If you’re like me and have a family that loves the Harry Potter stories in all their forms, from books to movies, then a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando should definitely be on your family travel list.
You’ll find the full story of how my family arrived at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter here, but let me just say that we are not a theme park family. In fact, this was our first trip to Orlando and our first family vacation centered around a theme park experience. The trip was a birthday gift to my 11-year-old son Teddy, because 11 is, of course, when one begins at Hogwarts. And what a perfect gift it was — for all of us.
It’s difficult to convey adequately just how immersive the Harry Potter experience at Universal Orlando is. You really feel like you’ve been picked up and set down in the middle of the books or movies (the fact that numerous visitors, grownups and kids alike, are wearing robes definitely helps). Even my cool 14-year-old son Tommy couldn’t get over his delight at seeing the interior of Ollivanders Wand Shop, or the newspapers with moving pictures, or the chocolate frogs at Honeydukes.
Universal Orlando has two theme parks, each with its own Wizarding World of Harry Potter experience. Universal Studios Florida has Diagon Alley, which also includes the Knight Bus, Grimmauld Place and King’s Cross Station. Islands of Adventure has Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle. The two are connected by a train ride on the Hogwarts Express but you’ll need to have tickets for both parks to see everything (this is called a Park-to-Park ticket).
Part of the pleasure of the phenomenal attention to detail in the Wizarding World is seeing it all, so plan to spend a lot of time just walking around and looking. Every shop window holds something delightful and you’ll find lots of fun things to peruse and buy inside the shops as well.
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I don’t want to give away all of the surprises, but will suggest a few things not to miss. In Hogsmeade, the biting Monster Book of Monsters is, thankfully, caged up inside Dervish and Banges, where you can also see the House, Tri-Wizard and Quidditch Cups. And take advantage of the chance to stamp your postcard with a Hogsmeade postmark in the Owl Post. Even if you don’t want to buy any candy (ha!), be sure to wander around Honeydukes, where you’ll find all the sweets mentioned in the books: Exploding Bon Bons, Bertie Botts’ Every Flavour Beans and more. And yes, these do come with vomit and booger flavors, so buyer beware.
In Diagon Alley, one of the first things you’ll encounter is Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes; keep an eye on the large Fred (or is it George?) out front to see if you can spy the rabbit under his hat. Tucked into a corner is a dark entrance to Knockturn Alley, home to lots of creepy objects in Borgin and Burkes. Keep your eye on the dragon at the top of Gringotts Bank — he periodically breathes fire, but no one is quite sure when it will happen. Madame Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions has a talking mirror, and at Ollivanders Wand Shop, you can watch as the big man himself helps young wizards choose a wand. The line for this worth-it show is to the left of the shop’s entrance.
And speaking of Ollivanders …
Buy an interactive wand. Just do it. In fact, make it the first thing you do when you arrive in Diagon Alley — and buy it there, not at the much smaller shop in Hogsmeade. I’m not being ironic when I say that this shop is utterly magical and a highlight of the whole Harry Potter experience.
Interactive wands come with a map that will show you where to cast spells at various places throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade and make things happen in the windows. Since you’re a beginning wizard, sometimes it’s a bit tricky to get them to work, but Universal has roaming staff on hand to help with the particularly hard ones. Keep an eye out for secret unmarked spells as well.
For us Muggles who don’t have Floo Powder handy, the easiest way to get between the two areas of the Wizarding World is to take the Hogwarts Express. The train ride comes complete with a visit from Harry, Ron and Hermione and scenes of London and the English countryside. The story is a little different in each direction, so be sure to ride it both ways.
And when you are waiting in line to board the train at King’s Cross, there’s a moment where you can watch the people in front of you appear to walk through a wall to get to the platform. This can be easy to miss, so be sure to keep your eyes open for it.
Are you surprised to hear that Butterbeer is absolutely delicious? What you may not know is that it’s also available in four different forms: straight up, hot, frozen and as soft-serve ice cream.
We didn’t try the hot Butterbeer — the weather was just too stifling for that — but we did slurp the other three varieties and all of them were delicious. I’m partial to the straight-up version, which has the most delectable foam on top. You can buy it in a souvenir mug and get discounted refills on other beverages throughout the park.
Try chatting up the people who staff the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. See what they have to say about He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named. It’s especially fun to talk to Stan Shunpike and the shrunken head at the front of the Knight Bus.
And here’s a secret tip: Change some of your Muggle money at Gringotts Money Exchange in Diagon Alley (you can use the wizard money you get in all the shops there and in Hogsmeade) and see what happens when you ask the Goblin if he is, in fact, a house elf.
Of course there are Harry Potter rides you’ll want to experience too, and once again, the obsessive detail makes these all the more amazing. In Diagon Alley, Escape from Gringotts is an exciting adventure that takes you down into the vaults. Even roller-coaster-averse Teddy loved it, especially because you walk in through an entrance hall that looks exactly as it should, with large chandeliers and goblins busily working at their desks.
In Hogsmeade, the Dragon Challenge is a legitimate roller coaster that takes its passengers upside down. There are actually two coasters as part of this ride, each a different dragon. My family watched it in action, but chose to give it a pass, sticking instead to the smaller, tamer Flight of the Hippogriff where we got to see Buckbeak in all his glory.
You’ll actually want to wait in line at least a little bit for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, because it winds through the castle. You’ll start with the Herbology classroom and then visit Dumbledore’s office while taking in incredible details: the hourglasses that track the house points (Gryffindor is in the lead, of course), the Pensieve and lots of moving portraits.
This ride is an exciting broom flight through and around the castle and onto the Quidditch field. A word of warning: If you’re like me and get motion sickness, take some Dramamine and be prepared for a bit of totally-worth-it nausea. I had to sit for about 10 minutes to get my equilibrium when we were finished.
We visited Universal Orlando for two weekend days at the beginning of October, which is during the resort’s lower season, and it still grew crowded and hot as the day went on. Lines got longer both for the rides and to get in and out of the shops.
You can purchase express tickets that let you move to the front of the line on participating rides (Universal offers both one-time and unlimited ride versions), but Escape from Gringotts and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey are not included. Your best bet for getting onto these rides in a timely way is to get to the park first thing in the morning and head straight for the Wizarding World. We did this both days and were able to walk right onto the rides.
If you stay onsite at the resort (which I recommend), you’ll get to enter the park an hour before the general public. As if that isn’t reason enough, there are also five different hotels to choose from, each offering a different level of luxury and convenience. We stayed at the new Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, which offered the perfect amount of low-key luxury to make our visit more fun.
Editor’s Note: Universal Orlando provided three complimentary nights at the Sapphire Falls Resort and two-day tickets to both its theme parks in order to facilitate our review. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Mara Gorman.
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