Universal Orlando - Hogwarts Express
In addition to Diagon Alley, Universal Orlando has also added the Hogwarts Express, a steam train that transports park guests between Diagon Alley (specifically London, England) in Universal Studios Florida and the village of Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. In order to ride the Hogwarts Express, you MUST have a park-to-park ticket. Workers WILL scan your ticket and you'll have to pass through turnstyles before entering the ride's line queue.
In Diagon Alley, the entrance to Hogwarts Express is in the London section of the land and at the King's Cross train station, just like in the Harry Potter books and movies. The first part of the King's Cross train station looks and feels like a realistic train station in England. (at least, it's what I presume an English train station would feel like). It's a brightly lit station with advertisements on the walls and train schedule announcements over the P.A. system. Even the train schedule sign at the entrance periodically changes with new train information.
After passing through the main part of the terminal and a bunch of luggage along a wall, we climb a staircase and pass through the magical barrier to the alternate station --- Platform 9-3/4. There's a special glass set up so that people behind you can watch you supposedly walking through a brick wall. Be cautioned that this part of the line queue tends to get clogged as people want to shoot video of their family & friends walking through the wall ahead of them. If you choose to follow this pattern, remember to be courteous to the people waiting in line behind you.
Platform 9-3/4 is where we'll board the Hogwarts Express train. The line queue takes us past luggage bound for the magic school, and with Harry Potter's luggage is Hedwig sitting in his cage. The main focus though is the train itself as it rolls in and out of the station. At the end of the line queue we're set into groups of eight, and then a conductor will escort us into our assigned cabin inside of the train.
Over at Islands of Adventure, the experience for the Hogsmeade train station is a much simpler procedure. The train station is already within the magic village, so there's no process to hide it from muggles (unbelievers in magic --- a.k.a. everyday people).
After passing through the ticket turnstyle, the path to the train station passes by the Dragon Challenge roller coasters before descending a series of ramps to the lower level of the station. The lower floor is a large and open room. After that we get to climb a staircase that takes us to the platform with the Hogwarts Express. Just like at King's Cross, the workers organize the riders into groups of eight, and then they're escorted into their specific cabin on the train. While the King's Cross station is busy and enclosed, the Hogsmeade station is more relaxed and open.
The cabins on the train are small and cozy. They seat four people on each side. At one end is the door and on the opposite side is the window. It's out the window where most of the action takes place on this train ride.
The trains themselves look fairly realistic with the appearance and the steam, but these are not real steam trains. Nor are there any engineers up front driving the machines. These trains are pulled back and forth by cables, and they are more like sophisticated shuttles rather than real locomotives. At the King's Cross station the train leaves in a forward direction, and in the Hogsmeade station the train leaves in reverse. You wouldn't know it though when riding on the train.
As far as the ride goes, the scenes on the ride depend on which way you're traveling. When traveling from King's Cross to Hogsmeade, the scenery outside of the window changes respectively. There's a brief encounter with Dementors (a cool effect using silhouettes on the door) before passing through the Forbidden Forest and then arriving at Hogsmeade. Hagrid is there greeting us at the train station.
The exit for the Hogsmeade train station leads guests past a horseless carriage that seems to move a little bit by itself. After that the path leads straight into the village of Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure.
When traveling from Hogsmeade to King's Cross, it's basically the same sequence of events on the ride. The scenery changes respectively, there's activity with more character silhouettes on the door, and then we pass through London. Through the window we can see the Knight Bus weaving through traffic. At the end of the ride Mad-Eye Moody is there to greet us at the King's Cross train station.
From start to finish, it's clear that the more enjoyable experience on the Hogwarts Express is when traveling from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade. The King's Cross train station is much more elaborate, Platform 9-3/4 is more interesting, and there's a better sequence of events on the train ride. The experience in the opposite direction seems to be a little more bland and less interesting. Perhaps that's why the books and movies place a much bigger emphasis on the journey TO Hogwarts rather than the characters riding back to London.
When given a choice between taking the Hogwarts Express train from Hogsmeade to King's Cross, or just walk, I think that I'd rather walk between the two theme parks. The walk isn't that bad and I really like the scenery in the entrance area at Universal Studios Florida.
It's almost a disappointment that the actual ride for the Hogwarts Express is fairly short. It only takes about four minutes each way once the train starts rolling. It takes longer to unload and then load the train than it does for the ride itself.
It's also a bit of a shame that you really cannot see the Hogwarts Express trains in motion from other parts of Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure. The best views of the trains are there in the stations. Then again, if people saw the trains rolling backwards on the tracks, perhaps it would remove part of the magic of the experience.