When I grew up, I became a wizard

When I was 8 years old my images of what it was like to be 30 were different. There was a matching home on a housing estate, a permanent job, a couple of kids -- including a daughter called Adora, because I was seriously into She-Ra -- and a dog. Or maybe a dinosaur. Hey, I was flexible like that.

The reality?

(apart from maybe the dinosaur)

I spent my 30th birthday at Hogwarts.

Universal Studio's Islands of Adventure theme park in Florida recently opened "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter". This new island consisted of the main street in Hogsmead and Hogwarts castle. There was Zonko's Joke shop, Honeydukes sweet shop, The Three Broomsticks and Hogshead pubs, the post office, Dervish & Banges, butterbeer, pumpkin juice, the Hogwarts Express .... need I say more? Yes. Yes, I think I do.

Somewhat bizarrely, to reach the wizard section of the attraction, you have to walk through Jurassic Park. I skirted the pterodactyl ride and began to re-think the dinosaur idea. Crossing the bridge, we dropped down into Hogsmead village, although I did take the opportunity to turnaround and take a clearly classic photo of the "Welcome to Jurassic Park" sign right next to Hogwarts castle.

The first feature that strikes you as you walk down the street is the incredible attention to detail. The place really does appear as it is described in the books. Snow covered gabled roofs are on both sides of you, with icicles dangling from their crooked tiles. Sadly, the actual temperature was well into the 30s but this was alleviated by our first stop at a giant barrel cart selling butterbeer. Since children are known to have zero restraint, this particular version was completely non-alcoholic but it was personally approved by J. K. Rowling. It tasted like ... well, I'm not going to tell you. You will have to go and try for yourself.

We decided to risk insane crowds and eat lunch at The Three Broomsticks. This proved to be a surprisingly good decision. While we had to queue for a short time to enter the pub (not a hardship because there was so much to see), once we had ordered there were plenty of tables to sit even seven people. The displayed menu showed a moving image that panned over the dishes and our waiter was a house elf. Fortunately, he was not just wearing a tee-towel.

Basic desires met, we went on a tour of the shops. Although a primary (and completely successful) purpose was to shake even more galleons from our purses, the shops themselves were an attraction and made to look as authentic as possible. Broomsticks hung from the ceiling of Dervish & Banges, the Monster Book of Monsters rattled in a cage and model owls looked down at you from the post office shelves. The goods themselves were everything you could expect from the shops in question. Magical paraphernalia from sneakoscopes to Quidditch bats, school robes and fanged wallets could be found in Dervish & Banges, a huge display of Bertie Botts Every Flavoured Beans was in Honeydukes along with Weasly favourites such an tongue ton toffee and Zonko's held such delights as fanged frisbees and boxing telescopes. The window displays of the shops, including ones that were not "open" were also fascinating to see. Honeydukes had a ribbit-ing chocolate frog, there was a bookshop with a excessive display of Gilderoy Lockheart volumes, complete with a moving picture of the man himself, and a botany store had a large mandrake and mimbulus mimbletonia behind its glass.

After all that it was time for a pumpkin juice. I would be lying if I said there weren't insanely large queues (although the books often describe similar scenes on Hogsmead weekends). Despite this, the park got a number of important things right, including our relaxed lunch and the lack of a wait for the (clean and pleasant) toilets.

The signature ride on the island was the part-coaster, part-simulated "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey". The seats for this are on a robotic arm which swings you about in combination with sophisticated animated screens.
What, you wanted more details? Seriously, people, did you read my experiences on the 'Hello Kitty' ferris wheel? It was never going to happen. I did stand in line for it. That is a more exciting statement than you might first suppose, since the queue is part of the attraction and weaves through a series of scenes inside Hogwarts. You see Dumbledore's office, complete with a 3D hologram of the man himself who welcomes you to the school. You then pass through a corridor where portraits of the four founders are arguing over the wisdom of allowing muggles to see so much. The queue terminated in a classroom where Harry, Ron and Hermione appear (as holograms) and tell you they are going to kidnap you away from the tour Professor Bins has planned to go and see a Quidditch match. I wished there was a way to keep with the original program and ducked out to go and sit in the kids room where the first movie was playing to entertain the under 4 feet while the ride was in progress. Again, the attention to detail was beautiful. The moving portraits in particular were rather good, looking very much like the genuine article and not digital screens as they walked into each others frames.

At various times during the day, members of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang appeared to do a brief exhibit and the Hogwarts frog choir performed a few songs. Exhausted from the day, we summoned up the energy to queue one final time for Ollivanders' wand shop, who evidently had decided to cash in on the new business development in Hogsmead and moved over from Diagon Alley. Here, a group of a dozen visitors were let inside and one was picked to go through the wand selection process with Ollivander. The scene was directly from the movie with floor to ceiling wand boxes and the first two attempts by the would-be witch causing objects to break. Finally, the lights and air came up around her as a unicorn tail wand found its match.

The wand chooses the wizard....

If you were inclined, you could purchase any wand you desired from the movies, including Harry's own phoenix tail feather affair to the death eater's sticks of doom.

It was an amazing birthday with possibly my only disappointment being that I would have liked to hug Lord Voldemort, Mickey Mouse style, if he had been walking around. I did at least get to hug my friends a lot, even if their lack of red-slit eyes was a trace disappointing. So, sorry, Adora my would-be daughter, you're going to have to wait. Oh, and I might call you Voldermortaphine. It'll be great.