A Day With Harry Potter

7 Sep

I’m still trying to process my thoughts regarding recent political developments in western New York, so I’m not going to write about that yet.

Last week, as part of my 11 year-old’s birthday present, we surprised her with a one-day trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal StudiosIslands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida. The trip had been in the works for about a month, and we weren’t sure whether we were sort of cheating her out of being excited for it by keeping it from her.

We opted for secrecy and surprise.

Our flight departed Buffalo at 6:05, which meant we had to be out the door at a quarter to five, since we were already checked in and had no bags to check. We flew Southwest Airlines, and springing for automatic check-in for an extra $10 is worth it, guaranteeing that you board with the A-group.

For no particular reason, I got about four hours’ sleep that night. At 4:00, I gave up trying to get any more sleep, guzzled some coffee and got ready for the day. At 4:30 we woke my daughter up – we had warned her over the previous few days that she and I would have to get up super early on Wednesday, but we were vague about why.

My daughter had been talking about this Harry Potter park for weeks, hinting not-at-all-subtly about how much she wanted to go. My pat answer was, “we’re not going to Orlando anytime soon”. This was true – after Paris, we had sort of decided that theme park travel was too much money and to be generally avoided. About a week earlier, my daughter had mentioned as part of her birthday celebration that, in the books, wizards and witches get their invitation to Hogwarts when they turn eleven. so, my wife had prepared and printed a Hogwarts’ invitation, and when we woke my daughter up at 4:30 last Wednesday, we gave it to her.

She looked at the letter and smiled while reading it, but the penny didn’t seem to want to drop. So, I said, “get up and get ready fast. We’re going to Florida.” Huge smile, big hugs all around, and she got ready in record time. I explained that it was just her and me, and that it was just for one day. She didn’t care. I told her that the day’s itinerary was completely up to her – I had bought tickets to Universal online that would let us into both parks, and also bought the express pass add-on which would let us cut the line on selected rides.

We were on the road at 5:05, got to the airport, parked in short-term, had no issues with the TSA, and marched right up to the gate about 15 minutes before the flight was scheduled to board.

Early Morning Over Buffalo

We sat on the right-hand side of the plane, so we wouldn’t be caught facing east during sunrise at altitude. She read a book while I tried to catch up on some needed sleep. The flight left about 10 minutes late, but arrived right on time, at 8:21.


Gate 129 MCO

We took the monorail to the main terminal and took an underground walkway to Dollar Rent-a-Car. There was no wait, and we were pre-paid, so I was told to grab a maroon Ford Fusion, and by 8:45 we had exited the airport parking area and were on our way to the North Exit of MCO.

North Exit

Paid $1.75 in tolls, took I-4 East to the Universal exit and – again, with time being tight, paid an extra $5 for preferred parking. By 9:30, we were at Hogsmeade.


Hogsmeade & Hogwarts

We lucked out. The weather during the first half of the day was hot and humid, but gloriously sunny. We first lined up for Ollivander’s Wand Shop, where “Ollivander” randomly selects one young witch or wizard for the wand ceremony. It’s a cute show and the kids love it, but getting picked is totally by chance. My kid didn’t get picked, but we noticed where the girl who did had been standing. The line to get in to Ollivander’s was the longest we stood in all day – about 30 minutes – and while there we met a lovely couple from Barre, ON who were huge Potter fans, like my daughter.

The wand ceremony show opens out into the main gift shop (alas, the kid whom the wand picks has to pay for it if he or she wants to keep it). We did some shopping, and noting that one quite athletic-looking woman in line had fainted from the heat, hydrated with water, which helped cool us down on this hot day.

We walked through Hogsmeade, where moaning Myrtle talks to you when you’re in the bathroom, and the shops in Diagon Alley are less numerous than you’d expect. Zonko’s has toys, and Honeyduke’s has candy. We had lunch at the Three Broomsticks (fish ‘n chips and Cornish pasties), which was okay food with a distinctly Potterish ambiance. The frozen butterbeer – a slushie made with butterscotch, caramel, and vanilla, is like mainlining sugar, but so good.


Hogwarts Express

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is the 4-D motion ride located in the Hogwarts castle. The line is built to serpentine endlessly to accommodate hours’ worth of waiting. The longest we waited was 15 minutes, and most of that involved negotiating the empty “line”. Upon entering Hogwarts, they did a great job re-creating certain elements from the movie, including the talking portraits, and Dumbledore and Harry, Hermione, and Ron appearing to talk to you as if they’re holograms. (They’re not – they’re on video projected onto a transparent screen, but the effect is quite cool). You encounter the sorting hat just before boarding the ride, where you fly around with Harry, avoid lots of obstacles, fall a lot, and get spat upon by spiders and attacked by Deatheaters. It’s quite well done and better than any ride I’ve ever experienced at a Disney park.

After checking out the Hippogriff ride, which was quite tame, and purposely avoiding the Dueling Dragons (we were avoiding rides that go upside down), we made our way through the remainder of Islands of Adventure. The Jurassic Park flume ride was fun, and we took it twice. The plunge at the end comes unexpectedly and in the dark.

There’s a ToonTown, which we largely ignored, but I got to salute the Family Circus:

F the Family Circus

We checked out the Spiderman 4-D ride, and some other attractions in the Marvel Comics area before heading back to the car to drop off our souvenirs. As we made our way along the moving walkways, a drizzle turned to rain turned to monsoon downpour. We took our time heading back, and picked up ponchos at the shop by the parking areas.

It was still pouring when we quickly walked to Universal Studios. Soaking wet, we ducked into the gift shop to dry off and browse. The rain let up and we checked out the Shrek show (meh), and the Twister special effects show (cool, but mid-90s dated). We walked along the backlot area, which was quite well done, and ended up at the Simpsons ride (really fun and funny), and the Men In Black ride (not bad, similar to Disney’s Buzz Lightyear ride, where you ride around and shoot lasers at things, accumulating points).

One nice feature at Universal is the proliferation of lockers – some you have to pay for, but on rides where carry-ons are prohibited, the lockers are free for the first hour. The Dudley Do-right flume ride (which was not operating when we got to it) gets you so soaking wet that there are “people dryers” outside, which cost $5 to use and fit about 4 people inside.

By the time we were done with Men in Black and the Kwik-E-Mart, it was 5pm and we had reservations back at Islands of Adventure’s Mythos restaurant at 6. We walked back over there and were seated – for the first time in hours – for dinner by 5:45. The ambiance is, as advertised, mythical, but the service was good and the blackened fish tacos with watermelon and tomato salsa was quite excellent – much better than most theme park fare. Like Epcot, but unlike Magic Kingdom, beer and wine is available throughout the Universal parks.

After dinner, we turned left into Harry Potter world again. We queued up for another 20 minutes at Ollivander’s, and when we entered, my daughter was positioned exactly where the kid who was chosen for the wand ceremony had been standing that morning. When Ollivander began walking down the stairs, he stopped in his tracks, and selected my kid for the wand ceremony, which was the highlight of her entire day.

We rode the Forbidden Journey ride two more times until the park closed at 8pm. We walked back to the car, exhausted.

Universal CityWalk

We drove back through some thick traffic, stopping off at a Circle-K to get waters and Motrin for sore feet, and drove back to the airport to return the rental car.

Taking the escalator to the terminal, we printed out the boarding passes for our return trip and checked in at the Hyatt located right there in the airport atrium.

The next morning, we awoke to this view:


Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport

We checked out at 7am for our 7:45 flight, did a bit of shopping at the Disney store, made our way through security, and made it to the gate at 7:20.

By 8:00, we were en route back to Buffalo.

Left Turn

Our in-flight entertainment for the 2 1/2 hour flight consisted of Matt Lucas and David Walliams’ newest show, “Come Fly With Me”, which mocks “Airline” and “Airport”.

Southwest IFE

We were in Buffalo in time to make it to Batavia for lunch. This trip was a whirlwind, but it was great because the timing involved few lines, few crowds, and instead of paying for four people to fly or drive down and stay for a week, we got to do precisely what we wanted to do and get the hell out of there. It was a day that neither my daughter nor I will ever forget, and one I really didn’t want to end. She’s on her way to middle school, and her tumultuous teen years will soon be here, so it was fantastic to just pull us out of routine and do something surprising and fun. It was great to surprise her with something she really wanted to do, but was told repeatedly wouldn’t happen for years.


11 Responses to “A Day With Harry Potter”

  1. Jeremy September 7, 2011 at 7:09 am #

    Such a different type of column for you. And a great read.

  2. King Kong September 7, 2011 at 8:14 am #

    What a wonderful surprise trip, Alan. Really sounds like you both had a great time!

  3. MJC September 7, 2011 at 8:30 am #

    I will wager that she will remember this trip far longer than any material gift you could have purchased for her.

  4. BuffaloGirl September 7, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    Looks like so much fun BP! So great that you got a chance to do this, especially as you said, before the oh so fun teen years start.

  5. Keith September 7, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    Lucky kid and awesome experience for both of you!!!  Like MJC, better than any material gift.

  6. Jack Sinclair September 7, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    That’s a nice story. And it’s made better by the randomness and brevity of it – the surprise one day affair is a great thing that more people should do given the modern marvel of air travel. That you can wake up in Buffalo and be in Orlando by 9am is amazing – and it’s even better that you can do it on Southwest for minimal dollars. Oh, and it’s made better by the speed and convenience of getting in and out of Buffalo airport. 

  7. Corey September 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm #


  8. BrianS September 7, 2011 at 7:28 pm #

    How dare you demonstrate such flagrant disregard for the poor during an economic downturn? You and Obama, peas in a pod.

  9. jimd September 7, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    Envious. Harry Potter was the last book I read to my son before it wasn’t cool for Dad to be reading. It will always have a place in my heart and it would have been so great to take that trip.

  10. Betty Jean Grant. September 7, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    4 a.m. in her bed sleeping and @ 9 a.m., in the middle of Harry Potter’s world. Boy, what a country! I took my grandchildren to Harry Potter Park last October as part of a cruise to the Bahamas. I really like your concept of ‘Get in quick, get out quick!’ Good story, good trip.

  11. Ward September 8, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    I’m not sure who gets a bigger kick out of a big surprise like this–the kid who gets it, or the adult who manages to pull it off flawlessly.

    Well done, and H-B to Miss M (can’t believe it’s middle school for her already).

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