Fwooper birds and Knight buses greet Laura Wurzal on a ride through the new Harry Potter Diagon Alley attraction at Universal Studios Florida.
Walking along a cobbled alley, I come a across a Victorian pet shop with a huge snake in the window.
“You’re a beautiful creature,” I say, gently tapping on the glass. The snake slithers up to the window and hisses, “Thanks”. He speaks some more, but I can’t understand him.
“He’s speaking Parseltongue now,” the shop assistant tells me. “He’s saying, ‘Welcome to Diagon Alley’.”
The Magical Menagerie is just one small corner of Diagon Alley, the latest attraction to open at Universal Studios Florida. It follows the success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened four years ago at the Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, recreating the snow-covered village of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts School.
At the entrance, I find some of London’s iconic landmarks set along an embankment. Parked up is a purple triple-decker Knight Bus from the movie Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban. I share some banter with the Knight Bus Conductor and Dre Head, a shrunken head that hangs from the rear-view mirror. Then, after entering Leicester Square tube station, visitors are transported to Diagon Alley, the centre of wizarding London.
At the top, dominating the whole area, is Gringotts Wizarding Bank, with a huge fire-breathing Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon on its roof.
The attention to detail is amazing. There is a bustling shopping area called Carkitt Market, featuring two live shows a day. Students from WADA (Wizarding Academy of Dramatic Arts) perform ‘The Tale Of The Three Brothers’ (featured in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows), and we dance along to Molly Weasley’s favourite soul songstress, The Singing Sorceress: Celestina Warbeck And The Banshees, before heading for a refreshing cold Butterbeer at The Leaky Cauldron.
Shopping is a magical experience too. There’s Wiseacres Wizarding Equipment for telescopes and compasses, Scribbulus for quills, pens and stationary, Madam Malkin’s Robes For All Occasions, Quality Quidditch Supplies, Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes for magical jokes and Magical Menagerie selling toy animals.
No trip would be complete without a visit to Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands. Don’t miss the ‘wand choosing a wizard’ experience that recreates the scene when Harry Potter buys his wand from Mr Ollivander.
Along with a wand, visitors are given a map that marks all the interactive Wand Points in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Thus, with a swish and flick, I can levitate a feather quill at Scribbulus, light all the lamps and chandeliers in Flimflam’s Lanterns window, and use a Silencing Charm to quiet the maddening song of the Fwooper bird at Magical Menagerie.
In the imposing Gringotts Bank building is the groundbreaking Harry Potter And The Escape From Gringotts roller coaster ride. It’s based on the scene in the eighth Harry Potter film when Harry, Ron and Hermione break into the bank.
We queue in the bank’s huge marble hall entrance, where spookily life-like animatronic goblins are hard at work counting money. Once I get on the ride, I’m sent racing, plunging and spinning underground through a labyrinth of vaults, coming face to face with trolls and an angry, fire-breathing dragon.
Another ride that is not so fast, but just as exhilarating, is the Hogwarts Express, the steam train that links Diagon Alley with Hogsmeade village in Islands of Adventure. We watch a Hippogriff flying over a Scottish lake, see Lord Voldemort outside Malfoy Manor and are greeted by ‘Mad Eye’ Moody at Kings Cross. We even magically walk through the wall to reach Platform 9 and ¾.
After a day of Harry Potter hedonism, we spend the evening at the Universal CityWalk, 30 acres of entertainment nestled between the two theme parks. There are plenty of clubs, bars and restaurants to keep us amused. I love the rainbow coloured Antojitos Authentic Mexican restaurant with its steaming fresh tortillas and extensive selection of tequilas.
Although I’m potty about Potter, we do make time to visit other attractions. Just opposite Diagon Alley is Springfield, the home of The Simpsons where we call into Mo’s Tavern for a sizzling Flaming Mo and refreshing Duff Beer.
The rides are fantastic too. One of my favourites is the new Transformers: The Ride-3D, where we meet Optimus Prime and Bumblebee while we’re queuing.
Our hotel, the newly opened Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, is like another theme park. Its retro feel is based on the family motels and beach resorts built in America during the 50s and 60s.
From the moment we arrive in reception, with its turquoise, orange and yellow decor, we are transported back in time. The resort is divided into five blocks nestled around two huge pool areas, both with a bar and even a sandy beach.
The Cabana Courtyard has a super water slide, a kids’ water play area, hot tub and a beach pavilion where bands perform, while a lazy river runs through another courtyard area. The pools are open until 11pm; perfect for a refreshing dip after a hot day in the park.
One morning, we visit the Royal Pacific Resort for a Character Breakfast in Jake’s American Bar. The whole room lights up the minute we hear that Gru and the minions, from Despicable Me, will be joining us. Yet another highlight in a holiday that was magical from start to finish.
• Laura Wurzal was a guest of Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859, www.virginholidays.co.uk) who offer seven nights at the 3V Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort (room only) with car hire and scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick direct to Orlando from £1,209 per person (based on two adults and two children sharing). Price based on a departure April 6, 2015.
Start your holiday before you’ve even taken off in the v-room at Gatwick Airport: adults £22, kids £12.
The Universal Orlando 2-Park Bonus Ticket costs from £484.35 for two adults and two children travelling. Valid for 14 consecutive days.