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).

News
US comedian Bill Mahr
people
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Sport
football
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
News
i100
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - York

    £18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - Y...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us