I’m shucking my mantle of sophistication here on A Little Adrift to admit I’m a Harry Potter geek. And as a Florida native-born and raised, it overjoyed me to learn that the Universal Studios Orlando had bought the rights to develop a Harry Potter World. Yes, please! I wasn’t always a huge fan; I caught onto the series later than some, but earlier than many. When the book series first gained popularity I pooh-poohed the trend and refused to join the masses in the Harry Potter craze. Then, my best friend handed me book one with pointed instructions to “shut my face and just read the book.”
Fast forward three years, and I happened to “accidentally” stumble upon — just by chance, of course — a Barnes & Noble midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The series had hooked me, and I was giddy with anticipation as I waited hours in line behind a doe-faced eight-year-old Hermione look-alike. Then, I read the book in one sitting (a very, very long sitting).
Now you’re thinking, “OK, thanks for the backstory, but what about that butterbeer you mentioned?” The backstory serves as a point of view check on the rest of this review of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. I am a hardcore fan. I’ve reread the books many times, I went to early release parties, and I cried along with the main characters as the events of their lives unfolded. And as such, if you’re a fan too, know that I went to the Wizarding World hoping and wishing for a level of nuance aimed at mega fans. Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley deliver with inside jokes, nerd references, and a carefully executed layout designed to fulfill the magic promised throughout the book series.
Overview: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando
As a native Floridian, I was instantly charmed by the snow-capped buildings sweetly nestled on the cobblestone street when I stepped into Hogsmeade Village, a fictional town from the book series. Florida suffers from a pervasive heat that bakes you down to your soul. But visually, walking through the Harry Potter world is an amazingly detailed trip through the intricacies of J.K. Rowling’s imaginative wizarding universe.
And if you’re observant, if you carefully read the books, Hogsmeade rewards you with fun nuance and deep layers to search for when you’re in the Wizarding World. There’s hidden writing on the walls, and small details etched into every aspect of Hogsmeade. The subtleties of the experience stand out as a what makes it stand out above my expectations. There is a bit of something for everyone, from the diehard fan to the casual theme park lover. There is no doubting that Universal took time and great thought into crafting the world, adding details that only true fans would find and appreciate.
All of the key elements from the series are represented: Ollivander’s Wand Shop, Dervish and Banges, Zonko’s Joke Shop, snack cakes, and pumpkin juice. Paraphernalia for each House is rampant — I was SO tempted to buy a Gryffindor scarf, they are quite striking. Every detail you could want is within the world. By stepping foot into this area of the Universal Theme Park, I had subsumed myself in the fictional universe I had lived in the 10+ years I had loved and enjoyed the books and films.
Let’s Not Forget: Butterbeer
Ah Butterbeer. It’s worth the price of park admission just to try this delicious concoction. And although I love real beer too, rest assured that Butterbeer is non-alcoholic (for muggles that is. Just like in the book series, if you bring some house elves it’s a different story ;-)
The drink is delicious and the park offers it in two forms, frozen and liquid. The frozen Butterbeer is tastier than the traditional liquid one, which tastes like cream soda — if you’re traveling in a couple, you get the shiny, happy ability to order both!
In fact, it’s so tasty that my friends and I left the Harry Potter world mid-morning to explore the rest of the park, but later we returned —which involved switching Universal parks and an extra 45 minute walk — just for one last taste.
New Ride: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey wowed me. The journey through the queue alone is fully a part of the experience. I’m an avid theme-parker — I grew up an hour from Orlando, how could I not be? As I waited in line and wound through Hogwarts Castle, the level of detail, interaction, and care put into the experience made my inner geek smile at all the inside jokes. There are many delightfully geeky Harry Potter details. If you have kid fans with you, they will stay plenty occupied looking for the hidden details (and you can cheat and find out some of the hidden ones ahead of time!). We luckily had just 20 minute waits for each of the rides since we had Early Park Admission thanks to a shared room at the Hard Rock Hotel — none of us minded sharing beds and using the pull out couch because it meant we were able to “do” most of Hogsmeade before the crushing crowds. (Below I explain how to get Universal Early Admission!)One of the coolest parts is the holograms. The interior castle decorations have the best holographic technology I’ve ever seen.
The ride itself is nothing short of innovative. Or should I just give in and say it’s “magical?” In all seriousness though, words don’t do it justice except to say even the hours of queuing are worth it for the end result.
For the sake of full transparency here, know that the Forbidden Journey is not for the weak-stomached. Each person in my group felt ill walking out. I often get sick when they’re too much, but I was lucky not to need a sudden dash to a nearby trash can, thankfully. It’s a bit rough, but still doable!
Islands of Adventure’s Diagon Alley
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter got even bigger with the immersive world of Diagon Alley, which may be even better than the orginial. It’s just so nuanced and so incredibly detailed. The setup takes from a charming London Street directly into a world not meant for muggles. Anything that felt like it was missing from Hogsmeade made it here, plus all the greatest parts of the other half of the World, too. So you can find an expanded Ollivander’s here, but then look deeper. Knockturn Alley is a side-street for devotees of the Dark Arts, and Gringotts Wizarding Bank is just amazing, as is the ride.
It’s just too much to fully encapsulate who well Universal has done with making this world a reality for true fans. It lives up to the hype in every way. It’s delightfully creepy sometimes when they bring dementors to life, fascinating to find small touches meant for hardcore fans, and just plain fun.
Between the creamy butterbeer, the Universal Studios cast members dressed in robes, and the tinkling Harry Potter music throughout the village, I completely geeked out. Other Harry Potter fans will love it too, and even those fans in denial. :)
This was pretty much as good as it gets for a Harry Potter experience in the U.S. And I’ll admit that I am looking forward to visiting the Harry Potter studio tour in London when I next pass through the city. It looks like another geek-out worthy experience!
Quick Tips: Harry Potter World at Universal Studios, Orlando
When: Weather is decent all year round for the theme parks but school holidays are, naturally, the busiest and craziest times of the year. Visit in shoulder season if possible. I visited in fall and it was perfect weather and crowd levels.
Navigate Like a Pro: Insider guides offer tips and maps that save time. They are seriously amazing and make your whole visit smoother. Consider this Universal Orlando Insider Guide with heaps of tips to Harry Potter World. Also pick up the Insider Guide for Walt Disney World if you’re heading that way, too.
How to Get Early Admission! Early park admission is essential to truly enjoying the Harry Potter World and it’s a perk offered to all guests staying at a hotel on Universal Property. So, if you book a night at the Hard Rock Hotel like we did (or the other resorts like Portofino Bay Hotel, Cabana Bay Beach Resort, or Aventura Hotel on Universal property), you can enter the park an hour earlier than general admission. This extra hour allows you to ride the major rides in Harry Potter World without huge lines and crowds. Everyone in our group found it convenient and worth the extra money. In fact, that extra hour is probably the sole reason that we were able to see so much of the park besides Harry Potter World. If you don’t opt for Early Admission, budget an hour to two hours per queue for every ride you hope to experience (and Escape from Gringotts is regularly a 3+ hour wait in peak season). And even if you stay elsewhere, a bonus perk for your vacation planning: ALA readers receive $25 off their first booking if you’re new to Booking.com, which is my preferred hotel booking engine. Once you’re in Orlando, use this handy Crowd Calendar to figure out the best days to visit which parks in the area, as well as to determine if the Early Admission is for Diagon Alley in Universal or Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure, or both (it varies throughout the year). And super bonus is that you can use your Early Admission for a different perk each day, because it also gets you early access to Volcano Bay and its six rides.
- Wear sunscreen or you will burn in the Florida sunshine. Remember, even in cool weather the sun is strong.
- Frozen butterbeer tastes better than regular. If you’re forced to choose just one, go with frozen.
- All of the merchandise inside of the Harry Potter souvenir shops is available at other shops in the park — don’t stand in the 30+ min lines just to walk into the souvenir shop. That said, you will have to wait in line if you want to see the wand selecting ceremony, that’s only available at Ollivanders.
Prepare: Cozy up the week before you leave and stream the entire series so you can geek out like the other Potter fans.