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Originally published Friday, November 12, 2010 at 8:00 AM

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A magical Harry Potter journey at Florida theme park

Wizarding World is a magical destination for Harry Potter fans at the Universal Studios theme park Florida.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

If You Go

Wizarding World

Universal basics

Despite what many seem to think, Universal Studios is not part of Disney World. It's miles away. Universal Studios is, however, worthy of a visit, or even an entire vacation.

Universal Studios is divided into two parks. One is Universal Studios Florida, which is a working production studio and has some terrific shows. My kids loved "Shrek: 4-D."

Islands of Adventure, which contains Wizarding World, is divided into several "islands" or mini theme parks. My kids (ages 4 and 6) loved every ride in the colorful Dr. Seuss section. Older — and braver — souls will enjoy the Incredible Hulk roller coaster. A realistic Jurassic Park ride captured our imaginations.

Lodging

Universal has three hotels within walking distance or a short boat ride to the CityWalk, a shopping and dining area. From CityWalk, it's an easy walk to the entrance of both theme parks.

Guests at Universal's hotels get into Wizarding World at 8 a.m., an hour before the rest of the Muggles. Also, you can get into the Express lanes by showing your hotel key at many rides, reducing your wait times.

Hotels are the Hard Rock Hotel, where we stayed (great pool area), which starts at $249, the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, which starts at $274, and the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, which starts at $219.

Hours

Universal Studios' Florida theme parks are open every day, usually at 9 a.m. Closing times vary, but Islands of Adventure is open past dark only a few times a month, so you may not catch Hogwarts at night.

Tickets

A one-day, one-park pass is $74 for children 3-9 and $82 for adults. A three-day, park-to-park ticket is $129.99 for kids, $144.99 for adults at universalstudios.com.

Timing

You can get through Wizarding World in two to four hours. Spend the rest of the day at the remaining portions of Islands of Adventure and another day at Universal Studios. Harry Potter fans might want to include another day at Wizarding World.

Traveler's tip

Many rides have height requirements, but Universal does a good job of having a designated area for the parent swap so one parent can wait with the too-short child while the rest of the family rides, then the parent who waited can get to the front of the line when the other parent returns.

More information

www.universalstudios.com

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ORLANDO, Fla. — From the moment you walk through the archway that reads "Hogsmeade" and spy the snowcapped buildings and steaming Hogwarts Express engine at Platform 9 ¾, you will feel just like Harry Potter did when he discovered a magical world. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter looked exactly as I imagined it would ... and should.

That's no accident. Harry Potter creator and author J.K. Rowling had a huge hand in creating Wizarding World, from designing the layout to approving the recipe for the park's signature Butterbeer, said our park tour guide, Reuben Jefferson.

Everything you've read about the new theme park, which opened in June inside Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure, is not enough to prepare you for reality. Wizarding World is more than a 20-acre theme park; it's a testament to the power of imagination. Even those unfamiliar with Harry will be enchanted by the experience. The diehards (many sporting wizarding attire) will squeal like a Mandrake at many of the park's details.

What started in the mind of a mother looking for a story to help put food on the table has become a franchise that has inspired millions, first by book, then by movie and now by a real place. From the moment you enter, you are transported to another land.

Hogwarts

The crowning achievement of the addition to the Universal park is Hogwarts, the magical castle where Harry learns his craft. Starting with the robed greeters who welcome "Muggles," you will know you are in for an authentic treat. The castle, topped with towering spires, serves as the waiting queue for the Forbidden Journey ride. As you enter, light from amber lanterns punches holes in the darkness, allowing you to focus on the details ahead.

You'll find Dumbledore's office, where the headmaster welcomes you to Hogwarts. Technology makes Michael Gambon, the actor who plays him in the later movies, come to life in a 3-D holographic-like image. You'll see the founders of each house (Slytherin, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff) have a spirited conversation from their moving portraits. They don't look like video screens but oil paintings come to life. Harry, Ron and Hermione greet you in a Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom and try to talk you into ditching class and joining them on an adventure. Check out the dragon skeleton overhead. And wait for the snow or the thunderstorm.

Insider's tip: Don't rush. You will catch glimpses of the Sorting Hat, the portrait of the Fat Lady, the mirror of Erised and more. And you can tour the castle without riding.

Interesting note: When the park opened, there were reports of three-hour waits for Hogwarts. During our September trip, the longest wait I saw was 60 minutes, and several times I saw 20-minute waits (it takes that long to get through the castle).

What if: I could turn up the lights a bit so I could make sure my kids were still with me. My wizarding charm: Lumos!

The Forbidden Journey

A ride unlike any you've ever seen, the Forbidden Journey takes you into the excitement of Harry's world. You magically fly, zipping by Hogwarts, narrowly avoiding a dragon but not his mist of warm steam, escaping the Whomping Willow, dodging acromantulas (giant spiders) that spit on you and facing Draco Malfoy on the Quidditch pitch. Your seat zooms, dips and launches you through the scenes, which are both animatronic and on-screen.

Insider's tip: Take a good look at the outside of Hogwarts before you enter. You'll be seeing many of those places on the video portion of the ride.

Interesting note: The height requirement is 48 inches, but some overweight guests have had trouble riding. There are sample seats to make sure you can fit comfortably.

What if: I really could fly: Makeme flyicus.

Roller Coasters

The roller coasters that make up the Wizarding World are actually pre-existing ones tricked out to fit the theme. The Dragon Challenge pits a Chinese Fireball against a ferocious Hungarian Horntail, passing a mere 12 inches apart, and looks more intense than any coaster in Six Flags, thus the 54-inch height requirement. The Flight of the Hippogriff is more kid-friendly and takes you on a quick, swirling journey past Hagrid's Hut and — you guessed it — Buckbeak, the Hippogriff.

Insider's tip: Bow to the Hippogriff as Harry learns in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," and you might earn rousing applause from the workers and those waiting in line.

Interesting note: The actual Ford Anglia that Ron and Harry flew in the films sits outside the entrance to the Dragon Challenge.

What if: I were brave enough to try that Dragon Challenge: Ipisky courage.

Ollivander's Wand Shop

Groups of 30 or so enter every 5 to 8 minutes for a mini-show in the dusty but quaint wand shop, which is bursting at the seams with narrow boxes.

Inside, Mr. Ollivander chooses one kid to be matched with the wand. "The wand chooses the wizard," he reminded the chosen boy in our group. After several misfired tries (shelves broke), a light shines, wind blows and music pipes: The right wand has been found. Everyone was then rushed into Dervish & Banges gift shop, where helpful workers made my sons feel like they were having wands chosen especially for them. It wasn't the "wand experience" the chosen boy gets, but it was a good substitute and fairly worth the $30 wands.

Insider's tip: Dress your child in a Harry Potter shirt or — even better — a wizard robe so he'll be more likely to be chosen for the experience.

Interesting note: Jefferson says getting into Ollivanders can be the longest wait in the park. Even on our September visits, afternoon waits were well over an hour. Go first thing in the morning, especially if you are staying on site and can get into the park an hour before the general public.

What if: The wands could really do magic (as my son assumed they would after seeing the show): Work, you darned thing, work.

Hogsmeade

As you enter Hogsmeade, to the left you'll find two wonderfully colorful but too-cramped shops: Honeydukes sweet shop and Zonko's Joke Shop. Zonko's offers Sneakoscopes, Extendable Ears and Screaming Yo-Yos, all magical instruments from the books. At Honeydukes, the main draws are the chocolate frogs and the Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans (jelly beans of all flavors — even rotten egg and rubber). You'll also find an owlery where you can mail postcards with the owlery postmark and a Gringott's Bank (an ATM). The Hogwarts frog choir sets the mood, singing "Something Wicked This Way Comes" from the films.

Insider's tip: Check out the restrooms, where you'll find the distinctive sound of Moaning Myrtle.

Interesting note: Jefferson says Rowling asked that a nifty water pump be installed just outside the Hog's Head so that guests could rinse their sticky Butterbeer fingers and mugs. Most people don't notice it, but it works and the water is drinkable.

What if: I could afford it all: Accio winning lottery ticket.

The food

A nonalcoholic version of Butterbeer, the signature drink Harry and his friends enjoy in Hogsmeade, is available at four places in the Wizarding World: drawn from kegs at two outdoor carts, in the Three Broomsticks restaurant and in the Hog's Head pub. The ingredients are secret, and it tastes like cream soda and butterscotch. You can get Butterbeer frozen ($3.29) or served cold ($2.29) with a frothy topping of butterscotch-flavored cream ($2.29). It is as good as it sounds.

Another delicious treat is pumpkin juice ($2.29), a base of apple juice blended with pumpkin purée and spices. It's a little tart and a lot sweet and perfectly refreshing on a hot day at the park.

Insider's tip: Buy your Butterbeer at the Hog's Head pub; there's rarely a line.

Interesting note: The Three Broomsticks sells traditional British food such as fish and chips and shepherd's pie.

What if: They'd bottle Butterbeer so I could buy it here: Stupefy distributors.

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