Hallowe'en holidays: Hogwarts heaven for families

Kevin Rawlinson catches up with Harry Potter's wizardly escapades at Orlando's new attraction

With a belly full of butter beer, every flavour beans and chocolate frogs, I find myself hurtling along – somewhat queasily – atop a broomstick, as I try my best to evade a fire-breathing dragon in my rush to get to a Quidditch match. So far this morning, I have visited Ollivanders and been chosen by my first wand, flown with a Hippogriff and dined heartily at the Three Broomsticks.

Imagine you are the most popular author of all time, at least as measured by royalty cheques. What do you do next? In the case of JK Rowling, you get involved in designing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando, the latest attraction in the Florida theme-park capital.

You may have gained the impression that this is a brand-new theme park. True, it opened only this summer, but in fact is just a corner of the vast Universal property, replacing a rollercoaster now past its thrill-by date. Even so, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter makes an impression by dint of the huge castle sitting on top of a man-made mountain.

The impressive building houses the "Forbidden Journey" ride – which is neither of the above. Far from forbidden, it is something that every visitor should try. And it isn't a journey, either, but a simulator that purports to take visitors on a mini tour of Hogwarts, past the Sorting Hat and through Dumbledore's office before launching them into a broomstick ride with Harry Potter himself.

The Wizarding World also has a rollercoaster called Flight of the Hippogriff, which is aimed at children. Now perhaps Floridian youngsters are made of stronger stuff than I am, but it left me embarrassingly shaken. Worse was to come: the Dragon Challenge, a bona fide adult rollercoaster, sees two dragon-headed trains of riders flying through the air on separate tracks. The two cars go through three "narrow misses", which have many convinced they are about to crash headlong into an oncoming mythical, fire-breathing beast.

The ride begins by cranking both cars up a steep incline side-by-side. The brave and the downright foolhardy – myself included – lean over to wave at and taunt their counterparts, sometimes in blissful ignorance of the terrifying thrill that is about to come, sometimes in nervous anticipation of it.

After that, time for some food (eating before Dragon Challenge is not recommended). Choice of venue is limited – there is but one: the Three Broomsticks, incorporating the Hog's Head pub. And it is expensive.

Afterwards: well, having exhausted the thrills in a morning, best devote a leisurely afternoon to shopping for chocolate cauldrons and wands in the themed shops.

At its opening, some old Orlando hands said that the park's success could be jeopardised by the length of the queues. The lines have yet to be tested fully by the Christmas and New Year crowds, but already some families have found themselves standing for up to two hours at peak times. At least Thierry Coup, the park's designer, has thought to incorporate lines into the rides. The queue for the castle, for example, feels more like a tour of Hogwart's than the more traditional stand-and-shuffle.

After being on my feet all day, I had the option of travelling back to my hotel, the Loews Portofino Bay, by water. The hotel – and attached lagoon – are built to resemble the Italian bay of the same name, with little ferries carrying guests to and from the parks. The closest central Florida gets to tuk tuks carry those unlucky enough to miss the boat and who don't fancy the 25-minute walk along the waterside.

The relative excitements of Harry Potter are stepped up a notch after dark. Hallowe'en is a much bigger event in the US than in Britain, and for the past 20 years – long pre-dating Harry Potter – Universal has offered "Halloween Horror Nights", where ghosts and monsters lie in wait to leap out of the gloom and scare guests out of their wits. They are staged intermittently from late September until 31 October itself.

Each year takes a different theme and this time around, the designers have decided to bring together their biggest hits in what they call "the manifestation of fear itself".

In practice, that means guests are confronted by eight houses of horror in the form of four to five minute-long mazes. From a walk through Hades to an encounter with mass-murderer Cindy in her blood-spattered orphanage, the houses are filled with live actors in terrifying costume with one intention: to scare their guests. This is not an event for youngsters; indeed it is not recommended to children under 13.

Of all the tactics employed to trigger a scream of terror, it was the most subtle which terrified me the most. In a strobe-lit room, with bars and obstacles swinging from the roof, designed to disorient – and mirrored walls to multiply the confusion – I got hopelessly lost. The lights flashed momentarily on and a girl suddenly appeared, staring menacingly, straight into my eyes. The lights went out and she disappeared just as quickly. Subtlety was not exactly the order of the day, but her stare left me rooted to the spot until the lights had gone out again.

In another house, guests were allowed to enter what appeared to be a relatively benign room before actors jumped out from all angles, cornering the group and sending one or two into a blind, panicked run out of the door to safety.

As part of the event, the whole park is transformed by night into a succession of "scare zones" where men with chainsaws roam. They have a penchant for singling out one person in a group and revving up their chainsaws before running down their victims, banging the weapons on the floor around their feet.

A stay here is predictably shot through with a very American take on Hallowe'en – and most of the people staffing the Harry Potter park possess local accents, rather than British ones arguably more befitting JK Rowling's original books. But there is no doubt that the people at Universal Orlando know what they're doing. If British cynicism can be set aside and the Wizarding World and Horror Nights taken for what they are, there is plenty of entertainment to be had by all ages.

With all that is on offer at the two events, it would be easy to forget that there are also two older parks to visit: Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios, which house rides like the thrilling rollercoaster "The Hulk" and "The Simpsons simulator" as well as three water rides. But many will still be keen to spend the majority of their time at the Harry Potter theme park; perhaps it is not exactly Hogwarts itself, but it may be as close as us "muggles" will ever get.

Travel essentials: Orlando

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk), which offers seven nights in Orlando from £1,299 for adults and £499 for under-16s. This includes Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick or Manchester, car hire and room-only accommodation at the 5V Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando. Prices are based on two adults and one child sharing a standard room, for departures in January 2011. Access to the VRoom at Gatwick Airport costs £17 per adult and £10 per child.

* Orlando is served by Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow; and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick.

More information

* The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: universalorlando.com/harrypotter

* US visitors require a $14 (£9.30) ESTA permit ( esta.cbp.dhs.gov).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West, performing in New York last week, has been the subject of controversy as rock's traditional headline slot at Glastonbury is lost once again
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Life and Style
Drinking - often heavily - is a running theme throughout HBO's Game of Thrones adaptation
food + drink
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living