THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER
10 Things muggles should know before visiting Universal Orlando
It’s no secret. My family and I are unapologetic Potterheads. We’ve read the J.K. Rowling books cover-to-cover at least three times. We’ve listened to each of them as audiobooks at least a half dozen times. We’ve easily seen each of the movies ten times. (We do a lot of long RV road trips!) We’ve visited the Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter outside of London, which we highly recommend. We’ve even visited the Cliffs of Mohr in Ireland, simply because they featured prominently in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Clearly, our love runs deep.
And we had previously been to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando several years ago when it was only the Hogsmeade section. But recently, we returned to walk the cobblestone streets of Diagon Alley. If you’re visiting for the very first time, there are 10 things that you should know to make your visit as magical as possible.
Before I share those insights, I want to give “first years” a quick lay of the land, because the nomenclature used at this Florida amusement park can be quite confusing. Universal Orlando Resort refers to it all - two separate theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure), one water park (Volcano Bay), a shopping-restaurant district (Universal CityWalk), seven on-property hotels (Adventura Hotel, Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Endless Summer Resort: Surfside Inn and Suites) and one opening in May 2020 (Endless Summer Resort: Dockside Inn and Suites). Each of the amusement parks are further divided into sections. Among those sections, you’ll find the worlds of Harry Potter. Universal Studios Florida is home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley; Islands of Adventure is home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogmeade which includes Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Still with me?
Universal was downright diabolical when it separated the two wizarding worlds into two separate parks, because of course, this means your family will need to purchase tickets to both parks to get the full Harry Potter experience. Yes, there’s a slight discount for a combo ticket, but still, it was devious. You can either walk between the parks or take the Hogwarts Express… of course, you should take the train!
KidTripster Tip: Know that the video that plays outside the windows of the Hogwarts Express on the way from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade is different than the video that plays on the way back.
KidTripster Tip: Don’t miss the optical illusion at Platform 9 3/4 on the Diagon Alley side. If you stand in just the right spot, you can take a video of your child walking through the wall at King’s Cross Station. It’s not well marked, so make sure to look for the large mirror.
Now that we’ve got that all squared away, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
1/If only you could take the Knight Bus…
If you stay at a Universal hotel or resort, you can either walk to the parks or ride a complimentary shuttle or water taxi. However, keep in mind, parking at the resorts runs between $17 and $27/day.
There are some off-property hotels located close enough to the parks that you can walk. Some hotels provide free shuttles; others will charge a fee. Make sure to ask before reserving your room.
If you’re driving to the park on your own, prepare to pay $25/day to park.
We stayed at Wyndam Bonnet Creek Resort which actually is closer to Walt Disney World than Universal Orlando. While it had a shuttle, it charged $16 per person round-trip. We found that it was far cheaper and more convenient for our family to use Uber. There’s a designated ride share drop-off and pick-up area at Universal, making the process quite seamless.
2/Florida can get London-like weather
While you’re likely to have sunshine and warm temperatures while visiting Orlando, it does rain in Florida… sometimes a lot. So regardless of the weather forecast, come prepared with a rain jacket or poncho and a sweatshirt. If you don’t, you’ll be taking cover in the overpriced gift shops where you likely will find yourself shelling out $65 for a Gryffindor hoodie. Don’t ask me how I know this!
3/Where to go first: Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade?
To experience the Wizarding Worlds like a true Hogwarts student, you may think that it’s important to visit Diagon Alley first, hop on the Hogwarts Express, and then end up in Hogmeade later in the day. To be honest, it really doesn’t matter.
Instead, make your decision based on the rides. Which attraction do you think that you’ll want to ride repeatedly? Go to the park that has that ride first. And go early.
If you’re a guest of a Universal hotel or resort, you can get 1-hour early access to either Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure (or both on busy days) and 1-hour early access to Volcano Bay every day. During that hour, you’ll want to make a beeline to either Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (Universal Studios Florida), Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (Islands of Adventures), Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure (Islands of Adventure) or - if you’re not a fan of virtual rides - Ollivanders wand experience (in both parks) before general admission park-goers apparate into the Wizarding Worlds.
Even if you’re not staying on property, it’s still a good idea to bypass all of the other park attractions and head directly to one of the Wizarding Worlds. Having not ridden Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts before, we made it our first stop and were able to ride three times in a row.
4/Is the Express pass worth the money?
Before I answer that question, let me explain that they are two kinds of express passes at Universal. Universal Express allows you to skip the regular line (though you still need to stand in the Express line) at participating rides (including all the major Wizarding World rides) one time only. Universal Express Unlimited allows the same privilege but for an unlimited number of times. There’s a $20 difference between the passes.
So currently, if you were to bundle tickets to both parks (including both Wizarding Worlds) for one day, you get the Universal Express Unlimited pass included. Cost: Youth (under 3) Free; Youth (ages 3 to 9) starts at $245; Adult starts at $250; exact price depends on the day. Without the express pass, 2-park cost: Youth (under 3) Free; Youth (ages 3 to 9) starts at $165; Adult starts at $170. So for the Express Unlimited perk, you’re basically paying 47% more.
Ok, so the question: is it worth it? As much as it pains me to say this, yes, I think it is, especially if you’re only spending one day in the park. I should say that I think it’s possible to do both these parks in one day if 1) you’re mostly interested in just the major rides and no shows, 2) you’re not a shopper, and 3) you and your kids have the stamina to go all day and into the evening. My family was primarily interested in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We hit a few of the major rides in Islands of Adventure but wrapped up the day by 6 p.m. without exploring the rest of Universal Studios Florida - a decision fueled mostly due to inclement weather. And no, my boys won’t sit through shows, much to my disappointment.
I’m not going to lie. Without the express pass, the ride lines are long… really long. You and your kids could easily spend an hour or more waiting for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts or Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. With the express pass, we waited no longer than 20 minutes.
My advice? Pay more for the Express Unlimited pass but spend less by only visiting the parks for a day or two.
KidTripster Tip: If you absolutely don’t want to spend the extra money on express passes and you have older kids who could potentially ride as single riders, opt for the Single Rider line at major attractions. It’s shorter than the primary line.
KidTripster Tip: If at all possible, don’t carry any sort of bag at Universal. You’re not able to ride with it or leave it on the platform to retrieve when the ride is over. You’ll have to check it into a locker prior to getting into the ride’s line. And some of the lines for the lockers were shockingly long. Instead, plan to wear cargo pants with big pockets.
5/Universal has gone virtual
Call me old-fashioned, but I actually was disappointed by the lack of real rides at Universal. With the exception of some mega rollercoasters and mega drop rides, nearly all the new attractions are virtual reality-based. What does that look like? Basically, you get in a cart, slip on a pair of 3D glasses, and then move through a virtual story.
My family enjoyed Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, mostly because of the Harry Potter theming and inclusion of the actual actors in holographic form. But as we rode other virtual reality rides outside of the Wizarding Worlds, experiences started to feel very repetitive.
KidTripster Trip: If you’re prone to extreme motion sickness, you may want to skip Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey or wear motion sickness bands. It can make one feel a bit queasy.
KidTripster Tip: While it’s not a mega rollercoaster, Flight of the Hippogriff in Hogmeade is still worth riding.
6/More retail than rides
You may be surprised at how very few rides are in the two Wizarding Worlds. With the addition of Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, there are just four. You have the short theatrical performance at Ollivanders which mirrors Harry’s first visit to the wand shop. The rest is restaurants and shops… lots and lots of shops. While it’s cool to see representations of the places described in the books, my family and I are not theme park shoppers (if you don’t count that $65 hoodie!), so we spent very little time browsing.
KidTripster Tip: If you want to go all in on the Wizarding World experience, stop at Gringotts in Diagon Alley where you can trade U.S. dollars for Gringotts bank notes in $10 or $20 denominations. You can use your wizard money in Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, and at select locations throughout Universal Orlando. And yes, you can transfer any unused bank notes back to dollars at Guest Services in either of the parks before you return to the muggle world.
7/Download the app for show times
If you want to immerse yourself in all-things-Harry-Potter, make sure to download the Universal Orlando app to catch show times in the Wizarding Worlds. Shows include The Tales of Beedle the Bard and Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees in Diagon Alley and the Frog Choir, Triwizard Spirit Rally, and The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle in Hogmeade.
8/Not all butterbeers are created equal
While in the park, we made it our mission to try ever kind of butterbeer that’s offered and then rate them on a scale of 0 to 5. Our results?
Frozen butterbeer, like a slushy: 4.5
Cold butterbeer, like cream soda: 3
Hot butter beer, like butterscotch pudding but not as thick: 3
Soft-serve butterbeer ice cream: 2.5
Butterbeer fudge: 0
Seriously, the fudge tasted like wax. It wasn’t even edible and shouldn’t be sold. Universal, shame on you!
For sure, go with the frozen variety. It was everyone in my family’s top pick. In Diagon Alley, it’s sold at the Leaky Cauldron and The Hopping Pot. In Hogmeade, you’ll find it at Three Broomsticks, Hog’s Head Pub, and the butterbeer carts.
KidTripster Tip: Skip the souvenir cups. No one wants to carry those around all day!
9/Eat at Three Broomsticks, but…
Ok, English cuisine is not known for being one of the world’s best. But honestly, as you wait in line to wait in line (yes, you read that correctly) at Three Broomsticks, you have high hopes. The photos of English fare - much of it recognizable from the Harry Potter movies - looks pretty darn appetizing. However, pictures can be deceiving.
So yes, eat at Three Broomsticks, but choose wisely. I’d recommend avoiding the shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, and the Cornish pasties, which are a fraction of the size that you’ll be expecting. Instead opt for the rotisserie smoked chicken, spare ribs or smoked turkey leg.
10/Wand or no wand?
Besides the rides, retail, and restaurants, you’ll see would-be wizards wandering the streets with wands out. Since Ollivander is tied up at the moment, let me give you a little Wand 101: Universal Orlando-style. You’ve got your regular wands (props only) and your interactive wands. Regular wands run about $46 each; interactive wands will set you back $52 each. (Sorry, I don’t know the galleon conversion.) In addition, wands can be character wands or unclaimed wands. Character wands are replicas of those wands described in the books and shown in the movies. So if you want the same wand as Hermoine Granger or Bellatrix Lestrange, you can purchase it. Unclaimed wands are based on the woods and characteristics of the Celtic tree calendar. Think of it as a horoscope for wands. In Ollivanders wand shop in Diagon Alley, there’s a display of the 13 wands based on this birthday system or you can simply ask a clerk to help guide you. Unclaimed wands can be purchased as interactive wands, as well.
If you’re a purist, you’ll want to purchase your wand at Ollivanders (Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC!) in Diagon Alley. There’s also a branch of Ollivanders in Hogsmeade. If you want to go all Viktor Krum, you can purchase your wand at Wands by Gregorovitch in Diagon Alley. (You can buy the same wands in this location as Ollivanders.) You also can purchase wands at various carts or at Universal CityWalk, though selections are limited.
KidTripster Tip: If you want to come armed with your wand in hand, you can purchase it in advance online at the Universal store.
Why would you want an interactive wand? Because they’re magical! Each interactive wand comes with a map to spell locations marked by golden medallions set in the pavement. The markers provide information on the necessary incantation and wrist movement (remember, “swish and flick”). When you successfully perform the spells things happen… objects move in display windows, for example.
KidTripster Tip: Technically speaking, you actually don’t need to say the words to make the spells work. The sensors are only reading movements, but it’s way more fun!
KidTripster Tip: There also are hidden spell locations. Keep your eyes peeled for the characteristic four red dots of light that are emitted from spell location sensors.
KidTripster Tip: The Knockturn Alley spell locations are drawn in invisible ink on the Diagon Alley map. To reveal these locations, you’ll need to place the map under black lights found throughout Knockturn Alley. Many young wizards never discover this trick!
Admittedly, young wizards can get a bit frustrated. Spell work takes practice. We’re not all Hermoine Granger after all. (“It’s Wing-GAR-dium Levi-O-sa!”) The spell locations in Hogsmeade seem to be a little bit more challenging than the ones in Diagon Alley. To help, spell instructors are standing by most of the interactive stations.
So is it worth getting an interactive wand? Given the limited number of rides in the Wizarding Worlds, it does provide another form of entertainment. Just make sure your child is the type of wizard who enjoys a scavenger hunt. I’d recommend discussing all the above options with your kids before you enter the Wizarding Worlds so as not to waste precious time trying to sort it all out.
One final world about immersing yourself in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: feel free to arrive in costume. Loads of people do including adults. And no one will bat an eye if you stroll into the Marvel Super Hero Island at Islands of Adventure in school robes instead of a cape.
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Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah is a die-hard Harry Potter fan. She has a secret (ok, not-so-secret) plan to visit all the shooting locations from the movies. #harrypottergoals
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