Writer, with girlfriends in tow, heads to Universal Orlando to explore the latest addition to the theme park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
It wasn’t a typical Bachelorette Party with strippers, partying and the usual frisky accouterments.
Instead, our small group of ladies in their mid-20s headed to Orlando, Florida with wholesome visions of butterbeer, wands, spells and the Hogwarts Castle floating through our heads.
We got just that.
Expectations of an Amazing Harry Potter World
As a travel writer who has eagerly followed the development of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter since May 2007 when the plans were first announced, my expectations for visiting the new world located in Universal’s Island of Adventure were, to say the least, high.
The media and of course, Potter fans, learned that $200 million was being spent on transforming the existing park grounds into Hogsmeade, the magical town outside of the Hogwarts Castle, and that Universal had some fantastical tricks up its sleeve.
The spellbinding world officially opened to the Muggle fan-base on June 18, 2010. It took me a while to get there with my bride-to-be friend and fellow bridesmaids, and it was worth the wait.
Stepping into Hogsmeade
This is embarrassing to admit, but for the sake of my story, I will be honest: when we first entered the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I got a little misty. As you turn the corner out of the Lost Continent and catch a glimpse of the very realistic looking Hogwarts Express, it feels and looks like the books have come alive right before your eyes. The creators have a keen eye for detail and the billowing steam and iconic whistle of this train, used to transport the characters to and from Hogwarts in the series, make a visitor pause to take it all in.
In the re-created Village of Hogsmeade, there are plenty of shops straight from the J.K. Rowling series. We stepped into Zonko’s Joke Shop, the store owned by the older and wacky twins Fred and George Weasley, and found memorable items such as Extendable Ears, Boxing Telescopes, Pygmy Puff, Inflatable Tongues and even Sneakoscopes. The shop is connected to Honeydukes, a candy shop that stocks magical sweets including, Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans. We sampled some of the jelly beans and tried to avoid some of the grotesque flavors including earwax, vomit, farm dirt and troll bogey.
While it probably wasn’t the smartest to eat candy before breakfast, we did. After checking out the stores, we had breakfast reservations at the Three Broomsticks Inn, the pub and restaurant in Hogsmeade. Buffet style, there is everything from a traditional English breakfast to pancakes and waffles. Special drinks include pumpkin juice and fizz as well as pear and apple ciders.
Tip: The attention to detail everywhere is amazing; we took a break from chowing down and noticed that every few minutes, shadows of house elves, witches and wizards creep across the ceiling and walls.
Lunch and dinner are also served here throughout the day. We sampled the fish and chips and smoked turkey leg later on and also went next store to the Hog’s Head Pub to try the Hog’s Head Brew, a draft beer especially brewed for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Although probably not the most healthy choice, we figured that a pint of beer was the best way to polish off our breakfast!
Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey
After our meal, we knew it was time to finally get on some of the incredible rides. Of course, a pitstop was needed at the restroom; as we wandered in to do our business, we heard none other than the ghost who haunts the bathrooms in Hogwarts, Moaning Myrtle, talking to us over the loud speaker. A great added touch.
Since it was still relatively early and it was incredibly cold, even for a December in Orlando, we never waited more than 40 minutes for any attraction. The line for the main event, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, is rumored to be more than three hours on a standard peak day, but we somehow managed to zoom right through.
Tip: Check your bags in a free locker given to all guests on the major rides throughout the park. Universal’s system is very advanced and easy to use. With a touch screen pad every guest can use his or her own fingerprint to open and close a storage locker; we really liked this technology and were impressed with how well it functioned.
Once our bags were stowed, we headed on our journey inside of Hogwarts Castle. Walking through the grounds and the famous rooms is an experience in itself. We were all giddy with excitement as we weaved through the greenhouse, saw the entrance to Dumbledore’s office and even got up close and personal with the Sorting Hat. There are talking portraits on the walls and visitors encounter Harry, Ron and Hermione who explain the journey that lies ahead. In the Room of Requirement, Hermione will use Floo Powder to take you through their magical world.
Brace yourself for some fun and adventure as you soar over Hogwarts, narrowly escape a dragon attack, have a close encounter with the Whomping Willow, get pulled into a Quidditch match and more. The ride combines advanced robotics with immersive filmmaking technology; I will be honest, I loved the experience, but it was intense. While I am a Harry-fanatic who usually doesn’t scare easily, I will say that my eyes were closed for the majority of the adventure (the picture that was taken during the ride is a firm testament to this statement). I felt a little silly seeing the little kids around me screaming to mom and dad that they wanted to ride again.
Tip: The Forbidden Journey is intense and the second time we rode it, I thought it was even scarier. I was thankful when the close encounter with frightening spiders was over and younger kids may be too.
More of the Wizarding World Comes to Life
It was time for something a bit more tame, so after checking out Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods, the shop all riders must walk through as they exit the Forbidden Journey, we headed over to the adjacent Flight of the Hippogriff family coaster. The line takes visitors through Hagrid’s Hut as they prepare for their very own lesson in a Care of Magical Creatures class. Riders will learn how to approach a hippogriff and the tame rollercoaster is akin to riding Buckbeat himself.
Next on our agenda was the much more extreme Dragon Challenge, a double, high-speed coaster that features elements of the Triwizard Tournament from the Goblet of Fire. There are two different tracks riders can choose from, one is the red dragon, the Chinese Fireball, and the other is the blue/green dragon, the Hungarian Horntail. Since the lines were so short we opted to do both back to back.
Tip: Universal offers parents with young children the option to use Child Swap, a feature that allows an adult to be with the child in a separate waiting room while the other adult rides. After one has ridden, the parents switch places. That way both parents can ride, the child is never alone and there is no need to wait in line twice.
After three rides in a row, we knew it was time to refuel with some butterbeer! A favorite of Harry, Ron and Hermione throughout the series, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter serves up two different variations of the beverage: frozen and regular. We sampled both (I’m pictured drinking it, above) and each was equally delicious. Describing it is hard, it tastes like frothy butterscotch in cream soda and it is topped with an extremely sweet toffee-flavored whipped cream. With each of us toting around our own butterbeer in a souvenir cup we got in line for Ollivander’s Wand Shop. This was the longest line we waited on, so there was ample time for us to consume our heavy butterbeers as we waited to enter the shop were Harry purchased his wand in the Sorcerer’s Stone.
The Dark Lord Got to the Wand Shop First
Our longest wait, Ollivander’s Wand Shop was also our least favorite attraction. Inside the small shop, where guests are crowded in very close quarters, an actor plays Ollivander the wandmaker. Everyone is standing so it is hard to see and since we were pushed into the back of the room, it was hard to hear the dialogue.
Ollivander selects a member of the audience to get their wand — an interactive show which is fun, but lacking. Universal, in its press material, promised dazzling effects such as thunder, wilting flowers and other “magical” components, and while they are present, they were uninspired and poorly executed. As we left the shop disappointed, we were happy that we had a lot of butterbeer beforehand.
After browsing through the Dervish and Banges shop, we realized that in just a few short hours, we had already devoured the majority of the attractions that the world had to offer us and all that was left was the Owl Post. Here visitors can purchase official stamps from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to send letters and postcards with the certified Hogsmeade postmark.
Tip: Warning to parents: the stamps are insanely overpriced. We opted to buy postcards and just get them stamped; we never mailed them and decided to keep them as souvenirs instead. If you plan to send postcards from the park, bring your own stamps; it is worth it!
Planning Your Wizarding World Visit
When we booked our trip, we wanted to make sure that there was time to explore The World before the crowds arrived, so we arranged early admission on our first day, as part of the package we booked with Universal Vacations. Arrival was 8:am and while there were a few people scattered throughout, we took this time to explore the park before it got packed.
With our vacation package, we got a three-day pass to Universal, which includes Islands of Adventure and the original Universal Studios, which is nowhere as cool as the former.
If you want more flexibility in your package, make sure you get Park Hopper Passes which allow you to jump back and forth between both parks throughout the day. Day one we explored the Wizarding World thoroughly. Day two, we spent five hours in Universal Studios and were dying to go back to Harry Potter for a butterbeer, but were forced by our Pass to wait until the following day.
We opted to save some cash and didn’t stay at a Universal property, and instead lodged 30 minutes away at the Wyndham Cypress Palms in Kissimmee. With a two-bedroom suite we had plenty of space for the six of us to be comfortable; there was a full kitchen and a living room with a pull out couch. On the surface, the hotel was great, but the longer we stayed, we realized that things aren’t always what they seem. Our heat and air-conditioner unit was broken, the sound on the television didn’t work, our shower drains clogged easily, and the toaster didn’t turn on. We loved the fact that we had a washer and dryer and the pool on the premise was well-appointed, it was just too cold for us to use it.
Overall we were happy with the savings we got by staying a bit further away, and I recommend families on a budget do the same.
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