“I love magic.” – Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. If you love magic too, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter will cast a spell on you. I am a bonafide Harry Potter fangirl and I eagerly awaited each book and movie as they came out over the years, so when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in Orlando, Florida, I could not wait to visit.
There are two parks within the complex – Universal’s Islands of Adventure houses Hogsmeade (opened in June 2010) and Universal Studios houses Diagon Alley (opened July 2014). With a 2-park ticket you can go between both parks on the Hogwarts Express Train. Pure genius on the part of the marketing department and simply magical as you experience different adventures on each leg between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Plan to ride it both ways.
Both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are located at the back of their respective parks. Our Kids suggests you arrive at Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios right when they open and then head straight for the Harry Potter section. If you arrive at the park later, fret not.
Visit the other attractions within the park and then make your way to the Harry Potter areas later in the day, towards closing. From what I understand (and saw), crowds get thicker mid-morning through mid-afternoon.
After entering at the Universal Studios entrance, we made a bee-line straight to Diagon Alley. What we saw was the books come alive, starting with a row of buildings in London. Look for Kreacher in the window of the darker of the rowhouses and be sure to go in the phone booth and ring the Ministry of Magic. Instead of exploring Diagon Alley right away, we opted to go to Kings Cross and take a ride on the Hogwarts Express.
As you head through the train station, take in the Muggle billboards and then be amazed as you head to Platform 9 3/4. And yes, there is some magic as you get onto Platform 9 3/4. Tip: have part of your party stay back while others go forward “through” the brick wall on the platform. It makes for a great video/picture.
On the train to Hogsmeade (or to London depending on which way you’re headed), you’ll be captivated by the storytelling and special effects. Watch out your window as Hagrid flies alongside on his motorbike, see the Knight Bus moving through London, see Dementors, the Weasley twins on their brooms and other riveting scenes that we don’t want to spoil.
When you walk into Hogsmeade you truly are taken into the magical land of Harry Potter. No detail is overlooked and you can’t help but just stare and enjoy Hogwarts Castle. As you get in the queue to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the signature ride on this side of the park, you’ll wind through the castle and hop on a ride that that will take explore various aspects of the book.
Before you get on the ride, you’ll be given a complimentary locker to store your belongings. This area can be a bottleneck, so be patient – as once you’ve locked up your items, you’ll be on your way.
You sit in a ride where the harness comes down on top of you and your feet hang from below. Essentially you are on a track, so it’s part ride and simulation. From being chased by dragons, fighting off Dementors, flying through a Quiddich Match and dodging the Whomping Willow, this ride is a whirlwind of adventure.
The ride is most definitely a thrill-ride; more so because of the simulation. If you’re a queasy type, just close your eyes when it feels like you’re going to fast (really it’s all in your mind because of the simulation).
We also rode Flight of the Hippogriff, a tame, family-friendly roller-coaster. Two other coasters in Hogsmeade are the Dragon Challenge where visitors can choose between riding the Hungarian Horntail or the Chinese Fireball – they virtually compete against each other. We didn’t ride these coasters as they were a bit out of our league; but they were definitely fun to watch.
Other must-see attractions while in Hogsmeade:
- Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC: Stop in at the shop where Harry Potter picked out his wand (or rather, where the wand picked the wizard) – surely you remember it. The experience is hauntingly like the book and after the ‘experience’, you get shooed into the wand shop where you can purchase your very own wand. This experience is also available in Diagon Alley, where the shop seemed to be just a bit bigger. Purchase a wand in either of the Ollivanders shops and you’ll receive a map that marks places you can perform magic using an interactive wand. You’ll see bronze medallions at various shop windows where when you stand on the medallion, say the incantation and perform the wand gesture – magic will come to life. This is quite a nice way to bring in some more revenue, as what child (or adult) wouldn’t want to try their hand at casting spells from the Harry Potter books? We saw wizards and witches all over the two parks casting their spells, sometimes working, other times not. The nice thing was that there were employees who helped guests who were struggling with the spells.
- Honeydukes: you know this candy shop from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and this is one of my kids’ favorite shops. Purchase Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Bans, a Chocolate Frog (which comes with a collectors card), Fizzing Whizzebees and other fun treats.
- The Three Broomsticks and Hog’s Head Pub: grab yourself a bite to eat at this pub or head to the bar for a delicious treat of Butterbear. You can get your Butterbear Frozen, cold or hot.
There are plenty of other places to roam within Hogsmeade as well as things to see. Watch the Triwizard Spirit Rally, purchase your dress robes or mail a letter at the Owl Post. So much to do, so little time!
If you’re taking the train from Hogsmeade, walk out of Kings Cross Station and bear left where you’ll see a pretty tame-looking London street complete with a record store, a replica of The Knight Bus (you can interact with the conductor) and a red telephone booth (be sure to go in it and see what The Ministry of Magic has to say). There is nothing marking the entrance to Diagon Alley, much like how a Muggle would view the streets of London.
“In dreams, we enter a world that’s entirely our own.” – Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. And as you enter Diagon Alley, you will feel like you are in your own personal Harry Potter dreamland. You can’t see out and visitors in Universal Studios can’t see in, so you truly feel like you are in a different world.
Immerse yourself in the world of Harry Potter and feel as he did the first time he went into Diagon Alley. As you walk up the main street, it’s a fantastic sensory-overload of magic. From viewing all the storefronts and tall buildings looming above, to hearing the noises out of The Leaky Cauldron and feeling the spookiness in Knockturn Alley. We loved the intricate details that were integrated which helped to make the experience as real as it could be, and got a kick of how the staff stayed in character, often referring to the Muggles around and things of that ilk.
The main star of Diagon Alley is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, a ride like no other in the park. Setting the scene is the dragon atop of Gringotts, who in the books is the guard of the vault; but eventually escapes. The dragon breathes fire at various intervals – not a little bit of fire; but a large breath of fire and if you’re anywhere near the dragon, you’ll feel the heat.
It’s quite a special effect and only adds to the immersive experience. Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is a 3D ride that is part roller-coaster and part simulator where you’ll become a part of the action when Harry, Ron and Hermoine break into Gringotts bank to remove a magical object. As you wind your way through Gringotts, you’ll come face to face with the Goblins in the lobby, as well as various other scenes from the book. Store your belongings in a complimentary locker, board your car, don your 3D glasses and get ready for a 4+ minute adventure.
On the ride, you’ll feel terror as Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange attempt to cast evil spells on you, and excitement as you hurl past surprises in the depths of Gringotts bank. This ride was tamer than Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, but to me, actually more exciting as it puts you right in the action with the characters from a scene from the book. If you want to get a taste, watch this video.
Other must-see attractions while in Diagon Alley:
- Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour: this is the ice-cream shop where Hagrid bought Harry a treat in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Choose from more than 20 delicious flavors including Strawberry and Peanut-Butter (my personal favorite), Earl Grey and Lavender, Chocolate Chili, Salted Caramel Blondie (my daughter’s favorite), Butterbeer and more. I think this ice cream is in my top 3 of all I’ve ever had – it was delicious! They also sell a few pastries and a limited amount of drinks.
- The Leaky Cauldron: this restaurant is on your left as you enter Diagon Alley – you’ll smell delicious smells wafting from the entrances. Served here are traditional British fare like Fisherman’s Pie, Fish and Chips, Bangers and Mash as well as some tamer names for the youngsters (Macaroni and Cheese, etc.) Beer is sold here and other fun wizarding drinks like Butterbeer (yes, you have to try this!), Pumpkin Juice, Tongue Tying Lemon Squash and Fishy Green Ale.
- Knockturn Alley: the evil of Dark magic is apparent as you walk through the spooky passageways of Knockturn Alley. You can wander through this area and visit Borgin and Burkes, where you’ll find a shop that is creepy and filled with powerful Dark items for purchase.
- Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes: I love Fred and George, so was thrilled to know that this was a part of Diagon Alley, even though in the books, the store wasn’t actually there. This brightly-colored joke shop is just how I imagined it would be, and is filled with novelty gifts and joke toys for sale.
- Gringotts Money Exchange: here you can interact with a Gringotts bank goblin. When we went into this shop, we didn’t realize that you could ask the goblin a question. When you go, be sure to interact and let us know what happens. Either way, in this shop, you can exchange your muggle money for Wizarding Bank Notes. These notes can be used throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade as well as the rest of the two Universal theme-parks.
This is the tip of the iceberg, there’s really so much to see in Diagon Alley. More shops, other shows and dining.
Whether you are a Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or even a Muggle, you will feel the magic in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We highly recommend a visit to Universal Orlando.
- Go to the park (really any theme park) during off-season if you can swing it. It makes the world of a difference. We visited on a weekday one week after Thanksgiving and the crowds were lighter in the park. We were able to get on virtually any ride within 30 minute or less.
- Pack light. Bring a small backpack with just the essentials. You’ll have your wand and cloak with you, of course, but I’d recommend sunscreen, a camera, wipes or hand sanitizer, water, and a snack or two. You can pretty much get what you need at the park and that way you don’t have to carry things around. There are complimentary lockers for most rides.
- For those rides that don’t offer lockers or if you just need a break from carrying things, you can rent lockers as well as strollers and wheelchairs at the park. Full details here.
- Hours vary by day and season. Consult the website when planning your day. We recommend making your trip to the park at least a 2-day affair, especially if your wizards are on the younger side. You won’t feel rushed to see it all in one day and 2 days will give you time to really take in all that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has to offer plus all the other features of the two parks.
- Admission varies and you can customize packages to suit your needs. Universal Orlando offers hotel and ticket vacation packages, special offers from time to time and right now with a purchase of a 2-day ticket, US and Canadian residents get a 3rd day free. Children under 3 are free.
- While The Wizarding World of Harry Potter held us spellbound, we also were able to ride a few other rides in the parks. Some of our favorites were: Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Jurassic Park River Adventure and Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges just to name a few. There are lots of great rides for all ages. Both parks have areas for the youngest of visitors and what’s nice is they offer a “child swap.” One member of your party can wait with the little ones while the rest of your group rides the ride. When they finish, you can swap places so that everyone gets a chance to enjoy the rides.
- Celebrate the Holidays at Universal Orlando through January 3, 2015. There’s a Macy’s Holiday Parade, Grinchmas™ and more at the local on-site hotels. Full details: https://www.universalorlando.com/Events/Holidays/Overview.aspx
- Take part in a three-day event that features film talent Q&A sessions, a Wand Combat Masterclass, the Sorting Hat Experience and more – January 30 to February 1, 2015. For more details visit: https://www.universalorlando.com/events/celebration-of-harry-potter/overview.aspx.
- Be sure to check out Universal CityWalk. This area just outside the entrance to Islands of Adventure and Universal Orlando features: shops, dining and entertainment galore.
Disclosure: Our Kids received complimentary 2-park admission tickets plus express ride passes in order to review the two theme parks. All opinions are our own.