If you don’t like Harry Potter(go away, how is that even possible???), there are still plenty of reasons to visit Universal Studios Orlando. You could spend a few days in the two parks(Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure), eat and be entertained on the Citywalk, plus spend time relaxing in the hotels on property.
But if you are a Harry Potter fan, it’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter that will be enough for you to want to visit Universal. Hogsmeade is located in Universal’s Islands of Adventure while Diagon Alley opened this past summer in in Universal Studios Florida. You’ll want to have a Park-to-Park admission ticket so you can ride the Hogwarts Express between the two as well as visit both.
As a huge Harry Potter fan(and mom to a few Harry Potter fans), I’ll start with the newest attraction, Diagon Alley.
You do get to walk through the brick wall to get to Diagon Alley and then you’re in the world where Harry and his friends shopped for their school supplies. The big attraction is the ride, Escape from Gringotts.
You get to walk into Gringotts Bank and see the animatronic goblins. You’re there to get a tour of the “safest place on earth” but you are there at the same time as Harry, Ron, and Hermione, when they are attempting to steal the horcrux from Bellatrix’s vault. You get to see the story play out from a different angle.
The height requirement for this ride is only 42″ but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is an easy ride. It’s roller coaster-like, what Potterheads imagine going through the tunnels beneath Gringotts would be like. You pause at different moments as you encounter Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the dragon, Bellatrix, and Voldemort. But other times, you are zooming through pitch black twists and turns.
This is one of the few attractions where you cannot use your Express Pass, so you’ll have to try to hit up this part of the park during the early admission hours you get as part of the perks of staying on Universal property.
The dragon above Gringotts does periodically breath fire and it’s a bit shocking if you aren’t expecting it.
Another attraction whose line you can’t bypass with an Express Pass is Ollivanders, where there’s a wand-choosing ceremony. My 9y/o was selected for this and it was completely magical to watch him have a wizard help him find the right wand. You can also simply shop in Ollivanders, selecting the wand for you or picking one that belongs to your favorite character.
A new feature that started this summer with the opening of Diagon Alley is the interactive wands. If you choose one of these, you’ll be given a map with locations where you can test out your magic in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Though these locations are also clearly marked on the ground and witches and wizards throughout both parks are happy to point them out to you if you don’t see them.
If you have a die-hard Potterhead on your hands, he might insist that it’s not wise to use another wizard’s wand, but we shared one. The interactive wands are approximately $50, and I think they are an absolute must-do. You have to follow the directions on the map(also marked on the symbol on the ground) and move your wand in a different motion for different spells in order for them to work.
You can shop for tricks and other goodies in Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes or get oufitted in robes in Madam Malkins, where they’ll ensure proper robe fit, or shop in Quality Quidditch Supplies, Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, and the Magical Menagerie. We were traveling with mostly Gryffindors, though we had two Slytherins, one Hufflepuff, and one Ravenclaw(me). The kids looked at the Firebolts the same way I imagine the young wizards did.
If you are hungry, stop by the Leaky Caldron or Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor, where you’ll find Butterbeer ice cream! Getting a Butterbeer or a Pumpkin Juice is a Harry Potter fan’s rite of passage, but don’t overlook other drinks available, like the Peachtree Fizzing Tea, which I could have drank by the gallon. Next time I will try some Gillywater with the Draught of Peace added to it.
You can go into the Money Exchange and exchange your Muggle Money for Wizarding currency, which can be used in the parks. You can also talk to the goblin on duty, but beware if you ask him a silly question because he tends to be a little cranky!
You can take in a puppeting show: we saw the tale of the Deathly Hallows play out before we headed down Knockturn Alley, which is as creepy as the books portray. Tip: it’s also dark and air conditioned, though it feels like you’re outside. Cast a few spells back there and do some shopping(as long as you aren’t afraid someone will mistake you for a dark wizard).
On your way out, you’ll see the Knight Bus(read our funny conversation with Dre Head) as well as see 12 Grimmauld Place.
As long as you have your park-to-park pass, you can hop on the Hogwarts Express over to Hogsmeade. There are no express passes for this ride, though we went early and there wasn’t much of a wait. There’s a different experience on the train depending on which way you are taking it.
Once in Hogsmeade, you’ll probably want to dash back to Hogwarts, to see the castle. There is no express pass for the ride inside, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It’s best to take advantage of early admission, though the ride didn’t have as long of a line this year as last, due to the newness of Diagon Alley, with even during the middle of the day on a holiday weekend, we only saw the wait time go up to 20 minutes.
As you walk through the castle, you’ll see the talking portraits, Dumbledore’s office, Gryffindor tower, a classroom, and the ride starts in the Room of Requirement. A Harry Potter fan will love seeing all the detail that was put into all of it, like seeing the pensieve and the plants from Herbology.
There’s a 48″ requirement to ride this ride and it can be a bit intense for younger or more sensitive riders, since there’s a dragon, giant spider, dementors, and the whomping willow.
Once you are out the back of the castle, you’ll see the Flight of the Hippogriff, which is a coaster that kids 40″ and taller can ride. We went on this early in the morning and the kids went on 6 times in a row with no wait. You’ll see the flying car, Buckbeak, and Hagrid’s hut if you’re watching for them!
The other ride is the Dragon Challenge coaster, which is actually two separate roller coasters, with two totally different experiences. You’ll want to try them both(though do it BEFORE you have a Butterbeer). You must be at least 54″ tall to ride. Express Passes can be used on this ride and there is child swap available if some members of your party are not tall enough to ride.
There’s lots of shopping to be done in stores whose names you’ll recognize from the books, like Dervish and Banges. You can also get a wand in Hogsmeade, too, if you haven’t yet picked up your interactive wand, since there are spells to be cast here, too. I was sure to pick up some Ravenclaw gear, though the Gryffindor who sold them to me tried to convince me his house was the best.
You can eat in Three Broomsticks(see the gigantic family platter we got last year) or pick up some treats in Honeydukes, where again you’ll recognize the names of treats from the books and movies.
Even if you only have a very basic idea of what Harry Potter is all about, you can still sense that there is something completely magical about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios Orlando. But if you are a true fan, you’ll appreciate all the attention to detail in everything you see.
Let me know if you have any questions about either park! For more info about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal Studios:
Thanks to Universal Orlando and all the sponsors of the Family Forward Retreat put on by Mom It Forward, my family was able to attend this event at a discounted rate. However, all opinions and magical fun are my own and I was not required to share any info about our trip.