, you get to the ride, where, starting on a 4-seater couch in the Gryffindor common room, Hermione casts a flying spell you are whisked round Hogwarts, chasing dragons, unexpectedly taking part in a Quiddich match, then avoiding the Whomping Willow you finally fight with dementors to save the day. Spectacular. I rode it twice and ended my visit with a celebratory Butterbeer in the Hogs Head Bar, chatting with the animated head as I did so. As I left, as the masses continued to swarm in to Hogsmeade – it was a heaving, but the bar lady cheerfully informed me, “this is nothing, you should see it on a busy day” – I really dread to think.

The rest of the day was spent on roller coasters, including a new one worthy of note, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. This attraction features an individual sound system to provide a personalized soundtrack for the 1.2km ride – I chose Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive” (it was either that or “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees), which seemed appropriate as we were hauled  vertically 51m up to the top of the ride (the tallest in Orlando). It is designed to allow four trains to be on the track at a time and feature “near-miss” encounters and a unique form of vertical loop, in which the track rotates 360° whilst in the loop. Pure adrenalin fun.

Despite all the hullabaloo of the new rides, my favourite still continues to be the Hollywood Tower of Terror in the Disney re-branded Hollywood Studios. We visited here the next day, but our timing was not ideal as about 1 billion Star Wars fans (I counted them) also arrived to celebrate the re-opening of the Star Wars Clone Ride. You could not move in the park for Obi-Wans, Darth Vaders and other things-I-know-not-what running around. We just did the Tower of Terror, a couple of non-Star Wars related rides and got out, passing Donald Duck dressed as a storm trooper – a little surreal.

Following on from a bit (well, a lot) of shopping, it was time to trek back to the airport, stopping off for some buffalo chicken wings en route. I sort of became addicted to these delicious little delicacies during my trip and am now suffering withdrawal from them.

All in all a great birthday week, can’t wait for the next one.

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