By Sheri McDonald
Walking into Hogsmeade at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for the first time was surreal. To see the cobblestone, the shops and Hogwarts towering in the background evoked an emotional response from this Potterhead. It was quite literally watching my literary imaginings come to life in front of me. Since that first visit, I’ve been fortunate enough to return many times and discovered many hidden treasures and best practices to make the most of our visits.
Universal Orlando Resorts offers hotels that range in price and luxury for all types of guests. Having experienced several myself, I can say that each hotel is unique, and they are all worth staying in. I prefer one of the value hotels (Cabana Bay) for its family suites and lazy river. Each hotel offers walking paths, buses or boats to get to the parks. Universal guests get early admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and can have any park purchases sent directly to their hotel.
Once you have chosen your hotel, you need to decide on park tickets. There are two theme parks: Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios, and one water park: Volcano Bay. To see most of both theme parks, you will need at least a two-day visit, and to experience all the Harry Potter attractions you need Park to Park tickets. These tickets allow guests to visit both parks in one day and ride the Hogwarts Express back and forth between parks. This is not only a means of transportation, but a magical ride that offers a different experience in each direction. You can choose to add the Universal Express Pass to your tickets and skip the lines for many rides. This can be a huge time saver and it is my preference to have it, but it also means missing out on some of the features that are only seen in cue lines.
Universal Resorts has so many fun and exciting attractions aside from Harry Potter, but today I am focusing on Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. My favourite ride of all time is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, located in Islands of Adventure. The cue line runs through Hogwarts Castle where you are treated to talking and moving paintings on the wall and visits from some of the most endeared characters from the movies. If you have purchased an Express Pass you will see some of this but miss most of it. Thankfully, guests can tour Hogwarts without riding or waiting in line. Just tell the cast member at the front that you just wish to walk through the castle.
Since some of the most exciting Harry Potter rides are not suitable for small children, Universal offers Child Swap. Once you reach the front of the line, tell the cast member you would like to do child swap and you will be directed to a waiting room where a parent and the children who can’t or won’t ride will wait while the rest of the group rides, and then you switch without having to stand in line all over again. In my daughter’s case, this meant getting to ride everything twice… once with her dad and once with me!
Harry Potter wands are as much a part of the park experience as the rides. They are available in many shops throughout both parks. You can purchase the wands of your favourite Harry Potter characters or ask a cast member which wand is matched with your birthday. There are regular wands that are for display or interactive wands that can be used at certain spots throughout the parks. These are a lot of fun for kids who wish to cast their own spells! We learned the hard way that they are fragile when my kids decided to use them as swords. When one of them no longer worked, we stopped at a wand shop and they took it to the back to cast a spell on it and returned with a fully functioning wand.
An experience you don’t want to miss is Ollivanders. There is a shop in both Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade) and Universal Studios (Diagon Alley) where you are guided into the wand shop and one lucky person is selected to be chosen by a wand. My daughter was selected once and is now the proud owner of the wand that chose her.
Another Harry Potter experience that can be found in both parks is Butterbeer. You can purchase traditional Butterbeer, frozen Butterbeer, Butterbeer ice cream and I believe there are even Butterbeer desserts. My preference is frozen and in small doses, as it’s quite sweet. If the lines are long at the butterbeer stands in the street, pop into the Leaking Cauldron (Diagon Alley), Hog’s Head or Three Broomsticks (Hogsmeade) and order there.
Knockturn Alley showcases the dark side of magic and you can find it in Diagon Alley (Universal Studios). It’s an area that can almost be missed if you aren’t paying attention, so be sure to keep your eyes open for it. Also in Diagon Alley is Gringott’s Money Exchange, where you can exchange funds for Gringott’s Bank Notes or just pop in to ask a goblin questions. The animatronic goblin will respond to you and he can be cheeky.
Before heading home, see if you can find Kreacher the house elf in Diagon Alley and watch the dragon blow fire from the top of Gringott’s bank. Then pick up some Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott’s Beans or grab some gag gifts from Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes or any of the other beloved shops in the magical world.