This past week I got to experience something I’ve been waiting for for over five years. As a massive and lifelong Potterhead, it’s the next best thing to traveling across the Atlantic to London. I FINALLY visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando.
When it originally opened in 2010, I was in Florida on vacation a month earlier. I was so disappointed about missing the opening by such a short window that I had a really hard time getting over it. And by a hard time I mean I would bring it up randomly in conversation when it was called for and didn’t let it go until I finally went.
And it was all worth it. It was every bit as wonderful and incredible as I had imagined it would be.
To start, let me say that I completely recommend booking your trip directly through Universal. The process was so simple and we were able to add on so many extras that would end up making the trip even better and more memorable. We stayed at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, a newer yet retro-inspired hotel; it’s also one of the cheaper (if not cheapest) options on-site at Universal. The staff was very friendly and helpful, the rooms were standard size but nice, and the beds were very comfortable. There was plenty to do with two pools, a lazy river, a bowling alley, and arcade. The one of the best things about staying on-site was the bus shuttles to take you to and from the park; it was also only a 15 minute walk from the hotel to the park (through a very prettily landscaped walkway), which wasn’t too bad considering Cabana Bay is on the outskirts of the Universal property.
We had three day park to park tickets with early access (granted only when staying onsite). The early access is a must and was good for the Harry Potter parts of the park, getting you in an hour before the park officially opens. There’s still a bit of a crowd but for a few precious moments you can walk around with minimal difficulty or ride the rides with little to no wait.
But enough about the technical stuff, let’s get to the good parts!
Bright and early on day one, our first stop was Hogsmeade, located in the Islands of Adventure. It didn’t matter that I was dead tired, I was so excited that morning that waiting for the rest of my family to get ready was agony; unlike myself, there are not morning people. But finally we were on our way, through the gates and into the park.
Hogsmeade is located at the back of the park, and as you get closer you can start to see the turret tops of Hogwarts followed by the snow-topped roofs of the village.
Honeydukes, Zonko’s, The Hog’s Head, Madam Puddifoot’s, Dervish and Banges, Gladrags, Ollivanders, The Three Broomsticks. Almost everything that is mentioned in the book is there in some shape or form, be it an actual shop you can go into or a fully dressed window display.
One of the first steps, obviously, was Ollivanders. Whether you’re with children or adults only, visiting to Ollivanders is non-negotiable. It’s an interactive show where one person is chosen by the shopkeeper to go through the wand choosing experience. You’re not able to record or take pictures during this, but the shop is just as peculiar and amazing as you would have imagined! Unfortunately for me they only choose children, but the next best thing happened and one of my nephews was chosen! For the soon-to-be 14 year old who was being your typical unexcitable and anti-morning teenager, he was very enthusiastic about buying the wand that had chosen him.
If you are not chosen for the experience, you still have the chance to go next door into the actual shop. Here you have two options, you can purchase a replica character wand or an interactive wand of your own liking. This is what myself and my other nephew did. I’ll be honest, it was a little overwhelming because as discerning geeks, we had to go through every wand until we found the one, which wasn’t the easiest thing within the little space of the shop.
I got mine as a souvenir (willow, if you’re wondering) and while it was interactive I myself did not use it in that way. But the interactive wands, while a bit more expensive, are so delightful. You get a map showing all the interactive displays as well as the spells to use; it was so fun seeing the next generation of Potterheads bounding about with their wands in hand.
The main attraction in Hogsmeade is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It’s a motion-based dark ride, so if you have problems with motion sickness it may not sit well with you, but even then I thought this aspect was a bit milder compared to some of the other simulator/3D rides at Universal. The line moves pretty quickly but this ride has one of the longest wait times as the day goes on, so if you want to avoid standing in line, going early in the morning or waiting until later in the evening are going to be your best chances.
It took me two tries before I was finally able to ride but it was worth it. When I exited the ride, I was all smiles from just how great it was. Not only was the ride itself fun, but walking through the halls of Hogwarts is an absolute dream. Depending on which way you go (which can vary depending on the length of the line and if you’re a single rider or not), you can see the griffin guarding the stairway to Dumbledore’s office, seeing the moving pictures, and listen to the Sorting Hat. Who hasn’t wanted to do that ever since reading the Sorcerer’s Stone??
Hogsmeade is the smaller of the two Wizarding Worlds. So on day two, bright and early yet again, we made our way to Universal Studios and Diagon Alley. For me, this is where it was at.
The cool thing about Universal Studios is that each part is a replica of city. And downtown London did not disappointment. From King’s Cross Station to Grimmauld Place, it was a wonder to take in. Along the street you find phone box that you could dial into the Ministry of Magic from; you’ll also see the Knight Bus and be able to chat with Stan Shunpike and the Shrunken Head. And wouldn’t you know, this was one of the actual Knight Bus props used in the movies!
As you’re taking it all in, be careful, because if you’re not looking close enough, you’ll miss Diagon Alley complete, which is something you do not want to do.
Turning that corner, my breath was taken away and there was a little flutter in my heart. As geeky as it sounds, I was momentarily transported to another world, imagining that this is how Harry felt when he first went to Diagon Alley with Hagrid. It was…wait for it..magical.
Just like Hogsmeade, it’s all there. The Leaky Cauldron, Quality Quidditch Supplies, Weasley Wizarding Wheezes, Gringotts, Ollivanders, Knockturn Alley. The list goes on-;there was just so much to look at! I could have spent all day there. Make sure you give yourself enough time to explore all the nooks and see all the details. It can get crowded fast (I mean, you are in an alleyway of sorts after all!), making it hard in some areas to take your time in looking at everything around you.
We had breakfast reservations at The Leaky Cauldron and it was fantastic. We had also eaten at The Three Broomsticks the day before, and while the food was average in both places, the atmosphere in The Leaky Cauldron was definitely better; the long benches and tables, the stairs leading up to the guest rooms, the only thing that was missing was Tom. One of my favorite things was this little plaque next to the doors; it’s just another example of the small yet wonderful details you can miss if you’re not paying attention. While I wasn’t able to eat lunch at either place, you could smell the fish and chips and it smelled delicious.
Keeping on that subject, there are two delectable treats that you’re only able to get in Diagon Alley. Ice cream from Fortescue’s (which I had at 9:00am, because it was vacation and why not!?) and frozen Butterbeer. I tried Butterbeer both ways and I preferred it frozen. It was so creamy and delicious. For a few more dollars, you can get it in a cute little souvenir cup. I’m all about the memories, so you know I got one.
I don’t know what it says about me, but one of my favorite places was Knockturn Alley. It’s chilly and dark and marvelously Victorian. Down there is where you’ll find Borgin and Burkes. The first time I went I was greeted by a costumed clerk who was so wonderfully in character that I greeted him back with a haughty head tilt and a “good day”. I had to laugh at myself afterwards but like the saying goes, when in Rome!
Savings the best for last, there is one thing you cannot miss from the moment you walk into the Alley. And that would be the giant dragon atop of Gringotts! It is a sight to behold, no matter the angle you are looking from. From almost anywhere in the Alley, you can hear the unmistakable grumblings of a dragon about to come to life. While the dragon is most striking to look at from the front, the best angle to get a picture or recording is from the side. But don’t stand too close, when he finally lets loose and breathes fire, its hot! We were standing down the side a bit and could still feel the heatwave.
The one last thing you have to do is take the Hogwarts Express between the parks. We took it from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley on our third day. If you have park to park passes, it’s included with you pass but you can also buy tickets at the King’s Cross Station or the Hogsmeade Station. It’s a short trip but I think I smiled the entire time, completely enjoying the experience of riding in the quaint and comfy carriage compartment.
One thing I kept saying again and again throughout the trip was the amazing attention to detail. It’s astounding when you notice all the little nuances and touches. It really does make you appreciate the work that was put into the design, it makes all the difference for the experience. I just couldn’t get enough of it. I talk to my mom every day and during vacation it’s no different. So when I would talk to her each evening, it was a 30 minute conversation of me gushing over everything we had done and seen. My sister would later tell me that she was laughing to herself at me because our mom virtually had no idea what I was talking about. I didn’t care, I had to tell her because it was so awesome!
I have a laundry list of things that I want to do and see; it’s a big financial commitment that I’ve worked hard to able to achieve. This last year has been filled with finally being able to get out from behind the computer and experience some of the fantastic geek things of the world. And the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was another tick (albeit a big one at the top of list).
While of course I would like to go back, or even visit the new park at Universal Hollywood, I know that it may not happen. For a few days, I was able to immerse myself in a physical manifestation of the fictional world I love so much. That is a dream come true for every nerd, geek, and fangirl! I take nothing for granted; I will never forget this trip and I will forever cherish the memories. And for anyone who is wants to or is willing to listen, I will tell you all about it in excruciating detail!