The biggest opening in Orlando for years, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, an attraction based on JK Rowling's novels and subsequent films, will open its doors on June 18th. TravelMail writer Matt Fortune managed to bypass security and spend a day exploring Hogsmeade along with some of the film's stars. Here's his verdict...After its epic journey from Platform 9 3/4 at London's King Cross, the Hogwarts Express steam train stands proud and imposing, billowing with steam clouds at the entrance gate.
Ahead, the alluring Honey Duke's sweet shop and Dogweed and Deathcap's exotic plant store, replete with shrieking Mandrakes, are just two of several fully operational shops on the eerily authentic, snow-covered streets of Hogsmeade, the fictional setting for JK Rowling's hit novels.
Stars of the Harry Potter films including Robbie Coltrane, Matthew Lewis, Emma Watson, and Oliver and James Phelps get a sneak peek of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction ahead of the official opening on June 18th
The scenes described above come not from one of Rowling's books but from the moment I was ushered through a locked gate in Universal Studios’ Islands Of Adventure theme park to see the brand new - and keenly awaited - Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction.
Magical: Emma Watson receives her a wand at the iconic Ollivanders wand shop, while visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort
'I've basically built a film set,' beams Alan Gilmore, the brain behind the aesthetics of the park and Art Director on several of the films. 'I believe you could film scenes here if you wanted.'
He's right too, the attention to detail is astounding. Exact replicas are common place but in some instances actual props from the films have been used.
Time after time during my sneak peak tour, which was also enjoyed by stars of the films including Emma Watson and Robbie Coltrane, I was left gob-smacked by the level to which the design team have dissected Rowling's books. It is incredibly authentic.
Muggles keep out: The front entrance for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains closed...unless you're a Hollywood star
Wizard! TravelMail's Matt Fortune enjoyed a swig of butterbeer and the chance to wander around Hogsmeade ahead of the official opening on June 18th
Honey Duke's sweet shop next door has made the bold commitment to reproduce Bertie Botts' Every Flavour Beans (all except vomit and snot...thankfully) as well as bringing to the US the very British humbug and lemon drop-style confectionery.
I did, though, question the lack of traditional stalls in the Wizarding World. The games and fairground attractions so often found in thoroughfares of other theme parks are nowhere to be seen.The answer? It wasn't in the book, so it isn't here.
However, store staff are as engaging as any I've seen anywhere, to the extent that they become the experience. In Ollivander's Wand Shop, the interactive performance given by Mr Ollivander himself was superb. Like the films, the room was small and intimate, stocked as high as young eyes can see with thousands of multi-coloured dust-covered boxes.
Almost real: 3D holograms of the main stars make queuing for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - still firmly under wraps - more fun
This is a theme park though and after my encounter, I was led through to a merchandise store where wands (about $25) and other goods could be purchased.
The creative team have avoided temptation to plonk a till in the middle of the Wizarding World and churn out fast food. Instead guests are invited into the charmingly decked-out Three Broomsticks Hall where once again the authenticity is never compromised.
Guests can pass through Dumbledore's office, an exact replica of the one seen in the films
Classic English dishes - all of which have mention in the books - such as shepherd's pie, fish and chips and Cornish pasties can be bought for around $10, and for families, Jayson and his team have gone the extra yard.
In keeping with a recurring theme of Potter's time at Hogwarts (the traditional first and last days of term), a Great Feast can be purchased for $49 to feed a group of four. The meal of chicken, ribs, corn on the cob and roasted vegetables is ordered at a counter but bought to your table on a silver platter.
Every aspect, including desserts such as strawberry and peanut butter ice-cream, is produced to an exceptionally high standard. It remains to be seen if the kitchen staff can maintain that quality when they have more than just a hungry press pack and a few Hollywood stars to satisfy.
Yesterday Sir Richard Branson flew to Orlando on a plane decorated with a Harry Potter livery. Author JK Rowling has been heavily involved in the attraction, even tasting the famed butterbeer
Ric Florell, Universal's senior vice president in charge of food and beverages, revealed the decree of secrecy surrounding its creation is such that different components are made at separate locations to avoid more than a select few knowing the exact contents of the non-alcoholic drink. He labelled it 'magic' and after a mug or two, I'm inclined to agree.
Fit to burst, we made our way to the piece de resistance, the signature coaster at Hogwarts school.
A quite mesmerising creation perched at the top of the Wizarding World, it is visible from the motorway en route to the park, and up close is a joy to behold. Good job, too, because queue times at opening are expected to approach the six-hour mark!
The entire Hogwarts queue experience is a captivating one as you stroll through darkened corridors, and even a 'floating candle hall'. The vision of Harry, with his two best friends Ron and Hermione, is the undoubted highlight.
Using the latest technology to all but convince you that the three mega-stars are in the room, 3D holograms encourage you to continue on the journey, following the trio on a special adventure and, ultimately, to the ride. Alas, the three young wizards put on invisible cloaks and disappear, the doors of the main attraction still firmly shut for now.
Back outside, the last of the three coasters, the Flight of the Hippogryph, is the most child friendly and we enjoy a ride.
Heading for the Hogsmeade exits, and by now wearing a smile as broad as that of art director Gilmore, I can't help but feel bowled over. In one afternoon I have been thrown back to my first day in a big city - kicking my feet, ambling slowly down the streets, soaking up every drop of previously unseen wonder.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is exactly that, an eye-opening new experience, unrivalled anywhere. Those who question the value of magic may think differently after a visit.
Travel factsVirgin Holidays offer seven-night stays in Orlando including flights from London Gatwick, accommodation at the 4V+ Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Resort Orlando (room-only) and car hire from £989 per person.
Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room, price includes taxes and fuel surcharges and are based on departures on 13th Jun 2010.
When customers buy Universal Park tickets with Virgin Holidays they can take advantage of: early park admission to experience The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (begins 30 minutes prior to Universal’s Islands of Adventure regular scheduled park opening); escorted early entrance to the Three Broomsticks in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to enjoy complimentary breakfast refreshments; a free gift (per person) and free general admission parking at Universal Orlando for that day.