After years of considering this trip, our flight descended into Orlando’s airport. We are not like many families I know who seem to go to Disney World like I go to Safeway. We have not been to Orlando for six years, and the Mouse is not our destination this time. Instead, we are bound for Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Days ago our kids opened gifts for Christmas that asked them this question: Are You Ready to Fly on a Broom?
Welcome to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
I’d been to Universal Studios over twenty years ago with my parents when I was single and didn’t have children; my father had invited me on a trip with his company to Orlando, and I decided to go. Wow, has it been improved and expanded and updated since then.
One of the things my husband I want to do for the next couple of years until my son is in college is to do more travel together. My son, daughter, and I are big Harry Potter fans, so we’ve wanted to go to Universal for years. I worried slightly that they may have been too old for it, but I was wrong. Dead wrong.
I thought I’d give an overview and some tips for anyone who has not been and who is planning a trip in the near future. Part One today is all about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I will follow up with a second blog post about other attractions and experiences in both parks next time.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure
If you’re like our family, the first things we wanted to see were the Harry Potter attractions, which are split between the two parks. Universal Studios hosts Diagon Alley and two attractions: Escape from Gringotts and The Hogwarts Express (which can take you to Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure). Islands of Adventure features three rides: the ride in Hogwarts Castle called The Forbidden Journey, a flight simulated ride; Dragon Challenge, a high-speed rollercoaster; and Flight of the Hippogriff, a smaller rollercoaster for kids. You will want to spend time in both places, so make sure to block out time for each. Each place offers dining, shopping, and rides.
To Buy the Wands or Not Buy the Wands, That is the question…
One of the questions I had before I left was whether or not to buy the wands at the Ollivanders shop in Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade. My kids both have two wands each, however, they are not interactive. The verdict is to buy the wands (at least one for your family; we got two). The wands have interactive tips that allow you to do magic around the Potter areas. Some of the spells are really cute and worthwhile. If you go to Ollivanders in Diagon Alley, you can get a tour with a wizard, and true to the books and films, the wand will choose the witch or wizard. It’s a great thing to do; my daughter was selected, and the wand chose her. (You do not have to purchase that wand, even though it’s kind of special. Instead, she opted for Hermione’s so that her set is now complete with Luna’s, Ginny’s, and Hermione’s wands.) Spells such as turning on lights in windows, making umbrellas rain, getting information from Marauder’s map, and making a quill pen float and write something are just some examples of the many spells around both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.
A Special Spot
Diagon Alley at night, located in Universal Studios, is truly magical. I sat directly underneath the Dragon on top of Gringotts Bank for a while one night and just took it all in. NOTE: The dragon breathes fire about every fifteen minutes, so be sure to capture the moment on camera or video. He gives two grunts before the third fireball comes out. If you are standing underneath him or nearby, you will be able to feel the heat of the dragon. With muggles crowding the streets in the daytime during the busiest hours, you will do well to visit Diagon Alley as close to closing time as possible (luckily for us, when we were there, the park stayed open on New Year’s Eve until after midnight; on New Year’s Day and the two days following, it was open until 10 p.m. until it switched to its winter hours of a 9 p.m. closing). You can see Hagrid’s motorbike, cast some spells, shop in uncrowded shops, and just sit and be amazed that you are in Diagon Alley, the night sky lighting it up. For me, it was the most magical spot in the park.
My Favorite Harry Potter Rides
Hands down, my favorite experience is Escape from Gringotts Bank in Univeral Studios. The whole setup in Diagon Alley, the tour through the bank with the goblins, the story of the escape, and the ride itself are so much fun. Also, I must confess, I’m not a roller coaster lover; in fact, I avoid them at all costs. While Gringotts does have a big dip in the beginning of the ride, even us chickens can get over that and enjoy having Bellatrix and Voldemort talking to us and zapping us with their wands. My son and I repeated what Voldemort says on the ride a hundred times, because he says it right to you – “I know you’ve seen Harry Potter; he was in your vault, Bellatrix!” I convinced a couple of people to go on it who were talking nearby and were wondering if the ride was too scary because I, too, was chicken. I assured them that there’s one drop, and that they would be fine because the interactive nature of the ride is so amazing. The woman I convinced to ride it, who was my mother’s age, turned to me afterwards and thanked me for telling her about it—that she wouldn’t have gone on it if it weren’t for my endoresement and that she was amazed by it. We all were.
The Forbidden Journey, located in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry at Islands of Adventure, is a fantastic ride, as well. Fair warning, though: it is a flight simulator, and your vehicle swings and turns, simulating flight (and flying on a broom behind Harry). It is absolutely mesmerizing—however, I could only go on it once as it made me a little queasy. (This could also have been because I didn’t eat anything that morning, so the jury’s out on that). Nevertheless, my husband and kids went on it three more times and loved every minute of it. During those times they were on the rides, I took in Hogsmeade…the stores, the picturesque setting, and the mind-blowing castle that the ride is housed inside. You have to go on it for the experience; it really is a state-of-the-art ride.
1-If you are planning on visiting Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, I would strongly suggest staying in a hotel on the grounds. With that comes a pretty substantial perk: guests who stay in hotels on the grounds get an early admittance pass and can enter the park an hour before everyone else. This affords you the advantage of getting to Harry Potter rides early and eliminates long wait times (some rides could take 45 minutes to 80 minutes of waiting during peak hours). We entered the park early two days, and it made the biggest difference.
2-Be sure to interact with some of the wizards and people from J.K. Rowling’s novels and films. For example, the driver of the Night Bus and his Rastafarian bodiless friend are a hoot to chat with. Additionally, “Sir,” one of the goblins who runs the bank exchange in Diagon Alley, is hilarious. He interacts with you and talks with you. My kids were amazed by this.
3-The Harry Potter merchandise is fun; however, some of the merchandise is not found in both parks. For example, I bought a Harry Potter Daily Prophet scarf with newsprint on it, but it could only be found in Diagon Alley and not in Hogsmeade. So if you see something you like, buy it, especially if you have no plans to come back to that particular park.
4-If you like the taste of Cream Soda and Butterscotch, be sure to try the Butterbeer. You can get this in both parks, but be sure to get it frozen. It’s much better that way.
5-If you take the Hogwarts Express between the parks, you will get to cross through Platform 9 ¾. You will want to do this. The train station will blow you away; additionally, be sure to ride the train both ways, as there is a different story both ways. Be prepared to wait in lines at times, and know that the ride between parks isn’t very long, but it’s still worth it. It is an exact replica of what you see in the movies.
Summary of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
I’m not gonna lie; I’m a middle-aged woman, and I think it’s one of the most fun places I’ve been. You get to forget about life for a while. You get to have fun, and you certainly feel like you’ve been dropped into a magical village. I think the two early mornings I spent there, along with the late evenings, made a difference. Without crowds knocking me over, I was able to immerse myself into this magical place.
I’ll follow up this blog post with another about the attractions in both parks soon. Hope your found this helpful, and I wish you a fabulous journey when you go.
Happy New Year!
Stephanie Verni is the author of Baseball Girl, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and the upcoming novel Inn Significant. She is also a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.