My eight year old son has spent the past year feverishly reading the Harry Potter World series. I did not read Harry Potter as a child or as a young adult, so when he started reading it, I decided to start reading it with him to share the experience. Although there have been times where he has been convinced that he will never finish, I’m happy to report that he finished the last book of the series just two days before our weekend getaway to Universal Studios Orlando!
Why Universal Studios Orlando?
Earlier this year, a friend of mine and I were discussing Harry Potter and how amazing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios sounded. She had been to the Hollywood version and when she said she was game to visit Orlando with my eight year old and myself, I snapped up the opportunity. Within four hours, we had booked a weekend getaway to Universal Studios in Orlando, which is a convenient two hour plane ride away. When my mother-in-law heard that we had planned a trip to Harry Potter World, she immediately asked if she could tag along. We happily added her to our reservation and the trip was set for three adults and one kid.
How did we book our trip?
For the first time ever, I booked a vacation package via the theme park. I’ve visited Disneyland and Disney World before, but have never stayed on-site, much less booked a vacation package. Since our plan was strictly to focus on Harry Potter World, we knew we wanted to get the early entry offered only to hotel guests. We also wanted easy access to the Park, so we called Universal Orlando Vacations to get an estimate on how much the trip would cost.
Much to my surprise, a vacation package at Universal Orlando is extremely affordable. We booked:
- three night stay in a two bedroom, two bathroom suite at the Cabana Bay Hotel;
- three park-to-park tickets for four (three adults, one child) so that we could enter the Park on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday prior to our afternoon departure;
- breakfast for four at Three Broomsticks on Sunday morning.
The total cost for three people was just over $600/person. Considering that a one day park-to-park ticket costs $165, I was floored by how reasonably priced our vacation package was and happy booked away. Our vacation package did not include flights (which we booked separately) and meals outside of breakfast the Three Broomsticks. Although there may have been a shuttle from the airport to the resort, we chose to ride Lyft to and from the airport. We did make heavy use of the hotel to theme park shuttle, which was prompt and, importantly, air conditioned.
Our hotel was located next to Volcano Bay, Universal’s water theme park. We had a great view of the volcano from our hotel room and this provided hours of people watching while we were holed up in our room either resting or cooling down.
Our hotel was retro themed and came equipped with VO5 and Zest. Of course, my friend and I noticed this right away and spent the rest of the week humming the “Zest fully clean” theme song under our breath.
The hotel’s major short coming, in our opinion, was the lack of a real restaurant. The Cabana Bay has a diner, which is self-serve cafeteria style. After a long day of walking through the Park, the last thing I wanted to do was wait in line at multiple stations to gather food for my son and myself.
We did, however, take advantage of the bowling alley at our hotel which, curiously, offers table service. On the second day of our trip, temperatures were nearing 100 degrees and thus, we decided to spend an hour bowling and munching on food in the air conditioning, rather than fighting the crowds and searching for dining locations within the Park.
What did we do?
We Harry Pottered of course! Going into the trip, I warned my son that our primary goal was to spend time in Harry Potter World. I did a small amount of online research for tips and travel suggestions and thanks to the advice I was able to glean online, we had a fabulous, yet not overwhelming experience.
First, park-to-park tickets are essential. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is comprised of two parks with two larger parks – Universal Orlando and Island of Adventure. Diagon Alley is the defining area at Universal Orlando and Hogsmeade and Hogwart’s are the two defining Harry Potter areas within Island of Adventure. For ease of reference, I’ll often refer to the two areas as either the Diagon Alley side or the Hogsmeade side. The two Harry Potter sections of the larger Parks are connected by the Hogwart’s Express, and you must have admission to both parks in order to ride.
Second, our hotel’s early admission policy gave us an extra hour to tour the Wizarding World of Harry Potter on the Diagon Alley side. During our visit, Universal Orlando opened one hour prior to Island of Adventure, so we had two full hours to experience Diagon Alley before high tailing it over to Hogshead and Hogwart’s.
To fully take advantage of the early entry, we woke up at 6am, got dressed, and took the shuttle bus over to Universal Orlando. Although there were many others entering the Park at the same time, it was by no means crowded. The walk through the Park is eerie, however, as the rest of the Park is not technically open. Early admission only gets you in early to Diagon Alley – the rest of the Park opens at the regularly scheduled time, so it is quite odd to walk through a deserted theme park, much of which was still covered in darkness due to the time of year and early entry.
There is only one way to enter Diagon Alley and that is behind the London Waterfront. The London Waterfront is located at the far end of the Park, so it is quite a bit of a hike, but the first glimpse of Diagon Alley is well worth the walk.
Immediately upon entering Diagon Alley, you’re confronted by a row of shops and Gringott’s Bank. We practically ran to Gringott’s so that we could get on the Escape from Gringott’s ride. The ride does not allow any purses or backpacks and there are free lockers that you can store your stuff while riding. Although the locker areas were manageable in the early mornings and evenings, I would imagine they would get overly crowded during the day so to the extent possible, try to limit what you bring.
The ride itself is a treat (we ended up riding it a total of four times), but what surprised me was the level of detail that went into constructing Gringott’s itself. As you wind through Gringott’s bank for your turn to ride, there are little details that we took great delight in noticing and pointing out.
Because of our early entry, we had no trouble getting onto the ride, after which we explored the shops and sights of Diagon Alley, including Ollivander’s, where my son purchased his interactive wand.
The attention to detail extended throughout the Park, including the fire breathing dragon at Gringott’s.
+Video credit Julie Powers of Learn, Live, and Explore!
When the dragon breaths fire, there is heat that emanates (from the buildings?) so you can actually feel the warmth!
After walking around Diagon Alley a few times, it was nearing 9am and thus, time to ride the Hogwart’s Express to the other Park – Island of Adventure.To get to the train station, we had to exit Diagon Alley from the same entrance that we entered and walk to the London Terminal side of the building (less than 20 feet away). Although there was a slight delay as they had to check to make sure everyone had proper park-to-park admission tickets, we were on the Hogwart’s Express in no time and traveling to Hogsmeade and Hogwart’s!
Hogsmeade is less visually stimulating and impressive than Diagon Alley, but my son loved the shops there better than in Diagon Alley. Not only did Hogsmeade have its own Ollivander Outpost, but it also had Honeyduke’s, which was definitely my son’s favorite place to browse. My son also loved the “big ride” on the Hogsmeade side – The Forbidden Journey. As with Escape from Gringott’s, the line for The Forbidden Journey snakes throughout the castle and has small details to notice as you wait.
Although my son and his grandmother loved The Forbidden Journey, I was partial to the Flight of the Hippogriff, which is significantly tamer and includes not only a Hagrid’s Hut sighting, but a Buckbeak sighting as well!
There is so much to do in the two Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter but the crowds quickly fill up and the Orlando heat did us no favors. In fact, the crowds were such that both full days we were at the park, we left the Harry Potter areas during mid-day and explored other areas of the Park or just went home to relax.
Tips & Suggestions
To make the most of your trip to Harry Potter Orlando, I recommend:
- Staying on-site and getting park-to-park tickets, including one hour early access. With this perk, you can explore the Diagon Alley side for nearly two full hours prior to hopping over to the Hogsmeade side just as it opens.
- If you have the time, I recommend staying two full days or at least 1.5 days. With 1.5 days, you can explore Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade early in the morning on two occasions, prior to when crowds get overwhelming. You can then spend the afternoon/evenings or the next morning leisurely exploring the shops and sights of the respective areas. It’s important to note that the two Wizarding World of Harry Potter areas are located within their larger respective theme parks and that each area is relatively tightly built to mimic the true feel of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Because of the tight nature of the space, there just isn’t enough room for everyone who wants to be there, so if crowds are not your thing, you should try to stay more than one day so that you can fully experience both areas.
- If you absolutely cannot stay onsite and your visit is limited to one day, I recommend pre-purchasing your tickets and splurging for the Express Pass. The Express Pass line will allow you to take a shorter line, thus ensuring sufficient time for rides and browsing. We did not do this because we had a full 2.5 days to spend at the Parks and the early entry allowed us to get our rides in before the crowds got overwhelming.
- Plan to enter the various Harry Potter worlds at two separate times – once immediately upon opening (whether you have early access or not) and in the two to three hours prior to closing. On the first night we were there, we wandered back over to Hogsmeade at around 5pm and found that the earlier crowds had died down significantly. What had been shoulder to shoulder crowds mid-day had thinned out such that my mother-in-law and my son happily rode The Forbidden Journey with only a 15 minute wait (mid-day wait times had reached 90 minutes). Because our stay was 2.5 days, we had a total of five planned entries into the various Harry Potter areas. Although we only made four (we were rained out the evening of the second day), with our early entry, we go to ride each of the rides multiple times and spend plenty of time exploring the shops and doing the spells.
- Get an interactive wand (or not). We did purchase an interactive wand (or three) for our party of four and although some love the spells, I didn’t find them to be too compelling. My son found them to be confusing at first, but enjoyed casting spells once he got the hang of it. During mid-day, the crowds to do the spells were overwhelming, so this was another activity that was good for our early morning visits.
Finally, there are a number of “secrets” that you can find on the internet about each of the Parks. Some of them are easy to discover on your own (Moaning Myrtle in the bathroom at Hogsmeade) and others are near impossible to know about without some prior internet research. I encourage you to search the internet for these “secrets” if you are so inclined. I did go to Park armed with a few secrets, but discovered one of my own while there:
You can exchange muggle money for Gringott’s currency at Gringott’s Bank in Diagon Alley (not the big Gringott’s that is the ride, but a separate storefront). That itself is not a secret – the secret is that there’s counterfeit deterrent on the currency – if you rub the money with your fingers, the heat generated will cause the keys to fade. Although it is intended as counterfeit deterrent, I thought this was a secret little bit of “magic” and loved it when the cashier at Honeydukes let me in on the secret. You can exchange muggle money for Gringott’s currency in denominations of $10 and $20 and Gringott’s money is accepted within the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and other select locations within the Park. There is no cost for the exchange or the experience – it’s a $1 for $1 exchange – so I highly recommend doing this just for fun.
This was my first visit to a Universal theme park since I was a young child and I definitely noted that the Parks were not as nice as the Disney parks. Due to our early arrival at the Parks (7am all three mornings), we were usually starving by 10am, but there was no food to be found except for churros and pretzels. There are very few sit down, full service dining options within either Park. Indeed, we dined at both Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron while we were there and both were fast service restaurants where you order at a counter and then bring your food to a table via tray. We did dine at the one full service in Island of Adventure during our stay, Mythos, and the food and service were perfectly acceptable. I just wish there were more opportunities for full service sit down dining so that we could recharge our batteries in the air conditioning. And, while I found the dining options to be lacking, the quality of the food that we had at both The Three Broomsticks and The Leaky Cauldron was excellent (although maybe we were just starving from our early morning wake-ups?). We enjoyed both breakfasts that we had at the two restaurants and I would not hesitate to work them into future visits (although I loathe the thought of what must be a mob scene at lunch).
The bulk of our time was spent in the Harry Potter sections, but we did walk through the other portions of the Parks. Unfortunately, I found much of the Parks to be dated – Betty Boop? Popeye? The Simpsons? My son has no idea what any of these are and I’m not entirely sure he ever will, although he did enjoy the giant donut from Lard Lad Donuts!
That said, however, all of the Universal employees were pleasant – from the ride/line operators to the trash collectors, all of them were super helpful and willing to assist. I particularly loved that each of the spell locations within The Wizarding World of Harry Potter had employees posted to help the little ones cast their spells. The facilities (bathrooms) were also more than adequate in terms of size and cleanliness.
Overall, if you have a Harry Potter fan, I highly recommend Universal Studios Orlando for the experience! When I close my eyes, I can still imagine how wondrous it was to walk into Diagon Alley for the first time and the best part? It has my son feverishly reading The Cursed Child.
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