The Complete Guide to Universal Studios' Wizarding World of Harry Potter
This May, my husband and I visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando. It was a first time for both of us, but probably more exciting for me since he doesn't know much about Harry Potter short of watching bits and pieces of the movies. Planning our visit for the first time was overwhelming and I spent tons of time researching before coming up with our plan. Here are some hints and tips from what we learned and experienced.
Tip: Use the Crowd Calendar Before Buying Tickets
May was a great time to go. Disney and Universal both get pretty packed during spring break time and again when schools let out for the summer. May falls perfectly between them, and close enough to the end of the school year that most parents aren't pulling their kids out of school for a vacation. I used the crowd calendar at Undercover Tourist to determine what our days would look like - although I wasn't necessarily negotiating on dates, since I had a weekend picked to correspond with my birthday. Still, it was helpful to use their calendar to determine which one of the parks would be worse on which day. Both of our days were yellow (meaning neutral/average sized crowds) but there were slight differences between which was less crowded on which day. Ultimately, we decided to visit the main Universal Studios (home to Diagon Alley) on Saturday, and Islands of Adventure (home to Hogsmeade) on Sunday.
That being said, we did get the park hopper passes, which allow entry to both parks each day and unlimited travel back and forth between them. This was important for two reasons:
- The Hogwarts Express ride runs between the two parks and is something you can ride only with a park hopper pass. This ride was definitely worth getting the pass.
- The crowd calendar indicated that the main Universal Studios would be less crowded on Saturday, yet it closed a full two hours earlier than Islands of Adventure that day. It was vice versa on Sunday. Apparently, there isn't much rhyme or reason to the closing times of the parks, and it's totally necessary to check the times before you go and use this for planning your visits. Those 2 hours made a big difference, and also made the park hopper pass worth it.
The crowd calendar will also help you determine if you need any extras, such as the Express Pass or paying a ton extra to stay on-site at a Universal hotel (which will gain you an hour of early entry, and sometimes a free Express Pass, too). I was about to buy us Express Passes (which come with a hefty fee of $85 each, per day) but luckily read online that they aren't quite necessary on days with neutral/average crowds. I also recommend to anyone considering an Express Pass to read the list of rides it includes. While they can be used on some major rides elsewhere in the park, the passes cannot be used on the two major rides within the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Escape from Gringotts in Diagon Alley and The Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade). They can be used on two of the less busy Harry Potter rides - Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge, both in Hogsmeade - but those don't tend to have the extensive wait-times of the other two. I'll have more on rides later.
Tip: Get There Earlier Than You're Planning
The Wizarding World tends to be busiest during the middle of the day. Therefore, there are two major strategies to seeing what you want to see without waiting in line or pushing through crowds - come in early, or stay late. Or ideally, both.
We tend to be late sleepers and got to Universal around 9:15 am on Saturday, with the park opening at 9:00 am. We had an Uber take us from our hotel, saving us the time it would take to park.It's worth noting that there is a main Universal security check that you first enter through, which consists of a bag search and metal detector. After that, you will proceed through all of Universal City Walk before reaching the separate gates for Universal Studios or Island of Adventures (where you will present your tickets).
So if you're trying to arrive for a park opening at 9 am, you'd probably want to reach that outside security check by 8:30 you can proceed through the bag check and Universal City Walk to make it to the gate by 9. If you're through the security check too early, there is a Starbucks and multiple other places within Universal City Walk to grab breakfast while you wait.
It is also worth noting that many say the park will begin letting people in almost 20 minutes before opening time, so get there even earlier if that is important to you. We, however, made it to the main Universal gate around 9:15 but didn't get to the park gate until around 9:40 am.
Tip: Do the Major Rides First
My very first order of business was getting to Diagon Alley! It's near the back of the park, so we pretty much beelined past all of the other areas of Universal Studios to begin with. The approach to Diagon Alley is absolutely magical. You're wandering through the Universal areas of New York and San Francisco, when things begin looking a little more like London. You'll see a red phonebooth, the Knight Bus, and know you've arrived at Kings Cross. Make sure you stop at the phonebooth and dial 62442 on the phone inside. Find time to come back and talk with the Knight Bus driver and his shrunken head, which is also a great photo op. You'll also see Grimmauld Place, and you may spot a certain crotchety house elf in the window of #12 if you're lucky.
Diagon Alley was so tucked away it took a minute of looking around before we knew where to go! I recommend not taking too much time to look around or dip into stores yet. The lines for the major rides only get longer toward the middle of the day. We hopped straight in line for Escape from Gringotts, after taking a minute to stow our things away in a locker.
A word about lockers: I used them at each ride that recommended them, being that I was carrying a purse. They are fingerprint lockers, so you literally have to carry nothing. The locker areas are crowded and can take some time to lock and retrieve your things, unless you are strategic about where you get your locker (wherever there seems to be the fewest people crowding around). I usually placed all of my things in a locker, although quickly realized that some people were holding on to cell phones discretely to take pictures during the long - and visually amazing - ride lines. Use your best judgment, but know that if your cell phone fits in your pocket, they probably won't stop you for it. I personally didn't want to take the risk of losing my phone and decided to just be happy with mental images instead of pictures!
Our wait at the Escape from Gringotts ride was around 50 minutes, and probably one of our longest waits of the weekend. It's best to get this ride out of the way first so you can enjoy the day without having to keep coming back and looking at wait times. But waiting on line is essentially a walking tour through Gringotts Bank, so you'll be so entertained that you'll forget you're waiting. The ride itself is excellent, although I won't say much else to avoid any spoilers!
Tip: Get to a Wand Choosing Ceremony
We noticed a short line at Ollivanders and decided to bite the bullet. It took us about 10 minutes to get through the door. Throughout the weekend, I saw the line both much longer than this as well as virtually non-existent, so it may be wise to play it by ear when it comes to your Ollivander's visit. However, you do want it do it somewhat early, as there will be multiple uses for your wand during your time at the park. There is an Ollivanders in Hogsmeade as well as Diagon Alley, so you can get this experience at either park.
We watched the amazing wand-choosing ceremony (which admittedly brought tears to my eyes even though I wasn't even the chosen witch!) and entered the shop to look for our own wands. We spent a lot of time in the shop looking at, holding, and reading about all of the different wands. I do recommend the interactive wands, which will let you cast spells throughout the park (more on that later), although they come at a $50 price tag each. I also recommend taking a picture of the info on the wall regarding your wand, so you will always be able to remember what your wand is and means.
A note on being chosen for the ceremony: There is really no guaranteed way to be chosen. If you go when it is less crowded and there are fewer people in your group, this will of course give you better odds. Most often, a child is chosen. It is also helpful to have a Universal Special Occasion or Birthday button on, which you can get from Guest Services. More on these buttons later.
Tip: Explore the Shops, but Save the Shopping
Following Ollivander's, we decided to take some time looking in all of the shops. I wasn't prepared to buy anything yet, since I wanted to check everything out before deciding what I actually wanted to take home with me.
The multiple stores in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade have some of the same products, as well as some things that are unique. I recommend checking out the shops and saving your actual shopping until your last day to ensure that you are really getting what you want. Remember to make a note on your cell phone if you see something you really want to come back for!
A note on shopping: The stores in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade will send your packages to be picked up at the front gate if you request. This will take about 2-3 hours from purchase time. I didn't take advantage of it and opted to just save my shopping for later in the day, but I imagine it's a great way to go. It's also worth noting that most products are also available online at Universal's website if you have any post-trip regret about not buying something!
We looked around in Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment, and Quality Quidditch Supplies, which were all amazing to explore from an aesthetic standpoint. The following day, we explored the Hogsmeade shops to compare all of the items before finally deciding all of the souvenirs we needed.
Tip: Embrace the Dark Side
Don't get me wrong, I am 100% on the side of Harry, Dumbledore, and all of our good wizards! But there was something exciting about embracing the dark side for a day.
We headed into Knockturn Alley and poked around in Borgin and Burkes. Knockturn Alley is another completely immersive area of the park that will make you almost forget where you are. This place has the sinister, dark wizarding things that you won't see in many of the other shops.
On a whim, we left with matching Dark Mark temporary tattoos and put them on immediately at one of the bathrooms. Note that the cast members stay completely within character, which of course leads to very interesting responses from those who see your mark. We had everything from sly, conspiratorial smiles to complete shock from the different members of the cast. One cast member warned me of an impending trip to Azkaban. The shrunken head on the Knight Bus was particularly horrified but the Knight Bus Driver said I'd be fine if I just kept it hidden.
I imagine you may get similar responses to any sort of costume worn in the park, but this was particularly fun for us!
Could you embrace the dark side?
Which would you do?
Tip: Try Your Hand, Errr.. Wand, at Some Spells
We first tried one of the interactive wand spells in Knockturn Alley. If you get one of the interactive wands at Ollivander's, they will come with a map of all the places in both parks where they can be used, and a guide for how to do each spell.
The spells can be kind of tricky. Like a real spell in the world of Harry Potter, they involve a specific combination of spoken word and wand motion, which proved to be difficult for a muggle like me. After all, it's Levi-O-sa, not Levio-SA!
I eventually got it with the help of some friendly cast members. Don't be afraid to ask for help. We found a particularly helpful cast member who walked us around Diagon Alley showing us each place to do spells and making sure we got them right. Your spells can trigger all sorts of interactive responses throughout the park so make sure to try them all!
Tip: Explore the Rest of the Park at Peak Times
The park in general, and most especially the Wizarding World, is most crowded between 11 am and 3 pm. Therefore, it makes sense to do other parks of the park at this time. We specifically planned both days on doing the Wizarding World first, then exploring other parts of the parks, and coming back to the Wizarding World around 4 pm - when all the parents begin corralling their weary children back to hotels.
On the Universal Studios (Diagon Alley) side, Springfield USA was particularly entertaining for us as Simpsons (and beer) fans. There is a lot more to do, like the Transformers ride, Revenge of the Mummy, Despicable Me, the Blues Brothers live street show, and Shrek. I was a little too chicken for the 90 degree incline and drop on Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, but that ride has great reviews as well, if you're a real thrill-seeker! The oldies such as ET and Terminator were underwhelming after all of the showy special effects of the new rides, but they are considered Universal Studios classics and worth seeing if you're interested in that.
The Islands of Adventure side felt to me like there was less to do, but that's probably because the awesome-looking Hulk rollercoaster was closed when we went. There are also lots of water rides over here, and we were particularly interested in getting wet. We did spend time in Jurassic Park area and rode the River Adventure ride - which was other underwhelming but classic ride. I also recommend the Adventures of Spiderman and Dr. Doom's Fearfall (which is fun but much less thrilling than the Disney counterpart Tower of Terror).
Tip: Eat at the Leaky Cauldron
The Leaky Cauldron was a great dining experience in the park and offers multiple selections of traditional English pub food. We waited in line for about 5 minutes because we picked to go at an off-peak time (aka not during a "regular" meal time). Following the line, you'll place your order at one of the many registers and they will give you a number to place on your table. Proceed to the cast member near the dining room, who will seat you. The decorations and atmosphere in the dining room will definitely transport you to the "real" Leaky Cauldron. While you wait for your food, check out the amazing attention to detail in the decor.
The food comes quickly and is surprisingly delicious for a theme park! My husband loved the bangers and mash, and my picky self was perfectly satisfied with the macaroni and cheese from the kids menu. We both had some Dragon Scale beer, which ended up being my favorite beer within Universal Studios.
Overall, you need to check out the Leaky Cauldron, and while you're at it, be sure to visit its the other Wizarding World restaurant, the Three Broomsticks, on the Hogsmeade side in Islands of Adventure. If you aren't hungry, I recommend at least stopping into both for a butterbeer - or a real beer!
A note on butterbeer: Butterbeer at the Wizarding World is a foamy, sugary sweet butterscotch flavored drink. If you aren't too big on sweets, I recommend splitting one with a buddy at first. Chances are, half a cup might be enough! Butterbeer comes in a variety of forms. Cold butterbeer is probably the closest to what Harry & Co. drank - it's somewhat similar to a cream soda. Hot butterbeer is something I didn't try, as it is only available in the winter months, but it looks similar to a foamy latte. Frozen butterbeer is probably the most positively received type and definitely the type I liked the best. All three types of butterbeer can be found at multiple carts and street vendors, as well as the Three Broomsticks/Hog's Head Pub (Hogsmeade) and The Leaky Cauldron (Diagon Alley). Butterbeer fudge and ice cream are both available in the park as well - you can find them at Honeyduke's Sweet Shop and Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour, respectively.
Tip: Ride the Hogwarts Express - for Fun and Transport!
No trip to the Wizarding World is complete without riding the Hogwarts Express. Since it is a transport between Diagon Alley at the main Universal Studios and Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure, I wanted to wait until it made sense to travel between them - rather than just wasting a chunk of my day riding it back and forth!
The Hogwarts Express is a different ride and experience both ways, so I do recommend taking it in both directions. Since the main Universal Studios was closing two hours earlier than Islands of Adventure on this first day, we headed over to Hogsmeade in the evening to continue on the other side. Riding from Diagon Alley is a great experience, as you start in King's Cross Station at the famed Platform 9 3/4.
As it was the last two hours that the park was open once we got to Hogsmeade, the crowds were dying down and we had a chance to explore things without all of the people! We took this opportunity to ride the Dragon Challenge coaster twice while the lines were short. This rollercoaster is actually two different, intertwined coasters and I recommend riding both dragons to get the full experience. There is a separate line that splits off toward the end for sitting in the front row, which I recommend if you are a real thrill-seeker! It will take a bit longer but was definitely worth it.
The following day, we started at Hogsmeade and followed our same model of going to the major ride first (in the case of Hogsmeade, this is the Hogwarts castle ride known as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) as well as the Flight of the Hippogriff. Flight of the Hippogriff is definitely a junior rollercoaster, but still worth seeing for the die-hard Harry Potter fan of any age. Then we did the rest of the park, came back to Hogsmeade for some last minute shopping and another quick ride on the Dragon Challenge, and rode the Hogwarts Express the other way back to Diagon Alley to end our day. This way, we took the Hogwarts Express both ways but didn't waste time just for the sake of riding.
A word about the Forbidden Journey: This is such an excellent ride, and the queue, much like the Gringotts ride, is an experience in and of itself. It is a walking tour through Hogwarts where you'll see classrooms, familiar hallways, and even the sorting hat itself! However, the ride is a constantly loading circuit and this can occasionally lead to little hiccups or pauses in the ride if there are any issues with folks loading or unloading. If there is any sort of glitch during your ride, make sure you mention it to a cast member at the end and they will put you straight back onto the ride without waiting in line again. Our ride's small hiccup was actually a blessing in disguise because we got to experience the whole thing again without the wait!
Tip: Get a Birthday or Special Occasion Button
If you're visiting for your birthday or another special occasion (yes, your first visit counts as a special occasion!), stop by guest services for a button to wear! We had to wait in line for maybe 15 minutes, but it was quick to get a button letting everyone know it was my birthday.
I've heard stories of other benefits, but my button personally got me a free butterbeer, lots of shout-outs (including a special rhyme and birthday cheer on the Dr. Suess ride), and a ton of happy birthday wishes from everyone I saw.
I didn't attend a wand ceremony while wearing my button as I had already bought my wand the day before and knew that if a different wand chose me, I'd just have to buy a second one. However, this is a big perk of having a button that a lot of people claim.
Overall, my trip would've been magical even without the recognition, but this was the icing on my (birthday) cake!
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© 2016 Annie Fox