Hours before Universal Orlando’s wizarding world usually opens, queues are already snaking their way through the resort as Potterheads gather to try a much-hyped new ride.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is arguably one of the theme park resort’s biggest draws, with four rides in two magical locations linked by a Hogwarts Express replica train.
According to Warwick Davis, who played Professor Flitwick in the blockbuster films, even those who are not familiar with JK Rowling’s books will be enchanted by the latest offering, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure.
He was joined by Rupert Grint, who played Harry’s best friend Ron Weasley, Tom Felton, who acted the part of Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy, and other Potter stars, to celebrate the stateside launch.
And with a 10-hour wait time on the ride’s opening day, it’s clear how committed Potter fans still are to the cause.
What’s it all about?
The ride is Florida’s longest coaster, with almost a mile of track weaving amongst 1,200 trees and lichen-covered ruins inspired by castles and abbeys in Ireland, according to Alan Gilmore, the Irish art director who helped imagine the setting.
Called a story-coaster, it follows a narrative. Students are taken on an interactive ‘care of magical creatures’ lesson set in the heart of the forbidden forest.
Accompanying Hogwarts gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid, riders mount enchanted motorbikes, or recline in sidecars, and are whisked away with the voice of Robbie Coltrane, who played Hagrid in the movies.
An almost overwhelming attention to detail, characteristic of Universal’s other Potter rides, starts in the designated queuing area.
Graffitied walls, a clutch of dragon’s eggs ready to hatch, cobwebbed crates and cages suspended from the ceiling can all be found in the dimly lit, cave-like passageways.
There is even a pre-ride show involving projections of Hagrid and Arthur Weasley, the father of Harry’s best friend who helps the game keeper charm the motorbikes in preparation for the adventure to come.
As you near the front of the queue, shadows of giant spiders ominously scuttle across the wood-panelled ceiling, over which Hagrid’s motorbike and sidecar also zoom noisily.
How does the ride work?
With seven launches and a top speed of 50 mph, you never quite know what’s coming, whether you’re hurtling through the treetops of the Forbidden Forest or dodging blows from a menagerie of magical creatures under the game keeper’s care.
The rapid yet smooth acceleration gives a convincing impression of flight, with none of the turbulence or jolting that accompanies the parks’ other high-speed roller coasters.
But as readers will know, while the good-natured but clumsy Hagrid always means well, sometimes his intentions backfire, and there is plenty of mishap and magical blunder in this thrilling three-minute experience.
For the biggest thrills, sit on the motorbike at the front – you’ll have the furthest to fall when you lose momentum during a climb and are propelled backwards, only to plunge 16 feet as you detangle from a thicket of devil’s snare.
Ride staff kitted out head-to-toe in protective gear – some of these creatures can be extremely dangerous, you know – ask how your lesson has gone as you disembark.
In true keep-the-secret Potter style, riders are urged not to tell anyone which creatures they encountered, to keep the element of surprise.
What are the other Potter attractions like?
Afterwards, stumble out on jelly legs into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
Less than a five minute walk away is Hogwarts itself, a splendid fortress made even more spectacular by a light and music show on selected nights.
Join Harry and Ron as they ditch a history lesson for a Quidditch match, in a simulator-style ride that sends you tumbling through fireplaces and turns you into a broomstick master. Its multiple twists and turns are not for the weak-stomached and, as our guide aptly puts it, not all muggles are cut out for flying.
A less queasy alternative is the Flight of the Hippogriff, a more traditional outdoor coaster, which is shorter and more family-friendly.
Meanwhile, a short journey away on the Hogwarts Express is Diagon Alley, London’s magical shopping street around the corner from King’s Cross station in the Universal Studios park. Here, wannabe wizards can take part in an enchanting wand-sorting ceremony at Ollivanders wand shop, casting spells at marked and secret locations.
A double scoop cone at Florean Fortescue’s ice-cream parlour is a must, best enjoyed as you wait for the carved dragon on top of Gringotts bank to belch fire.
And it is hidden within the depths of Gringotts that the final Potter ride rests, another experience involving virtual 3D projections, which sees riders dodge the evil Lord Voldemort, as they make their escape from the bank.
Once you’re Pottered out…
The parks are an explosion of colour and fun, with a plethora of rides, entertainment and eateries. Old favourites like ET and Jurassic Park are complemented by the Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster, where passengers can choose a song to hurtle along to, while the simulator-based Simpsons ride stands out for comedy value.
The newest offering is Big Fire, a restaurant channeling a back-to-nature, family holiday vibe that will open during summer 2019. It will serve up American fare reminiscent of evenings spent around an open fire, with meat and vegetables cooked on a large grill, using different flavoured woodchips.
Home comforts such as mac and cheese, cornbread and chilli, and chops and fried potatoes will be on offer, along with a campfire-inspired s’mores platter of chocolate, crackers and marshmallows, to be toasted over a small flame.
And there’s some great news for those on a budget
A new resort, opening on June 27, will allow families an affordable base from which to explore the parks.
Universal Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites is Universal Orlando’s first value category hotel, with rates starting from $73 per night for a seven-night stay.
The bar overlooking the surfboard-shaped swimming pool will serve seven frozen drinks, including a mango and toasted coconut mojito, while the resort’s emphasis on affordability means no food item will be priced over $12.
It’s modelled around a surfer’s paradise, with a large blue wave roof rolling in over an entrance lined with surfboards and palm trees. Inside, cushions resembling pastel sea-washed pebbles are used as casual seating, while up above, bubble-like netting envelopes the lights, and even the pale blue duvets are rippled to look like the surface of the ocean.