Our family has been huge Harry Potter fans since the first book came out in 1997. We’ve read all the books and watched all the movies numerous times so when Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010, we were there with the masses to check it out. Since then we’ve visited almost every year, and even waited FIVE hours at the opening of Diagon Alley when they expanded the attraction! Don’t worry, while it will be crowded, you don’t have to wait that long anymore.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter now spans both parks (Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure), so you’ll have to get a park hopping pass if you want to ride the Hogwarts Express between the two. For planning purposes, please note that there are now two distinct areas—Universal’s Islands of Adventure (Hogwarts/Hogsmeade) and Universal Studios (London/ Diagon Alley). Don’t worry if your pocketbook, or energy, can’t take two parks in one day. The details in both sections are so amazing that the magic seems real. Here are just a few highlights from our last visit:
Universal Studios – Diagon Alley
We were in line when the park opened and went directly to the Universal Studios side to follow Harry Potter’s steps through the streets of London and Diagon Alley™. One of the first things you see is the Knight Bus where you can take a photo with the eccentric conductor. Fans of the book will recall this fast-paced, ever-shifting means of magical transportation. The real life version does not disappoint, with a hanging shrunken head that you get to know on a first name basis. While you’re waiting in line, pop in the British-style phone booth a few feet away, and listen to a message from the Ministry of Magic.
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringott’s
The crowning jewel of Diagon Alley is Gringott’s, the wizarding bank run by goblins. A 2,000-foot long indoor rollercoaster incorporates 3-D projection screens, physical effects and an impressive set design to take you through the cavernous bank, where you’ll encounter several characters from the series, including Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange and He Who Must Not Be Named. The entrance to the ride is the grand lobby of Gringott’s where animatronic goblins are hard at work and every 10 minutes the dragon perched atop of the bank lets out a huge fireball. There’s no Express Pass available for this attraction either, so make it your first stop. There is a single rider line with reduced wait times but it bypasses the main lobby, which is worth seeing.
One of the really cool thing about both parts of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are the shops. You can even ditch your credit card and use the local currency instead. Stop by Gringotts Money Exchange, just outside Gringotts Bank, to convert your dollars into certified Gringotts Bank Notes that are valid throughout the resort. Make sure to talk to the animatronic goblin teller while there.
Stop in Ollivander’s Wand Shop to attend a selection ceremony, where one special audience member is chosen to receive a custom wand. There are special effects involved, including a dramatic spotlight and choral moment when the fated wand is chosen. The theatrical presentation is a treat, whether or not you plan to purchase a wand of your own. If you are buying a wand, you may as well spring for an interactive version. It costs roughly $10 more but has the added benefit of allowing you to cast spells throughout the parks. Replicas of the wands used by Harry, Hermione, Dumbledore and Luna Lovegood, along with an assortment of unclaimed Celtic calendar-related wands from Ollivander’s shop make magic come to life throughout the park. For example, you can quiet the singing shrunken heads in Knockturn Alley with “Silencio” or fix a broken suit of armor with “Reparo.” The wands come with a map of where you can perform the spells, but be sure to look at the map under the blacklights in Knockturn Alley to reveal secret locations that others may miss.
Other stores include Madam Malkins Robes for All Occasions for robes and uniforms (it’s not uncommon to see guests dressed in full character despite 90-degree weather), as well as the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. At this joke shop you can buy Fanged Frisbees and extendable ears, as well as pygmy puffs and sneakascopes.
The Leaky Cauldron
Although usually proponents of leaving theme parks for lunch and a break, we made an exception here and ate at The Leaky Cauldron. Both it and the Three Broomsticks over in Hogsmeade add a level of authenticity to the experience, and the butter beer (more below) is every bit as good as J.K. Rowling describes it in the books. There are also decent English-style beers on tap at The Hog’s Head (you might need one to get through a day of kid-friendly attractions).
What would a visit to the Wizarding World be without Butterbeer? You can get it frozen or regular (my personal favorite) which tastes like a cream soda and topped with butterscotch foam. You can purchase the drink in a plastic cup or collectible mug at corner stands or in the restaurants. In winter months they also have hot Butterbeer, which is kind of like a butterscotch laced latte. After all that butterbeer you’ll probably need to use the restroom. While you’re there, listen for Moaning Myrtle, the ghost who haunts the girl’s bathroom at Hogwarts.
After lunch we head to the train station to board the Hogwart’s Express from Platform 9 3/4. An optical illusion takes you through the magic wall before boarding, and the scenery includes famous landmarks from the books. Just bring some chocolate frogs in case you encounter any Dementors. It’s worth noting that each leg of the roundtrip offers a different view of the Wizarding World, so at the end of our visit we rode it back here. Also, as I previously stated if you want to hop aboard the Hogwarts Express, you’ll need a Park-to-Park ticket. A one-day upgrade is costly at $50 more per person, but the convenience is unparalleled. The train drops you off directly in front of both Harry Potter areas, so you can remain immersed in the magic all day long.
Islands of Adventure – Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle
Hogwarts Castle is the main landmark of Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure and home to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Even with all the wonderful new attractions in Diagon Alley, nothing surpasses the experience of this 3-D RoboCoaster simulator that takes you through the castle, into the Forbidden Forest and onto the Quiddich pitch. It’s as immersive an experience into the world of Harry Potter as you could imagine; a coaster track, a robotic arm, 3-D screens and animatronic monsters to whirl you around the Hogwarts grounds. It’s not for the faint of heart (or stomach), but my kids (young adults) can’t get enough. And even if the park is crowded, the line itself is entertaining, winding its way through the castle, where the paintings come alive and holograms of Harry, Hermione and Ron cast a spell. This is as close to magic as us Muggles can get. Those prone to nausea can opt out of the ride and simply enjoy the castle tour. Keep in mind that this ride does not offer a Express Pass option and wait times can easily exceed two hours during peak season.
We wrapped up a perfect visit with a sweet treat from at Honeyduke’s where just about every kind of sweet ever mentioned in the series is for sale, from chocolate frogs to Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans.
We also stop by the Owl Post to get a postcard stamped and mailed out with a special Hogsmeade postmark. Then head back to the Hogwarts Express for the journey back.
Christmas Magic at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
I just went to the first ever Christmas extravaganza and saw Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley transformed with festive décor and brilliant lighting. Beginning this year from November 24 to January 7 Hogwarts castle will be lit up with Christmas lights every night. Throughout the evening, colorful projection mapping illuminates Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with “The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle.”
All the shops in Hogsmeade village and Diagon Alley have their own unique themed decorations. Of course holiday-themed food will be served at the restaurants like the Three Broomsticks. There are also Christmas themed shows. My favorite was the “Singing Sorceress” Celestina Warbeck and her Banshees.