A few months back, if you asked me if I would be writing a first timer’s guide to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I might have chuckled a bit. I haven’t been to an amusement park, other than my small hometown fair, in over twenty years. Pushy crowds, never-ending line-ups, over-priced (crappy) food, neck-breaking, hair-raising rides…none of it has ever appealed to me. In fact, it would give me anxiety just thinking about it. Not to mention the thought of traipsing around an amusement park with a toddler sounded exhausting. However, I am huge fan of Harry Potter, especially after touring Edinburgh, and seeing where JK Rowling would piece together her masterpiece. My amazing parents convinced me to let go of my hesitations, and be a kid again, and I’m so glad I did. So if you’ve been thinking about a trip down to Orlando in the near future, here is my ultimate first timer’s guide to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter:
Give Yourself at Least Two Days
Before I left for Orlando, I had read some bloggers suggesting that one day would be more than enough to see all of Harry Potter World. That’s possible in theory, but you would miss so much of the magic by rushing through. Two days gives you enough time to experience both Daigon Alley and Hogsmeade. These are two separate sections, located in two different areas of the park. You need to take Hogwarts Express to get to either side. Travelling with a toddler, and keeping mid-day naps in mind, we gave ourselves four days and that was plenty of time to revisit favourite shops, sights and enjoy shows we may have missed the first or even second time around.
Consider Staying on Site for Extra Privileges
There are plenty of accommodation options in and around Universal Orlando, however, some mean you may have to drive into the park (parking is expensive), or walk for half an hour. Consider booking into one of the on-site hotels like Loews Portofino Bay Hotel or the Hard Rock Hotel, which is where my family stayed. When you book an on-site hotel, not only are you a few minutes walk to the park, you enjoy extra benefits like Skip-the-Line, Early Park Admission, and the ability to charge anything you purchase in the shops to your hotel room, rather than carrying cash around (I’ll write more about our Hard Rock experience in a later post). There are a lot of components to these holidays and you may want to enlist the help of a travel consultant to iron out the finite details.
Plan on One Meal in the Park…For the Experience
We all know eating in amusement parks can drain the wallet. I definitely recommend bringing snacks and refreshments. However, there are some really fun places to eat that you might remember from the movie like The Leaky Cauldron and The Three Broomsticks. We didn’t find meals there particularly expensive, and if you want to step into an authentic English pub full of character, magic and child-friendly seating and dining options, consider budgeting for at least one meal in the park (and the rest off-site at along CityWalk or at your hotel if you wish).
Don’t Worry About Child Height Restrictions with Child Swap
If you’re a Universal Orlando aficionado, this may not impress you (because you’ll already know this), but I think the Child Swap program is one of the greatest ideas since avocado on toast! If you’re travelling in a group with small children who don’t meet the height restrictions, the Child Swap program at Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure allows the entire group (little ones included) to go through the entire line as a family. The family members who want to go on the ride continue on, and those who are waiting their turn, can take the little ones into a child-friendly space that’s heated, often has kids movies playing, change-table facilities and water fountains. Then, when the first family members have finished their turn on the ride, they swap out with those who’ve been waiting in the Child Swap Area, without anyone having to go to the back of the line ~ Genius!
Keep Your Backpack Small and Free of Valuables
No one wants to lug around a heavy bag all day long, and you would think that having a stroller means you can just chuck everything underneath. Keep in mind, if you’re doing Child Swap, you have to leave your stroller outside in a designated stroller parking area, which means you’ll want to bring anything of value with you. And if the line is long, you’re going to have sore shoulders. Also, the lockers on site are somewhat small.
The Express Pass is Not Always Worth it!
I am all about my readers (and clients) enjoying their vacations to the max, and don’t want them to have to shell out money for unnecessary things. The Express Pass is an-add on that Universal Studios charges for separately to allow guests to hop into a separate, faster moving line-up for select rides and attractions. Now, if you are staying at any of the on-site hotels (Hard Rock, Loews etc) these are included with your stay for free. In my opinion, if you are staying off-site, these add-on passes are worth purchasing if you are traveling in high season (Spring Break, Holidays, Summer). We were there during the second week of January and it was relatively quiet, so it was a good thing we didn’t shell out the extra money. These are the rides the Express Pass applies to as of January 2019:
Universal Studios Orlando
- Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
- Hogwarts Express
- Hogwarts Express: King’s Cross Station
- TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D
- Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
- MEN IN BLACK™ Alien Attack
- Fast & Furious – Supercharged
- Revenge of the Mummy
- E.T. Adventure
- The Simpsons Ride
- Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
- Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster
- Shrek 4-D
Islands of Adventures
- Poseidon’s Fury
- Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges
- Jurassic Park River Adventure
- Hogwarts Express
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- Hogwarts Express: Hogsmeade Station
- The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride!
- The Incredible Hulk Coaster
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
- One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
- Skull Island: Reign of Kong
- The Cat in the Hat
- Flight of the Hippogriff
- The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
- Storm Force Accelatron
- Doctor Doom’s Fearfall
Ride Hogwart’s Express in Both Directions
All aboard Hogwart’s Express, at least twice! Whether you start your day off disappearing through the brick wall at Platform 9 ¾™ or on the other side at Hogsmeade, this journey through the pristine English countryside is a must in both directions. Keep your eyes and ears open for Harry, Hermione and those pesky Dementors. Tip: For this experience, you’ll need to have Park-to Park Tickets which allow you to access both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in the same day, without restriction. You can also purchase a 3-day park to park if you want to include Volcano Bay. It’s completely stroller friendly and perfectly safe and fun for little ones.
Explore the Darker Side of Potterworld in Knockturn Alley
The business of wizarding may be filled with laughter and gags, but we all know there is a dark side. Knockturn Alley is where Slytherin’s locket was sold to Caractacus Burke by Merpe Gaunt and the story only got darker from there. It’s also where dark wizards go to purchase curiosities, potions, and creepy things for their dark magic. Dimly lit by lanterns, this section off of Daigon Alley has what seems to be rotating access points to fuel the illusion of its allusiveness. If you’re traveling with wee ones, some of the shop displays may be a bit unsettling to them, though the multi-chorus shrunken head performance may be enough to keep things light and entertaining.
Try the Butterbeer – It’s Delicious!
I cannot allow you to be a first timer at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter without trying your first butterbeer. It’s much tastier than it sounds. Think caramel, meets rootbeer, meets cream soda. And if that wasn’t enough, you can have it three different ways. Frozen, hot and regular (my recommendation). And don’t worry, it’s non-alcoholic so the kids can partake in this right of passage guilt-free. You can find butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks if you’re looking for a pub-like experience, or get it from one of the carts across from Ollivanders in Hogsmeade.
Give Yourself Plenty of Time to Shop
Honestly, if I had only spent my four days wandering in and out of the shops in both Daigon and Hogsmeade, I would have been perfectly happy. Look up, look down, look between, look under, the attention to detail will make any Potterhead shriek with delight (I know I did). From the unicorn horn, black beetle, strange-potion adored shelves of the Apothecary to the over-sized jars of Pepper Imps at Herminoe, Ron and Harry’s favourite haunt, to the endless practical jokes and Pgymy Puffs at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. Not to mention the towering, dusty stacks of magical wands at the famed Ollivanders. Potterheads of all ages will enjoy wandering through and picking out their favourite magical trinket.
Look for Hidden Messages, Characters and Magic
If there is one major take-away I can provide you with in this entire first timer’s guide to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it would be to interact with the characters like the goblin at Gringott’s. He gave my mom a bit of a cheeky earful when she didn’t take his picture quick enough. Look closely at some of the buildings for illusions and magic, and chat with all of the Muggle and Wizards walking around in character around the park. You never know what secrets they hold and are willing to share! When you’re at King’s Cross, just before you travel through the wall at platform 9¾ , look through the luggage trolley and watch people disappear through the wall ahead of you! Don’t forget to chat with the shrunken head at the Knight Bus. Not only does he make for a great photo op, he tells some pretty funny jokes.
The Very Important Business of Wands
Whether you let your wand be chosen for you (a must for the true Potterheads) or you get a little help from the always-in-character shopkeepers at the one and only Ollivander’s, getting your first wand is a right of passage. But remember, where you buy your wand is of consequence. As you walk around the cobble-stoned streets of Daigon, you may notice a few carts selling wands. You’ll see the same thing over at Hogsmeade. These are perfectly good wands, but they aren’t interactive wands. What does that mean exactly? Well, if you buy an interactive wand, it comes with a map that tells you where you can practice your spell casting throughout Hogsmeade and Daigon Alley. If you have a little trouble with your spells, fear not. A wizard nearby will step in and help you work on your form! Interactive wands ring seemingly sleepy window displays, water fountains and all kinds of interesting scenes to life if you cast your spells correctly.
Oh and one last point on wands. If you’ve already bought your wand at Universal Studios in Hollywood, you can still use it at Harry Potter World in Orlando. You just have to work a little harder to find those secret spell-casting spots because your Hollywood map won’t be the same as the one in Orlando.
Use Your Early Entrance to Beat the Lines on Escape from the Gringotts
Most first timer’s guides to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter don’t like to play ride favourites, but oh well. I do! This is hands down one of the most popular rides in the entire park, and it’s one of the rides that’s included in your Early Admission ticket. Take a left pass the purple Knight Bus, walk into Daigon Alley and you’ll find it up ahead. It’s the very first ride I went on I after my mom took over stroller duties, pointed to Gringott’s and told me to “go have a look.” I had no clue it was an actual ride until I found myself weaving down corridors, admiring decor, lighting and special effects, only to find myself in a very small line-up. I’m not going to spoil the experience for you, but will say this, it was fantastic. And it wasn’t until we returned to Daigon Alley later on in the afternoon that I noticed the line-ups were far more substantial, I realized then, the value of early entrance!
Send a Postcard Home
I really, reeeeally wish I had seen this sooner, but only noticed it on the last day and had to ask a little girl who was leaving the park what it was. You can choose from Harry Potter-themed stamps, send post cards home via Owl Post, and every postcard gets stamped with a Hogsmeade postmark. So, if you’re reading this guide, and found any of it useful, I would love to receive a postcard from the Owl Post!
Stay or Go Back for the Nightly Shows
You may notice on the park’s hours of operation there is often no specific closing time. That’s because they differ from season to season, and generally depend on when the sun goes down. During the quieter months (outside of holidays, and summer), the park generally quiets down after 5:30-6:00pm which makes it a great time to get in those last few rides without the long lines. It’s also an opportunity to see the absolutely epic nightly light shows projected onto Hogwart’s Castle. They differ from night to night and are definitely worth staying or coming back for.
Whew! We made it! I know that was a lot of information to take in, but I hope you found some of it useful. From someone who cringed at the idea of spending five minutes in an amusement park to a full blown Wizarding World of Harry Potter convert, my hope with these guides is to help my readers get the most out of their experience Universal Orlando has truly brought JK Rowling’s beautiful literary contribution to life and it feels rather appropriate to end with one of my favourite quotes from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:
“Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open”