Amusement parks are not typically what Sarah and I gravitate towards when we plan a trip. We do have two young kids, however, and like most kids they are pretty big fans of those parks. Part of traveling as a family means making compromises. Our kids have been pretty great about the many hikes that Sarah I have dragged them onto in the past few years, so for their week of school vacation in April of 2015, we decided to make one of those compromises and take them to a theme park.
While our family may not agree on amusement park vacations, one thing we all certainly do share in common is a love for all things Harry Potter. As such, the decision as to which theme park we would visit was a pretty easy one. Four tickets aboard the Hogwarts Express please, stopping at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal Studios Orlando.
Buying Our Tickets
We had actually considered visiting the Harry Potter-themed part of Universal Studios when they had first built it a few years ago. This was when they only had the “Hogsmeade” section available, which is part of their “Islands of Adventure” park. Thankfully we held off on that trip, because Universal has now added a second Potter-inspired location, the “Diagon Alley” section which is part of the “Universal Studios Orlando” park. Since our main goal in visiting Universal was to take in the Harry Potter experience, this second location made the visit much more worthwhile for us.
Like most theme parks, tickets to Universal Studios do not come cheap, and there is very little in the way of savings that you will find out there. You can save a few bucks if you are a AAA member or book the tickets from the area hotel where you are staying, but in the end, the savings will be a small fraction of the total cost of your admission into those parks. Knowing this, we actually turned to UniversalStudios.com to secure our tickets. We booked a vacation package that included a stay at an area resort hotel as well as tickets to the parks. The deal they were running at the time was that you paid for 2 days in the park and they gave you a third day for free. These tickets also allowed for early admission into the Harry Potter parts of the park and 2 free breakfasts – one in the Leaky Cauldron restaurant and one in the Three Broomsticks. Finally, as a fun additional bonus, the park sent us a “Hogwarts welcome package” complete with a letter to Hogwarts and a plush owl toy that my daughter absolutely loved. In the end, the vacation package was pretty much like buying the tickets outright while getting a discount on the hotel stay plus a few free meals and the toy.
Our family got an early start for our first day at Universal. The kids were understandably giddy and Sarah and I were actually pretty excited as well. The kids’ enthusiasm was infectious and we were all anxious to spend some time in Harry’s world.
Taking advantage of the early admission that our tickets allowed us, we made our way into the “Hogsmeade” section of the park first. You have to walk through the rest of the Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure park to reach this location, but since it was still early, those parts of the park were not yet open for business. This meant that everyone was heading over to Hogsmeade.
The magic of Harry Potter literally opens up before you as you approach the sign welcoming you to Hogsmeade. For anyone who has enjoyed these books or marveled at the movies, you will immediately be taken aback as you see the snow-covered roofs of the village of Hogsmeade appear before you with the imposing sight of Hogwarts Castle looming in the distance. It is really as if you are walking into Harry’s world.
Those first few minutes in Hogsmeade were a bit overwhelming. There was just so much to look at and take in and we were honestly not sure what to do first. Since it was still early, the park was at least a little less busy than it would presumably be later in the day. This being the case, we decided to start with the main attraction of this area of the park - the “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™” ride which is housed in Hogwarts Castle.
Like many popular theme park rides being built today, the entire experience has been taken into account for this attraction. Notable locations from the films are presented throughout the queue as you wait to get into the ride. For instance, you will see the sorting hat and walk through a hall with many of the talking portraits from the movies (and yes, they will talk to you). Along the way, you will also see replicas of some of the rooms in Hogwarts Castle, including the Headmaster’s office, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and the Gryffindor common room. There are also some video effects that show Harry, Ron, and Hermoine and which carry forward the general storyline of the ride. There is even a scene where Ron tries to perform some magic. His spell eventually backfires, causing snow to fall in the room that you are in.
The ride itself takes you on a flight alongside Harry and to many other notable locations from the stories. You will see the Whomping Willow, a Quidditch match, Aragog the spider, dementors, and more. Unfortunately, Sarah and I get a bit of motion sickness, and the constant jerking and moving of this ride had us feeling a bit queasy by the time it was done. Thankfully, our next stops in Harry Potter’s world would be less about rides and more about immersing ourselves in this universe.
The Wand Ceremony
One of the highlights of a visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is to select a wand (or have a wand select you). The parks sell a number of interactive wands that allow you to “cast spells” throughout both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. These spells trigger different actions from displays in shop windows, statues on the street, and other locations in the parks. So where do you get your wand? As Hagrid would say, “You’ll want Ollivanders. No place better.”
Ollivanders is more than a gift shop. They also have a “wand ceremony” which recreates the scene where Harry gets his wand. A lucky child is chosen from each group to be a part of the “show”. During our visit to Ollivanders, they actually decided to select two children to participate – our kids, Jacob and Holly.
This was easily one of the coolest parts of our trip. Seeing how excited our kids were as they tested out wands and had “spells” backfire on them until the right wands were found was awesome. Needless to say, we knew that we had no choice but to purchase those wands (we had planned to buy some anyway, so this just made the purchase experience that much cooler).
After the wand ceremony, we made our way into the gift shop and our kids proceeded to try on some Hogwarts robes (they chose House Gryffindor). The quality of these robes was actually pretty surprising. They were really well put together and not anything like a cheap, store-bought Halloween costume. That high quality also comes with a high price tag, of course, and those robes rang up at over $100 each. As we paid for our purchases, Sarah told the kids that they would be wearing those robes for Halloween that year. The cashier smiled at this comment and told us that they hear that numerous times each day. It is the only way that most parents can justify buying one of those robes - that it will at least do double duty as that year’s costume!
Donning their new robes and with wands in hand, Jacob and Holly led us back into the park. The excitement of the experience seemingly allowed them to ignore the fact that they were wearing heavy, black robes in the hot Florida sun, because we did not hear one complaint from them as they bounced from spot to spot in the park finding ways to cast spells with those new wands.
Each of the park’s wands come with a map that shows the locations that allow wand holders to interact with the environment. Cameras capture the motion of the wands and, if correct, respond with some movement or action that inevitably delights the little witch or wizard who cast the spell correctly.
Casting spells causes a thirst, so our next stop was a cart to buy some butterbeer and pumpkin juice, two beverages referenced many times the Harry Potter stories. These drinks went great with some of the sweets we loaded up on in Honeydukes, including some chocolate frogs and a few bags of Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans!
The Hogwarts Express
Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley are each in separate parks. If you have a pass that allows you admission to both parks, you can travel between them using the Hogwarts Express. This is more than simply a means of transport. The Hogwarts Express is a ride/experience unto itself. Even cooler – the ride changes depending on the direction you are heading. If you are going from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley, you get one experience. You get a different one if you reverse that trip. Each cabin on the train has “windows” that are really screens, showing scenes move by as the train chugs along. Keep your eyes open and you will see a number of notable sights, including Malfoy Manner (and a surprise visit from He Who Must Not Be Named).
In the Harry Potter universe, Diagon Alley is supposed to be hidden away in London, so as you exit the train station at King’s Cross, you will be back in the Muggle world and you will need to make your way to Diagon Alley. Outside of the train station you will find the Knight Bus with its funny conductor. You can talk to the conductor and take pictures with him and his shrunken head co-pilot. You can also visit 12 Grimmauld Place and see the Black family house elf, Kreacher, as he peeks out from behind a window every few minutes.
Entering Diagon Alley is even more overwhelming than coming into Hogsmeade. First off, since it was later in the day, there were far more people in this area of the park than when we had arrived earlier that morning. Second, directly in front of you as you make your way into Diagon Alley is the imposing sight of Gringotts Bank, complete with a giant fire-breathing dragon on top (this dragon spews flames every so often, and the entire park stops and looks up when you hear the rumble that signals that a burst is about to happen).
As impressive as the shops in Hogsmeade are, the ones in Diagon Alley are even better. This is not really because of the merchandise they carry, although that is cool as well, but rather how expertly they recreate iconic locations from the stories. In Diagon Alley you will find the Weasley brother’s joke shop as well as Florence Fontescue’s Ice Cream Parlor, Flourish & Blotts, Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, Quality Quidditch Supplies, another location for Ollivander’s Wands, and more. Once again, it is really like walking through the stories.
Making our way deeper into Diagon Alley, we came to a large public square-style section. This is a great place to hang out for a while and take in the sights, including the stage where the acts rotate between a troupe of actors staging short plays from the Tales of Beedle the Bard stories and a musical performance by Celistina Warbeck. We walked in right as the acting troupe was performing the “Tale of the Three Brothers”, which is the most important of the Beedle the Bard stories since it connects to the Deathy Hallows and larger Potter story as a whole.
The only real ride in Diagon Alley is “Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™”, but what this area lacks in quantity of rides it makes up for in quality. This was easily the most amazing ride I have ever been on!
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™ is located in the giant Gringotts Bank that is the central location for this wing of the park. The queue has you lining up inside the bank and you can see the goblins at their work. The ride itself is an incredible mixture of roller coaster thrills with both video and practical effects that recreate the scene where Harry and his friends free a dragon to break out of the goblin-run bank.
The line for the Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™ will be long, but the wait is well worth it! Whatever you do, do not skip this ride.
The final area of Diagon Alley that we had to explore was the offshoot Knockturn Alley. This “dodgy place” is more in tune with witches and wizards who fancy the dark arts and the light and mood turns grim as you enter this area. While there are no rides in Knockturn Alley, you will find the Borgin and Burkes shop, which is another location that plays a role in the stories.
The Rest of Universal
While our main goal in visiting this theme park was to see the Harry Potter areas, and although we certainly spent the bulk of our time there, we did venture into the other parts of the parks to check out some of the other rides as well. Jacob was particularly fond of the Mummy abd Jurassic Park rides while both kids loved the Minions experience, which was easily the longest line in the park.
Many of my suggestions for visiting Universal Studios and the Wizard World of Harry Potter are in line with what I would offer for any amusement park, including:
- Plan your visit for outside of peak season and avoid school vacations, holidays, and the summer. Crowds at these parks are heavy, and they get even heavier at these times If you go off-peak, you can usually do more during your visit. We actually went on this trip during the tail end of a school vacation and it wasn’t too bad, but I still suggest looking into off-peak times.
- Try to get the best ticket deal you can. Even though we didn’t use our third day, which was free, in the parks, we did enjoy the free breakfast at the Three Broomsticks, which was a fun experience.
- On that note, if you really want to do the Harry Potter experience, eat in those sections of the park. Normally Sarah and I try to avoid overpriced park food as much as possible, but these locations are so expertly recreated, it is worth it.
- If you have early park admission, take advantage of it and beat the crowds. You can often get in the most sought after rides early on and skip the longer lines that form later in the day.
- Plan to spend some time just hanging out in the open square of Diagon Alley to see the performances. The acting troupe’s short plays were one of my favorite parts of the visit.
- Visiting any theme park day after day can be overwhelming, so if you have the time available, try to break up the theme park fun with some days outside of the park relaxing or, at the very least, doing activities that do not require you to wait in line or go on fast-moving rides!