I’m Mama Cheaps.
And I am one of those people. Yep. I LOVE the Harry Potter series.
I suppose it started innocently enough. You see, in my pre-mama life I was a teacher. So it seemed only fitting that I read these magic-themed really long Harry Potter books that my students were buried in… you know – to better communicate with them and continue every teacher’s quest and inner desire to promote literacy and making reading fun. But then it happened – I was sucked in – I was borderline obsessed. These “kid” books were actually.. GOOD. Great, entertaining, descriptive – the kind of books that I was unable to put down, even if it meant reading until my eyes were screaming for rest.
I probably read my first Harry Potter book while I was in college – I think during student teaching. That was right around when the first movie came out – you’d better believe I saw it on opening night. Guess who I dragged with me? BIKER BOB! Oh yes, we were just babies back then – dating for less than a year. I suppose he was still trying to impress me by allowing me to drag him to a KID movie. But he enjoyed it too. He has faithfully accompanied me to each movie that followed – and I can guarantee you that we will be catching HP 7.2 in theaters sometime this July.
Biker Bob put up a good fight about reading the books though. “I don’t want to read them. I won’t like them. They’re childish. They don’t sound appealing.” After years and years of saying, “You know, I know how much you enjoy the Lord of the Rings trilogy. You should really give ‘ol Lightning Forehead a chance. You just might like it.”
Then we started planning our road trip to Florida. Shortly after committing to the trip, we added a couple of days at Universal Studios Orland to the itinerary because there was NO way that I was going to miss – you guessed it – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It was around that time that Bob finally caved and read the first book. Two days later he was demanding the 2nd book. During our road trip to Texas last fall he blew through book 4 and we had to STOP and PURCHASE book 5 because he HAD to start it immediately.
After making sure that I got in a slew of “told ya so” taunting, I embraced his interest and we counted down the months to our trip. To be very honest, besides hearing that you could buy some Butterbeer, I didn’t do much research on the park at all. I figured we had plenty of time to explore the whole thing, might as well be surprised.
March FINALLY arrived and on the day that we arrived at Universal, I was all but tap dancing towards HP.
Here’s a recap on highlights from our day exploring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – keep in mind: we visited in late-March about 1 month before Easter. Wait times, crowds, etc will vary greatly depending on time of year and holidays, etc.
Location: Universal Orlando is made up of two different theme parks – parked right next door to each other. You can buy single or 2 park tickets. Having a 2 park ticket allows you to wander to and from both parks. Park one is traditional old Universal Studios. There are some great rides, shows, etc. The second park is called Islands of Adventure (ILA). At ILA you walk through different themed areas (or islands). Harry Potter is an “island” at ILA. It is tucked all the way at the very back of ILA – so you will have to walk through Seuss Landing and Lost Continent to get there.
Capacity: As you might imagine, the majority of visitors to Universal Orlando want to see Harry Potter. There are employees outside the entrance to HP who monitor the traffic flow and keep track of how many people are in that section. During peak times and seasons, they will regulate the number of people allowed in at one time. You might have to wait in line just to enter.
Best time of day to visit: I’m pretty sure we had the same gameplan that every single Potter fan devises: get to Universal and HIGHTAIL it to Wizarding World. We got to the park just as it opened and headed right over. We arrived to find the thousands of other people who had the exact same idea. As we left HP, my stepmother asked a park employee when the best time to visit HP might be. He replied that 6-7 pm seemed to be the least crowded. We made a mental note to arrive around that time later in the day to try to see some of the things that were just too busy to get near.
Authenticity: I have visited a lot of theme parks/attractions/etc. I had heard that Universal was working very closely with HP author, JK Rowling, to plan the park’s every detail. I wondered if that would be apparent as we strolled the streets. It was. Right down to the screaming mandrakes in one of the shop’s windows – this was as authentic as it gets. As you walk through the gates of Wizarding World, you are met with an impressive replica of the Hogwart’s Express.
Take a few steps beyond Platform 9 and 3/4 to find a replica of the streets of Hogsmeade – village that Harry and his friends like to visit throughout the school year. I loved the snow capped buildings – that gave it the perfect touch.
You will notice several stores as you walk along that look like they are straight out of the books – Honeydukes (candy) and Zonko’s (novelty items, jokes, etc). We did not brave the crowds to enter either of those.
Rides: Wizarding World of Harry Potter features 3 rides: Dragon Challenge, Flight of the Hippogriff and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
Note: If you choose to purchase a Universal Express Pass to jump some lines, realize that of the three rides in the entire park NOT included on that Express Pass, one of them is HP and the Forbidden Journey. Expect very long wait times for this ride.
Dragon Challenge: Okay, so apparently this ride is not new. It was already in ILA but part of The Lost Continent Island. It was given a face lift and turned into a Harry Potter themed ride. This ride was pretty awesome. You choose your car – red or blue. Both roller coaster cars leave the gate at the same time and throughout the thrill ride, they “race” each other. This coaster was fast and had lots of spins and corkscrew turns. I was dizzy for a good 5 minutes after getting off the ride – but it was worth it.
Flight of the Hippogriff: I was not so impressed with this coaster. It was very tame, which is fine, but it was so short, you barely had time to enjoy it before it was time to climb out of your car. The fun part about this ride is that the line winds you through the edge of the Forbidden Forest and you get a glimpse of Hagrid’s hut. We didn’t spend more than 5 minutes (if that) in line for this ride – in fact, we walked right on with the Express Pass – so didn’t have time to study it in detail.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (AKA the most KICK ASS ride I have ever in my entire life been on – I don’t CARE if you aren’t a Harry Potter fan – this ride RULES.): How about that for an intro? So this is the one ride that everyone wants to go on. It’s also the one ride in Wizarding World NOT included on the Express Pass. This is the ride that is housed in the hulking replica of Hogwart’s Castle.
Okay, so here’s the thing… this ride is so intensely popular, you are pretty much guaranteed to have to wait at least a little while to ride it.
Tip: Consider jumping in the single rider line. It tends to move a LOT quicker than the regular line (which from what I’ve heard can extend to as long as a 3-4 hour wait!). You can’t see or talk to anyone else on the actual ride anyway, so what does it matter if you ride with your party? You can still wait in line with them, but you simply plug any single seats that are open. This ride seats 4 people per car. We opted for the single rider line when we returned to the park in the evening and were through the ride and in the gift shop within 25 minutes of entering the line – a far cry from the 90 minute mid morning wait that we experienced earlier.
So yes, we waited 90 minutes the first time around to go on this ride. 90 minutes of waiting in line with Lily Bean. But I have to say – she was a gem. Even though it was hot and I’m sure she was bored out of her mind, she held up very well. She especially enjoyed taking the decorative top from Bob’s pumpkin juice and using it as an oh-so-fashionable hat for Snow White.
If you have a longer wait time, you are unfortunately going to spend some time in line with nothing great to look at. There is also very sporadic shelter from the sun/elements so strongly consider a hat, at least for the kids. You will have to get a locker at the start of the ride to store any loose objects, but if you are doing a child swap you can carry your bags with you in line and leave them with the kid watcher.
As you wind your way through the line, you finally make it to the top of the stairs, outside the doors of the castle. Get ready to take it all in, because there is some serious attention to detail EVERYWHERE you turn. I loved the mandrakes peering out of their pots – though this version did not shriek like the ones in the store windows on the street.
Enter the dark hallway to the castle and you are greeted by various statues of HP historical significance. I really enjoyed the huge hourglass contraption that showed the current standings for the house cup.
As you take your first turn, you notice the huge gallery of oil paintings on every available wall space. Get closer and notice that the people in many of the frames are MOVING. These clever replicas of the moving pictures are so fun to watch. They must be giant LCD screens with an antiqued film over them to make them appear to be real paintings. They are insanely fun.
From this hall you are ushered into the office of the man himself – Professor Albus Dumbledore – headmaster of Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The technology here was intense – through projection it actually looks like Dumbledore himself is standing on the balcony talking to you. A little further through the castle is the same deal with projected visual effects, but this time you see Harry, Ron and Hermione.
When you make the final turn and see the sorting hat in front of you, you are just minutes away from getting your turn on this ride.
From here, you board the ride. Part roller coaster, part special effects experience, part sheer awesomeness – I don’t really know how to describe the actual ride except to say you seriously really feel like you are a part of the action. You fly across a Quidditch field at breakneck speed, you flip upside down and around as the Whomping Willow tries to smash you to bits, you soar all around the grounds of Hogwarts and could swear you are really flying with Harry.
Five thousand thumbs up.
Food and Drink: From what I can recall, there aren’t a ton of food options in Wizarding World. After a long day exploring the rest of ILA, we returned to HP around 6:30 pm. We walked right in The Three Broomsticks restaurant with no wait and ordered our food. Prices were average and there was a mix of typical American Fare with some British influenced choices (Shepherd’s Pie, Fish and Chips, etc).
Butterbeer: This is a signature drink in the HP series and I was really looking forward to trying it. Word to the wise – this drink is SWEET. VERY sweet – as in: sugary, rich, will put a zing in your step. You have two choices – frozen or not frozen. You can opt for a regular disposable cup or for an insane upcharge (something like $8 more) your drink will come in a rather gawdy thick plastic souvenir mug. Uh, I’ll take the $4 throw away.
The taste was very interesting – like a caramel soda slush concoction (remember: I got the frozen version) with butterscotch flavored foam on top. Picking up this drink was one of the last things I did that night as we were about to leave (the Butterbeer lines had been SUPER long all day – finally they dwindled to the point where I was willing to wait). I was tired and had spent the whole day in the sun so I really couldn’t stomach the entire thing – in fact, I probably drank less than half. But it was a tasty treat – more of a dessert than a drink – and I’m glad I had the chance to try it. I proudly posted this pic of my coveted Butterbeer on my Facebook wall shortly after I purchased it.
Gift Shops: As you might imagine, commercialization is EVERYWHERE at Universal. Look for many gift shops (you won’t have to look hard) – after all, Universal is paying a berserk amount of money for all of the licenses at the parks – from name brand restaurants to the individual park attractions. You will be able to find HP apparel, broomsticks, wands, and trinkets big and small. Even I succumbed to a shirt for myself and one for the Bean.
Ollivander’s Wand Shop: A fun feature on the main strip is Ollivander’s Wand Shop. We had to wait about 30 minutes to go inside – as only a small group of people can be admitted at once. Upon entering, the darkness gives way to a dusty (looking) old wand shop with boxes piled as high as one can see. A curious little man (Ollivander) is waiting for you to arrive and when the doors have been closed behind you he chooses a young child from the crowd to come forward. He proceeds through an interactive “show” where the scene from the first book/movie when Harry chooses his wand is replicated. It’s cute, has a couple nifty special effects and is worth seeing – though I probably wouldn’t want to wait more than the half hour we did. After the little show, you are ushered very efficiently into – you guessed it – another gift shop.
Favorite part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride
Biggest disappointment: Flight of the Hippogriff ride (While it wasn’t awful, I felt like it could have been longer.)
Best advice: Opt for the single rider line in Forbidden Journey – you will cut your wait time significantly.
Price tag: Admission to Universal Orlando is required. Tickets start at $82 for adults and $74 for kids (3-9) for ONE day ONE park tickets.
Will non-Harry Potter junkies enjoy it? Yes. Even the doubters should have a good time. While they surely won’t get as much out of it as hardcore HP fans will, they can appreciate the amazing attention to detail and unique-ness of the park. My dad is a total HP-doubter and he thought it was really cool.
Check out the official Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando website here.
Disclaimer: I was in no way paid, compensated, wooed, pampered or otherwise rewarded for this review. Tickets were purchased with our own funds and all opinions expressed in this review are strictly our own.