Entering the cobbled streets of Universal Orlando Resort's Wizarding World of Harry Potter through the faux-stone archway and passing a full-size replica of a steam-puffing Hogwarts Express, we felt like we were walking straight into the story itself. ‘Please respect the spell limits’ you're told, before being let loose on a row of wonderfully rendered shops from the books, including Zonko’s joke shop and Honeydukes, where the bravest kids can try Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.
JK Rowling signed off almost every detail of this land within Universal’s Islands of Adventure, even giving the thumbs up to the Butterbeer (a suitable-for-children buttery-tasting froth with a creamy top). It shows. Fans of the books will not be disappointed by the atmosphere – the feeling of looking along Hogsmeade’s main street to the gigantic Hogwarts castle at the end draws easy comparison with the excitement of seeing Cinderella’s Castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom for the first time and is sure to be a defining moment in many childhoods. And it's so well done, it's sure to capture everyone's imagination, even if you're not previous fans of the books.
The rides are great too, with even their queueing areas an impressive sight – and not just for the length of line they appear able to accommodate. While standing in line for Dragon Challenge (a pair of high-speed, high-thrill rollercoasters that mirror each other in part, coming scream-inducingly close to each other in mid-air), you see the crashed Ford Anglia and the Nimbus 2000 broomstick ridden by Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) in the films.
And the long wait for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride keeps kids entertained with its steamy herbology classroom with hanging plants, corridors hung with tantalisingly lifelike moving portraits (watch out for Dawn French as The Fat Lady) and Professor Binns’ classroom with holograms of Harry, Ron and Hermione so real we forgot that they aren’t, urging visitors to follow them on an adventure.
Follow them you must, for this ride is really something special. Operated by a robotic arm, it allows for movements not normally possible on even the most advanced of thrill rides, including sudden drops and twists, and involves flying around Hogwarts castle, encountering dementors and having a run-in with the Whomping Willow before being caught up in a Quidditch match. It’s an exhilarating ride sure to entrance all ages, although children must be at least 4ft (1.2m) tall (goblin height!) to ride.
Post-ride, visitors exit through Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods, where all manner of memorabilia is on offer, from omnioculars to golden snitches (weave the kids through quickly if you want your wallet to remain unharmed). Shopping within the park is predictably interactive, with Ollivander’s wand shop admitting 30 people at a time and one child picked out to reenact the spellbinding moment when Harry’s wand chooses him. This is a lovely touch but could prove difficult for parents whose child desperately wants to be picked. Console those who aren’t picked at the Owl Post Office, where a Hogsmeade-stamped postcard can be sent through the Owl Post – great for showing off to friends back home.
There’s so much packed into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that at least a whole day’s visit is necessary, especially if your family are already fans. Fortunately, every parent's need has been considered – there’s The Three Broomsticks pub offering self-service lunches, and even themed toilets haunted by the ghost of Moaning Murtle (you may want to accompany the very young!). Just don’t forget your camera – this just might be the most photogenic theme park ever.
Read more about family holidays in Orlando, including our hand-picked child-friendly accommodation recommendations.