Onsite Review: Wizarding Fun at Universal Orlando Resort

The new, 1950s-style Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal Orlando Resort.
The new, 1950s-style Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal Orlando Resort.

From magic wands to fire-breathing dragons, Universal Orlando Resort has added a bit more wizarding magic to its park experience with the opening of Diagon Alley at Universal Studios (The Wizarding World of Harry PotterHogsmeade, is located within Islands of Adventure). Complementing the opening of this fantastic new area at the park is the opening of the newest onsite hotel, the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, but more on that later.

diagon alley
Once Universal Studios guests enter Diagon Alley through a crumbling brick wall, the theme park transforms into a land of colorful buildings, magical storefronts where guests can use magic wands to interact with features around the designated Harry Potter area, and a very impressive fire-breathing dragon that sits atop Gringotts.

The details jump out at guests from every nook and cranny, such as the life-like goblins who greet guests at Gringotts before they enter the 3-D Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride.

Universal Studios' Diagon Alley.
Universal Studios’ Diagon Alley.

This new addition to The Wizarding World-themed area pulls so much detail from the books and films that even the film stars were impressed. “We were so surprised. We never had all that around us [when filming],” said Evanna Lynch— who played Luna Lovegood in the films—during this past June’s media blitz for Diagon Alley’s inaugural event. “You can walk through the books in this land.”

“It’s all real—the rooms, the chimneys…as film makers this is a dream come true for them; often they’re restricted to what the camera can see,” said Alan Gilmore, art director for the Harry Potter films and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. “It’s like being in a real place,” added Robbie Coltrane, who played Rubeus Hagrid.

For clients making a weekend out of their stay, recommend they purchase the 2-park pass, which also gives them access to board the Hogwarts Express, a train that connects Universal Studios Orlando to Islands of Adventure.

At the train station, guests walk through a brick wall (an illusion that had this writer make a quick double-take) at terminal 9¾ to hop on the train. Once inside the cabin, and thanks to technology, guests feel as if they’re riding the train with Harry and his friends—silhouettes of the characters are seen walking past the cabin’s window via a digitally enhanced window screen.

“We are definitely savoring the moment to be able to connect the dots—two parks, one seamless story,” says Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative.

One of our favorite “tricks,” so to speak are the interactive wands that can be used in marked areas throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. When guests wave the wands, the storefronts and park fixtures come to life—we saw one guest wave a wand and suddenly an umbrella produced rain.

Encourage your clients to let their kids run amok in the park, as rumor has it there are more magical spots kept secret for “muggles” to discover, adding to the allure of Diagon Alley. An interactive magic wand ($45) and a map of the marked spots will get the search started. “People enjoy the discovery and exploration of this experience, as much as they enjoy any ride,” notes Woodbury.

the royal treatment
For red carpet treatment, look into Universal Orlando Resort’s VIP Experiences. It’s a walking tour of one or both theme parks with a knowledgeable tour guide who provides your clients with backstage access, insider info, and front-of-the-line ride access.

While on our VIP Experience tour, we learned a few tidbits about the theme parks. For instance, when building Seuss Landing in Islands of Adventure, in order to keep with the authenticity of Dr. Seuss’ tales, the creators first placed the North-Going Zax and South-Going Zax statues from “The Zax” story and then built the themed area around them (in “The Zax” story, both Zax characters meet head on and don’t budge from their posts while a city grows around them). We also learned that the interestingly crooked trees that adorn Seuss Landing mostly came from South Florida after Hurricane Andrew. Also, the cool paint colors seen in Marvel Super Hero Island, change colors depending how the sun hits them.

The 8-hour private experience starts at $1,899.99 per party of five; the non-private 5- to 7-hour VIP Experience starts at $229 per guest. Tours can be customized and prices vary based on the guest’s needs and time of visit.

Despicable Me Kids Suite at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.
Despicable Me Kids Suite at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.

animated digs
“Despicable Me” fans will enjoy the 18 newly renovated 2-bedroom suites at the onsite Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, which will be available for booking Oct. 1.

The kids’ room in these kids-specific suites have been completely taken over by Gru’s Minions, featuring missile beds with Minion-inspired bedding, a pale blue interior, and red accents throughout, resembling Gru’s laboratory. Parents will appreciate a single entry door to the suite—the kids’ side of the suite doesn’t have a door opening to the common hallway; the adult room features a king-sized bed with an Italian luxury design. Guests staying at Loews get early park admission access and Universal Express Unlimited ride access in both theme parks. Rates start at $645 per night during regular season.

For a more beach-like, retro stay, look into the 1,800-room (900 are family suites) Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which opened this summer. This moderate-priced resort transports guests back to the 1950s, with in-room toiletries packaged in period wrapping and brands like Zest and V05, as well as vintage cars parked outside the main entrance. There are, however, modern amenities like flat-screen TVs, microwaves, and plenty of USB ports in the rooms.

Amenities include a lazy river, two swimming pools (one of which has a large winding waterslide), kiddie waterpark, and an onsite bowling alley—parents won’t have to worry about how to keep the kids entertained. Rates start at $119 for a standard guestroom and $174 for family suites; hotel guests receive early park admission.

contact information
Cabana Bay Beach Resort: (888) 273-1311; universalorlando.com/Hotels/Cabana-Bay-Beach-Resort
Loews Portofino Bay Hotel: (888) 273-1311; universalorlando.com/portofinobay
Universal Orlando Resort: universaltravelagents.com