Merlin’s beard, you’ve finally made it. You’re at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. Take a moment – don’t forget to breathe. And don’t get too excited just yet, because we have to be strategic about how we tackle this whole thing if we want to see it all.
Universal Orlando is made up of two distinct parks, Islands of Adventure (home of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle) and Universal Studios Florida (where you’ll find Diagon Alley). To get the full experience, you’ll need a park-to-park ticket, which lets you go between the two sides on the same day. Luckily there’s a quick way of getting between the two that doesn’t require you to leave the world of Harry Potter at all.
You’ll start your day at Diagon Alley, where any journey to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry should (it’s helpful to stay on property, as that will get you into the parks an hour before general admission begins). The entrance is just the first of the literally thousands of little touches that will make any fan weak in the knees – just like in the books, Diagon Alley is accessed by walking from an ordinary London street through a brick wall behind the Leaky Cauldron and emerging into the wizarding world.
Head straight for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – its immersive feel is a treat for anyone who loves the books and movies, and it features cameos from many of the films’ stars (and poor Bill Weasley probably gets more screen time in this ride than in all the films combined). Even the wait is carefully designed to make you feel as though you’re wandering the halls of Gringotts, from the goblins in the front hall to the rumbling elevator to the winding staircases.
Once you’re on the ride, you’re expecting a quiet, peaceful tour from Bill Weasley himself…too bad you decided to visit on the same day that Harry, Ron, and Hermione decide to break into the bank. You’ll see them on your way through, along with a few goblins, an escaped dragon, Bellatrix Lestrange, and You-Know-Who himself. Will you make it out alive? Well, Gringotts is “the safest place on Earth”…maybe.
Once you return to the street, make your way out of Diagon Alley – fear not, we’ll be back – and head for the Hogwarts Express. The train is an amazing replica of the one in the films, and that’s only part of the magic. As you travel between the parks, keep a close eye on the window – you might recognize some familiar faces, both friendly and not-so-friendly.
Upon arrival at Hogsmeade village, stroll up the main street towards the castle, and get in line for the park’s flagship attraction – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It’s a dark ride crossed with a roller coaster, and while Escape from Gringotts offers an alternate view of a major event from the books, Forbidden Journey is the ride that makes you feel like you’re inside the story. Here, again, the waiting area is another part of the ride, with “behind-the-scenes” looks at Hogwarts, from its moving portraits to Dumbledore’s office.
The ride itself is thrilling, and you’ll encounter both characters and creatures of all sorts, from Harry and Hagrid to spitting acromantula and soul-sucking Dementors. We tend to think that Forbidden Journey is a better ride than Escape from Gringotts (with fewer breakdowns, to boot), but you’ll have to try both to be sure! If the line is long and the day is hot, grab a butterbeer to sip during the wait – we prefer the frozen ones to the regular cold ones, but no matter which kind you get you’ve got to try one!
After Forbidden Journey, the day is more or less yours – you’ve done the two major rides, so from here on out take your time to explore all of the amazing little touches that make this world so complete and so unique. Spot Mr. Weasley’s magic Ford Anglia from your spot in line for Dragon Challenge, enjoy some traditional English fare at the Three Broomsticks (we highly recommend the Cornish pasties with a pumpkin fizz – there aren’t any Muggle sodas in the magical world), and even hear Moaning Myrtle’s complaints in the restrooms in Hogsmeade. Don’t forget to stop for a chat with the conductor of the Hogwarts Express – and study up, because he might ask you what the school’s motto is (draco dormiens nunquam titillandus – never tickle a sleeping dragon. Yeah, we’re Ravenclaws.).
When you’ve had your fill of Hogsmeade, take the Hogwarts Express back to London to explore some more of Diagon Alley – it’s shadier and cooler, making it a better area to spend the afternoon. There are more shops to explore here, but all of the hidden easter eggs will repay the patient wanderer. You may recognize an advertisement in King’s Cross Station from the sixth film. You can take a seat on the stoop of the Black family’s ancestral home on Grimmauld Place (just across from the Knight Bus) while Kreacher peeks out through the curtains upstairs. If you buy an interactive wand, be sure to take a look at the map that comes with it under the black lights in Knockturn Alley to see all the places you can cast spells of your own. And if you see a show starting, go ahead and take a look – it could be a live appearance by Celestina Warbeck (one of Molly Weasley’s favorite singers), or a retelling of The Tale of The Three Brothers, a wizard-world fairy tale which was hugely important in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the culmination of not just years of work by Universal, but decades of dedication and passion from fans of the series, who Universal knew would settle for nothing less than perfection – and it shows. Leaving at the end of your trip will be hard, but in JK Rowling’s own words, “Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”
By Meghan Brennan
About Meghan Brennan