Travel: Universal Studios Orlando, Wizarding World of Harry Potter
"This is so cool.” The exaggerated jolting of the lift as it descended into the depths of Gringotts Bank prompted a rare and excited exclamation from our usually reticent teenager.
We were in the heart of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, taking our first ride at the Universal Studios theme park in Florida.
Stepping into the building from the enchantingly re-created Diagon Alley, the expectation mounted as we walked through the banking hall past its animated goblin tellers at their high desks, then down dimly-lit corridors to a scene-setter presented by holographic figures.
The ride, when we reached the train that would hurl us every which way past fire-breathing dragons and hissing snakes, did not disappoint.
Harry Potter proved the highlight and cornerstone of three days at the park, with a ride on the Hogwarts Express connecting us with Universal’s adjacent Islands of Adventure park.
The train, featuring carriage compartments seen in the films and projected scenery passing the windows, takes you to Hogsmeade Village and the equally exhilarating Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride.
But this time it’s even more of a case of hold onto your sunglasses, sandals and anything else that might fall off as you’re swung about even more, swooping down onto the Quidditch pitch and around Hogwarts Castle.
For those raring for more, a new Harry Potter-themed roller coaster is under construction nearby.
The Harry Potter sections, which proved to be our favourites, epitomised the enjoyment of these movie-themed parks – staff efficiently marshalling the queues, along with the rides’ carefully designed build-up – a combination of mounting expectation and shivers of uncertainty about what we were letting ourselves in for.
There are rides at the two parks to suit a wide range of ages, from the gentle Cat in the Hat tour in the Seuss Landing zone to the escalating tension of the River Adventure in Jurassic Park, which ends in a heart-stopping water plunge to escape the T-Rex.
The technical sophistication of the rides also varies greatly, from the somewhat dated ET Adventure, which opened nearly 30 years ago, to Fast and Furious – Supercharged, which was new in April.
Perhaps the most fun, though, was The Simpsons ride, another simulated rollercoaster – and boy do I hate them – but this time, just to unsettle you further, you’re never sure about when the characters aren’t joking about what’s about to happen.
Universal has got queuing at its park cafes and kiosks organised to a tee. Ominously long-looking lines at eating places are expertly handled by staff at every stage, from selecting to ordering to collecting food and then being shown to a table, so you feel you are enjoying the experience rather than waiting interminably for it to happen.
Even so, we were lucky enough to be given Universal Express passes for the rides, as guests of Virgin Holidays and Universal Studios, enabling us to jump much of the queue that was an hour or more long in some cases. We would otherwise have been able to go on far fewer rides, and have risked very grumpy kids.
Providing another dimension, the Universal Studios park is transformed between September and November for its Halloween Horror Nights.
The “haunted houses” such as Slaughter Sinema and Carnival Graveyard sounded too frightening for us to venture into, but there were plenty of lower level scares on the park’s streets, such as the unsettlingly realistic-sounding “chainsaws” brandished by masked figures jumping out in front of you.
The Nights are not recommended for under-13s and our ten-year-old daughter got more scared than she thought she would be.
The park visits were part of our week-long stay in Orlando at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, one of six hotels linked to the parks, with a further two to be added over the next two years.
The parks are a few minutes away on foot, by free bus, or by boat along a waterway from an adjacent hotel to Cabana.
The 1950s/60s-themed Cabana complex, with its jaunty orange and blue colour scheme and period cars parked outside, itself comprises 1,800 rooms in seven buildings grouped around two pools.
The place was immaculately clean and the pools felt very safe for children, with lifeguards following balletic movements as they constantly sidestepped round the edge of the pool, whistle in mouth and Baywatch-style red float under arm.
One of my favourite memories was floating round the “lazy river” pool at sunset, looking up through the palm trees at the darkening sky above the hotel with the names of its blocks, such as Thunderbird and Starlight, lit up in giant period-style neon.
It was hot during our October stay – 30C or more – but relief was never far away because even the pool-side loos were air conditioned.
The heat was also an excuse to treat the kids to fizzy drink heaven, buying Coca Cola Freestyle cups that permitted refills, including every nine minutes in the parks.
Our hotel was also conveniently right beside Universal’s Volcano Bay, a Hawaii-themed park opened last year.
My wife, unnerved by the height of some of the flumes, asked staff whether any weren’t scary. “None in this park!” came the smiling reply.
However, she needn’t have worried. The park caters for everyone from those just wanting to splash about on an artificial beach to a near-vertical 125ft plunge.
But compared to the climbs and queues for quickly-over thrills on the giant flumes, we all preferred the Fearless River, in which you don life jackets to be hurtled along by the powerful current, which provides just enough of an adrenaline rush rather than the white knuckle ride of some of the other attractions.
We also hired a car for the day – also available at the hotel – to drive to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre, on the Atlantic coast an hour to the east.
With the inclusive admission ticket we marvelled at getting close up the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which was blasted into space an incredible 33 times.
But the unexpected highlight was a coach tour of the vast Cape Canaveral rocket launch area, including from where Apollo 11 left for the Moon in 1969.
Surprise fact of the holiday: the fences round the launch pads are to keep alligators out, our tour guide nonchalantly mentioned, gesturing to several heads partially submerged in a pool.
It may have been a long way to go for a week, but there was something fabulous about being able to fly long-haul direct from Scotland, and getting home to recuperate within an hour of landing after the overnight flight back.
The advantage of Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 747 jumbo jets on the route is their feeling of space, with room to stretch your limbs, including in a corridor behind the last row of seats.
I also love the airline’s offbeat attitude, such as the “pinched from Virgin Atlantic” slogan etched on the aeroplane-shaped salt and pepper shakers. On the seat-back screens, there’s a messaging service so passengers can communicate.
A message received from the Upper Class cabin, which my wife was lucky enough to try out, began with the identifier “The fancy seat says...”
Seven nights at Universal Resort Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including Virgin Atlantic flights from Glasgow Airport direct to Orlando and room-only accommodation at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, starts from £1,145 per person, based on two adults and two children sharing a standard room.
Includes car hire and three-park bonus ticket. Universal Express passes covering both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure from £60 per person per day. To book: 0344 557 3859 or virginholidays.com.
Kennedy Space Centre, admission £44 age 12+, £37 children, kennedyspacecenter.com