2 sisters. 15 days. 1 country. 2 states. 4 hotels. 1 hurricane… One hell of an adventure.
In October 2016, my sister and I embarked on a 2 week long adventure in the United States, starting in New York City before exploring Orlando, Naples and Miami in Florida.
Finally touching down in Orlando, Florida was a relief in more ways than one. Not only were we two days later than planned but we had left a New York hit by a deluge of torrential rain. Orlando, by contrast, was beautifully warm and sunny, and as we took the shuttle from one terminal to another, the relief and warmth was quite intoxicating.
The day continued on this positive note. Checking in to our hotel, the DoubleTree at Seaworld, we were ecstatic to swap
the tiny closet-sized hotel room in New York for an incredibly spacious pool-facing room with two double beds (we miraculously managed to score a free upgrade).
It could only get better and the next day was to be the best day of the entire holiday. In a city filled with theme parks, most notably Disney World, we were only interested in one place, one corner of Universal Studios: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Comprising of two smaller parks, Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, it is a, forgive my language, magical place to spend the day.
Starting in the Universal Studios side of the park, the world begins with the facade of a London street including a miniature Kings Cross station, leading to Grimmauld Place where a looming Kreacher occasionally peeks out of Number 12’s window. The entrance to Diagon Alley is appropriately un-signposted, but rather dark passageways transport you from the 1990s London street to the extraordinary alley.
Much bigger than the set you can walk down at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in Watford, England, you become completely immersed in the magical world. A dragon stationed atop Gringotts bank intermittently breathes out a huge gulf of flames, little kids run around using their extortionately expensive magical wands and performers put on joyful street shows.
Our first stop was the ‘Escape from Gringotts’ ride which was undoubtedly the best ride in the whole Harry Potter park. Somehow able to skip the queue without buying special passes we returned to this ride later in the day. You queue in the extraordinary lobby of the bank where an animatronic goblin lords above you, moving through to the offices of Griphook and Bogrod where security photos are taken (which of course they charge you a fortune for later) and finally you descend into the dark and creepy vaults. The ride itself is fairly tame and mostly relies on spectacular 3D displays but it is undeniably incredible fun.
In the rest of Diagon Alley make sure to stop off at the Leaky Cauldron for lunch and head into the many many merchandise shops. For visitors from the UK my advice would be to hold back from buying too much as the prices are generally a lot higher than those at the tour in the UK. Its very difficult to resist but I managed to walk away having just spent $10 on a chocolate frog (which was totally worth it despite the Salazar Slytherin card inside).
Once you are satisfied with Diagon Alley catch the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade. The train ride itself is very special and getting off at Hogsmeade to see the castle made me feel like a kid at Christmas. Forget the Cinderella Castle at Disney World, this is the best thing to see in Orlando.
With a similar array of shops, Hogsmeade is more about the rides. ‘The Dragon Challenge’, comprising of two dragon rollercoasters, should be the first stop for thrill-seekers, whilst ‘Flight of the Hippogriff ‘is the polar opposite, although my sister still seemed to find it quite scary. ‘Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’ certainly wins the prize for the best queueing experience, taking you through the castle to receive a speech from Dumbledore and a welcome from Harry, Ron and Hermione (circa films 4 or 5).
It cannot be left unsaid that the innovation and creativity involved in making the ride experiences on the Forbidden Journey and Gringotts rides is astonishing. If there are awards for these sorts of things (and there very well could be) these rides should win the equivalent of an Oscar.
Now I could go on talking about Harry Potter World for another 2,000 words but I shall hold back here. If you haven’t got the impression yet, it is an unmissable, jaw-dropping and magical experience.
After just one full day in Orlando, we headed off in our hired car, which we affectionately nicknamed Neville (after Neville Longbottom – did I mention we were big Harry Potter fans?), towards Naples, via Clearwater Beach.
Naples provided the biggest contrast from New York so far. Very relaxed in its atmosphere and populated by tourists and locals of a slightly older generation, it was actually a welcome retreat. For the best beach head to Lowdermilk for beautiful white sands, calm waters and basic but sufficient eating and washing facilities. We were even fortunate enough one day to see dolphins playing around in the water.
For food and drink in Naples the best deal can be found in Mangrove Café where you can get 2 mains, a bottle of wine, salads and bread for just $39 – a startling difference from meal prices in New York City. However, be warned, we were informed that most restaurants in the area hike up their prices in peak season (from around November).
For good picnic food head to Wynn’s Market (where sources also told me Jennifer Aniston has been spotted shopping). The fridges boast delicious takeaway options at very reasonable prices which we took down to the beautiful pier to watch the sunset.
Whilst in the area, you will not want to miss visiting the Everglades National Park. There are various visitor centres but the closest to Naples is the Gulf Coast Visitor Center where you can pick up two very different boat tours of the area. We chose to take a tour of The Thousand Islands for dolphin and manatee watching. Unfortunately we didn’t see very much, only catching sight of a couple of (mating) dolphins towards the end, but the views of the park are stunning, although I wonder if the magnificence of the islands is probably best viewed from above.
Moving on from Naples we drove across the state to Miami Beach, only slightly disrupted along the way by weather unlike anything I have ever seen. Seriously, next time someone tells me that all it does rain in England I will tell them to take a trip to Florida. The rain was astonishing and frankly terrifying to drive through. I clung to the edge of my seat barely breathing and just marvelled at my sister’s ability to stay calm (something she attributes to mentally repeating a mantra from Game of Thrones, ‘Fear is Sharper than the Sword’ or something like that).
Miami was perhaps the most disappointing part of the holiday. More humid than Naples and facing the rougher Atlantic rather than the calmer Gulf of Mexico, it is a city famed for its Art Deco design. However, I was left feeling a little deflated as most of the stunning historical buildings are hidden behind the umbrellas and advertising for the numerous restaurants that stretch along Ocean Drive. What can be seen is clearly amazing, but I couldn’t help but feel that this city was over-hyped. Indeed, it was in Miami where the food was expensive and yet not matching in quality.
Perhaps not the best way to end the holiday but not enough to diminish what was an incredible adventure. From chilling with cupcakes in Central Park to sunbathing on Lowdermilk Beach to geeking out over Hogwarts Castle, it was a trip like no other.