On a trip to visit family in Florida this week, we ditched the kids for a day and went to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We’re reading the books to the kids and plan to take them when they’re a little older and can handle the rides, but it was a lot of fun to have a grownups day where we only had to worry about ourselves. Here’s my own little guide to the park(s). I won’t spoil the experiences or any of the many surprises and delights to be discovered, but there are some things you might want to know.
First, you have to understand that the full Harry Potter experience is split between two parks, Hogsmeade + Hogwarts, which opened in ’10 as part of Universal’s “Adventure Island” park; and Diagon Alley, which opened in ’14 in Universal Studios. In order to see both areas, you have to buy a multi-park ticket. It’s expensive.
There are pluses and minuses to this approach, but mostly it’s a cash grab by Universal. There is enough Harry Potter stuff to spend a whole day doing just that (varying tremendously based on line lengths), but you could also do a few of the rides, wander around a little, and then do stuff in the rest of the park. We were really there only for Harry Potter, so it very much felt like we were being charged for two theme parks we didn’t intend to spend any time in.
All that said, the Harry Potter areas are spectacular. There’s a loving attention to detail to be found everywhere and it’s all executed wonderfully.
Second, do get there early. You’ll have at least some time in the park before the lines get too long. We were already staying with family but I personally recommend staying in an affiliated hotel. We’ll do that when we go back with the kids (probably for just one night). My feeling is that theme park vacations are expensive, and there’s little way around it. You just have to accept that, make a budget, and dive in. Staying at a hotel that offers a quick shuttle to the park means you arrive there without having experienced the stress of making everyone wake up early, Orlando traffic, and parking. You get there fresh. The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade and The Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley both serve breakfast.
Third, consider buying express passes. We didn’t but we were there on a weekday in a non-peak month. These are very expensive. Like, they’re nearly 50% again the cost of the ticket. We were there on a day that wasn’t super busy and still waited over an hour for the Gringott’s ride. Simply put, paying to get shorter lines means you get to spend more of your expensive vacation enjoying the park and less of it standing in line with the kids’ patience deteriorating and your blood pressure rising. When we were there the park hours were 9:00-7:00. You can spend a good half of those ten hours standing in lines or you can pay to skip them and experience more or the park. It sucks and I vastly prefer Disney’s FastPass system where everyone gets three passes included in the ticket price.
A few words on Universal Studios itself. I’m… not a huge fan. I loved the Harry Potter areas but I find the rest of the park to be confusing. When you arrive, you walk through a street with restaurants and shops. Eventually the road forks and you can go left to Islands of Adventure or right to Universal Studios Florida. I didn’t find this to be well marked and none of it was very welcoming. Compare to walking through the gates and entering Disney’s town square with the castle in the distance.
Once inside Universal Studios, there are… more shops, then assorted city-like areas with some buildings that might contain rides. They’ve tried to sort of hide the rides so that you don’t see them from the main area, which is cool but in general I found like I wanted a little more orientation.
Returning to Harry Potter, I recommend you go to the Islands of Adventure park first and do Hogsmeade. This is counter to the narrative of Harry in the books, where you start as a young Harry experiencing Diagon Alley for the first time, then riding the Hogwarts Express to the school. Diagon Alley is a better experience, though, so I think it’s best to save it for last.
After arriving in Hogsmeade, the first thing you should do is go to Olivander’s to buy wands, especially if you have kids with you. Throughout the park there are brass plates on the ground indicating an interactive feature that requires a wand. Park employees (dressed in appropriate costumes for the area) are always nearby to help instruct guests with wand movements, which will cause a quill to fly through the air, a suit of armor to move, and so on. (Wands are about $50. Without them you can’t do the interactive spells.)
You can buy wands at several places in the park, but Olivander’s in Hogsmeade admits a handful of kids at a time and lets each try out several wands before buying one. It’s a good experience, and a reason I said to get there early. You want the wand with you as you explore the park but don’t want to wait in a terribly long line to buy one. (And yes, Olivander’s should technically be in Diagon Alley, not Hogsmeade, but it opened there before the second part of the park did so they’ve kept it there. Diagon Alley does also have a wand shop but not the personalized shopping experience.)
Which brings me to a note about shopping: it’s a huge part of the experience. Without realizing it, J.K. Rowling wrote a world perfectly suited to become a theme park not just because of its incredibly imaginative setting and scenarios, but because of all stuff you can buy. There are candy shops full of chocolate frogs, clothing stores with Quidditch apparel, shops with quills and stationary and stuffed phoenixes and all of them accept Apple Pay. You can even change your muggle money for galleons and you might as well because you’re going to be spending it left and right so why not, right?
After Olivander’s, wander around Hogsmeade, take in the sights, maybe get breakfast, and just marvel at all the little touches they’ve put into the place.
When you’re ready, go up to Hogwarts Castle for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride and the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster.
Universal has done a spectacular job at designing the line experience for these rides. Even if you bought an express pass, take some time to look at all the stuff you pass by. (If you didn’t, you’ll have plenty of time, but if you did, slow down even and check it all out.) In the Forbidden Journey ride, you go through several classrooms in Hogwarts. In Gringotts, you’re in bank vaults. Newspapers sitting idly on desks have animated photos. Portraits move and talk to you. It’s splendid, and the story of the ride starts in the line, giving you context and plot setup for what happens when you get to the front of the line.
(A note on Harry Potter chronology: the rides feature events spanning most of the books, but some do explicitly reference events from books six and seven. I’m not sure the degree to which a kid can avoid Harry Potter spoilers these days, but you’ll get them in the park.)
Now, I have, lamentably, to tell you that I got fairly carsick riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. I didn’t throw up but was pretty nauseated by the end, and it took me some time to shake it off. The ride has you sitting in a cart that moves sideways while you watch its events unfold. Sometimes these are animatronics but often you’re in front of a screen simulating movement. Your cart will dip down, wind will blow at you, and the screen will have you flying really fast, and it was all super cool and very well done but my inner ear wasn’t fooled. I will sometimes get a little woozy if I’m trying to read in the car or look backward while the driver is accelerating or turning. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly prone to carsickness but it happens sometimes. All that said, I really don’t know how to advise you on this ride. My wife had no problem at all on the ride and I was fine on the Harry Potter and the Eacape from Gringotts ride. The Forbidden Journey is such a good ride that I don’t want people to skip it. I’m not sure I even regret going. If you know you are someone who gets very carsick, maybe reconsider, or just prepare yourself to close your eyes as needed, because what causes the nausea is the friction between what your system is experiencing and what it’s seeing on the screens.
After seeing everything you want in Hogsmeade (I won’t describe everything — just explore and enjoy), go to the train station and ride the Hogwarts Express to London. (Make sure you ride it back later. The story’s different each way.)
Earlier I was complaining about how Universal Studios sometimes hides its rides, but I’ll say the effect for the London area completely works with the Harry Potter experience. It’s a tiny, Muggle London, and there are magical things to find but the way you can’t see Diagon Alley at all from the street is executed perfectly and matches the in-universe illusion. And then when you do take one of the passages through and see Diagon Alley… wow!
I really want to compliment the work Universal did on the sight lines here. Diagon Alley is a competent immersive experience and you can’t see any other part of the park when you’re inside. Hogsmeade gets like a B, maybe B- there but Diagon Alley is perfect. You’re just… there. You can walk around, use your wand, shop, do the Escape from Gringotts ride, buy butterbeer, change your money, shop, try to find Knockturn Alley, and shop.
Another word, then, on shopping. I saw a lot of guests wearing their wizard robes and man, this is an area where it’s unfortunate the park is in Florida. It was 83° (24°C) in November. I’d be comfortable wearing a Hogwarts uniform complete with robes if it were 60° (16) tops, probably? For reference, the robes they sell in the park are very nice, not cheap costume material, but they’re $115. (You do get a discount if you also buy a tie and scarf, though!) I didn’t buy a robe but totally did get a Gryffindor cardigan. You could easily blow $300 or more outfitting just two kids with wands and uniforms, and that’s before you consider t-shirts, hats, joke shop memorabilia, and so on.
Butterbeer. I wrote last month about how most butterbeer recipes are gross and offered my own, simpler recipe. I’m happy to say that what they sell in the park A) isn’t gross and B) is pretty similar to what I came up with. It’s a tasty vanilla soda with a light butterscotch finish and a nice froth on top. You can get it regular, frozen (like a Slurpee), hot (which I didn’t try), or as a soft serve ice cream.
Summing up, I’ll say that the entire Wizarding World of Harry Potter experience itself is everything I think it could have been. It’s majestic and fun and I can’t wait to take the kids. I’d prefer for it to be its own theme park and not a part of other Universal parks, and I’d especially like not to have to buy tickets to not one but two Universal Parks to be able to go.
Honestly, I am completely aware that I’m thinking about it wrong. If you think about it as just part of the Universal experience, then you get to go to the Harry Potter things in addition to all the other attractions at those parks. But in reality, I’m only 20% interested in the other stuff and 80% there for Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Approaching it like I did, you’re basically going to see a small theme park but paying more than twice what you would if it were a standalone place. That’s what I was there for, and I decided to accept that, but otherwise I prefer Disney’s parks. (In another few years there will be an interesting comparison when the Star Wars area of Disney’s Hollywood Studios opens. How will its value compare to its surrounding park?)
But yeah, go to the Wizarding Word of Harry Potter. Accept that you’ll be spending a lot of money, budget for that, and enjoy the butterbeer.