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Magical, mystical, marvellous and everything in between... Universal Orlando will take your breath away


The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a highlight of the trip.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a highlight of the trip.
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

They say everyone should visit Universal Orlando once in their lives, and after spending two glorious, sun-soaked, adrenaline and excitement-fuelled weeks there, I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.

Our family of six - me, my husband, two teenagers and two under-10s - flew out to Florida directly from Belfast International Airport with Virgin Atlantic.

Our holiday began the minute we stepped on board the slick, stylish Boeing 747-400. The cabin crew were warm, friendly, funny, and attentive with everyone, like they were their favourite people.

We cruised across the Atlantic, watching the latest movies while being fed delicious food and drinks at regular intervals. Time flew by, and we landed refreshed and ready for Orlando.

We stayed in a villa at Calabay Parc in Davenport, a quiet residential street off Highway 27, no more than a 30-minute drive to any of the major attractions.

After months of research and quizzing people who had visited before, we decided to do either Universal or Disney and a few other attractions. Universal won.

We booked Universal Orlando Resort Three-Park Explorer tickets, which allowed us to visit Universal Studios, Universal's Islands of Adventure and the Volcano Bay waterpark.

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Universal Orlando Resort is a superb place. Citywalk, crammed with restaurants, nightclubs, cinemas and an array of shops, leads the way to two lands, Universal Islands of Adventure, and Universal Studios.

Universal Studios is wall-to-wall rides of all kinds, part-roller coaster, part-cinema.

Imagine the happiness and joy of Christmas morning, add in the excitement of your birthday and the magic of your wedding day, imagine everything you loved as a kid, drenched in sunshine, dipped in chocolate and wrapped up in a big bow covered in diamonds, and it wouldn't come close to what the place is like.

Jimmy Fallon's Race Through New York was the first ride we encountered. Often overlooked, this buckles everyone into cinema-style rows and takes them on a high-speed, white-knuckle, heart-stopping romp through, up and over the Big Apple, as well as to the moon and back.

Transformers 3D saw us fight alongside Optimus Prime against the Decepticons, speeding through city streets, crashing through buildings and being thrown around by Megatron.

We fought aliens alongside Will Smith in Men in Black, and went on a dodgy cartoon 3D roller coaster with Homer Simpson as Sideshow Bob tried to kill us.

Over in Islands of Adventure, meanwhile, we fell down ravines and dodged the jaws of raptors, while King Kong chased us around the jungle at Skull Island: Reign of Kong, and we escaped the clutches of a T-Rex at Jurassic Park.

We rode roller coasters that seemed to make your insides travel out your mouth and slap you in the face as you laughed your head off.

And then there was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I loved the Harry Potter books, and I adored the films, so to see all that magic brought to life was breathtaking.

In Universal Studios, we walked past the Knight Bus - its conductor joking with the shrunken head and passers-by - and into Diagon Alley, where the cobbled streets packed with shops mirrored the films.

Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour, Flourish & Blotts and Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions can all be perused.

All kinds of weird and wonderful things can be purchased at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes.

The dark and mysterious Knockturn Alley is a welcome relief from the blazing Florida sun. The Leaky Cauldron sells real English food and ale in an authentic setting. One can get completely lost in this world.

Gringotts Bank dominates Diagon Alley, with its huge, fire-breathing dragon perched on the roof. Inside, the journey to the Escape from Gringotts ride is a fascinating and exciting one. You pass under crystal chandeliers in the bank hall and travel underground in a lift before facing Bellatrix Lestrange and Lord Voldemort in the depths.

Kings Cross Station houses the real-life, steam-belching Hogwarts Express, which leaves from platform nine and three-quarters at Universal Studios, and transports you the short distance to Hogsmeade in Universal's Islands of Adventure.

Hogsmeade is exactly as it is in the films. Quaint, snow-covered stores sell everything the young witch or wizard could need. Quidditch supplies, school robes, sweaters, ties, journals and stationery items are all to be found in the shops.

Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods is good to wander around, and Honeydukes sells all manner of sweets under the sun.

Ollivanders is worth a visit to be matched to your wand. Some are interactive models that trigger special effects hidden inside shop windows throughout Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.

The Three Broomsticks is the place for a butterbeer and a rest out of the sun.

A life-size Hogwarts Castle dominates the area. You walk the corridors, through classrooms and Dumbledore's study on your way to the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride.

That ride is thrilling and dark, flying you high over Hogwarts, dodging the Whomping Willow, fighting Dementors and escaping a collapsing cave.

For Harry Potter fans, or even those with only a passing interest in the boy wizard, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is magical, enchanting and unforgettable.

It is like nothing I have ever experienced. It took my breath away. That in itself was worth the entry fee.

They say everyone should visit Orlando once in their lifetimes, and I agree. Well, except the 'once in a lifetime' part. Maybe once a year. I'm already planning our jaunt there next year.

For more information on everything Orlando has to offer, visit

For more information on direct flights from Belfast to Orlando, visit

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