When planning a trip to America, my boyfriend suggested we start in Florida. As he spoke of family visits, muscle cars and alligators all I was thinking was ‘Harry Potter World!’. Like so many young adults who grew up through the Harry Potter fandom, getting the chance to visit Universal in Orlando was a dream (and I could finally figure out which butterbeer is better at Universal!)
My boyfriend and I spent two days at Universal separated by a day at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre (coming soon here). We visited in December 2015 and so this Wizarding World of Harry Potter Review should help you plan your trip or just amp up your excitement.
Upon entering Islands of Adventure with the masses of other early entrance muggles, it was clear – everyone was headed for the same place. Just walking through the entrance gave me an insight as to why 66 million people travel to Orlando for the theme parks each year (2015 stat). Up until then my experience at theme parks had amounted to what was available on the Gold Coast of Australia and while those times in Aussie are very fond memories, this was on another level!
We all jostled with the speed of an Olympic walker trying to keep calm while trotting up a storm towards the very back of the park where Hogsmeade beckoned. There was a thrill in the air that had my adrenalin going – which was lucky because we had been up since 6:30 after returning the rental car at midnight the night previous – the perils of travelling but more on that later.
Having studied the maps and downloaded both the Universal map app and ride times app to my phone, I knew it was close. At this point my desire to photograph everything warred with my desire to be under that little ‘spell limits’ sign I had seen in so many vlogs (which by the way, I would recommend not watching too many videos on YouTube in order to heighten your amazement when you get there).
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We headed towards the back where I knew the line for the Forbidden Journey (the first major ride they constructed) started. They have masses of little lockers that are free and you just register with your finger print. The only trouble is remembering your locker number so you can find it at the end. If you are worried about security, they do have a little cavity in the seat rides behind your lower back for valuables but I imagine they would get pretty rattled around in there. The staff don’t encourage you to use them because the ride doesn’t stop for people to get on. Seriously, it slows down and you walk onto a little conveyor belt and pull down a shoulder harness that keeps you in place. I freaked out a first because I was convinced mine would fail and I would fly off the ride. I didn’t. Also, for what it’s worth – one time I was on the ride and it stalled and the lights turned on – you really aren’t as high up as you think. But I’m getting ahead of myself!
One of the major things you hear about is how long the ride waits are. Because I was there in the dead of winter (14-16 December) the ride waits were not long enough to soak in all the incredible detail that has gone into occupying your imagination while you do the obligatory line wait. First is the tunnels with a chamber of secrets vibe, then you wind your way through the greenhouses and into the castle where house point hourglasses, statues and more await you. I shan’t spoil any more but there are many rooms to explore while you wait. Frankly it is an experience in itself. What’s more if you don’t enjoy rides you can take your camera in (just explain to the staff you won’t be riding) and take photos throughout. Just make sure to go through the single rider line so people can go past you as you snap away because you don’t want to be holding people up. You can then slip out at the front of the line into the parent room or straight out the exit.
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In terms of the ride itself, WOW! Again I don’t want to spoil anything as I enjoyed it so much not knowing what I was in for but when I stepped off the conveyor I genuinely thought to myself “That was the best two minutes of my life”. I was terrified of going on the rides, so made my boyfriend do them all by my side at first. Then you can bet I was running down those single rider lines as fast as I could! I understand wanting to enjoy the experience together but after one go, I would recommend utilising the faster line (it’s free) as you can probably ride four times for every time the riders in groups ride once. One the other hand, please know if you are motion sick or queasy at all – You might not love this or the Gringotts ride as they are both 3D movie type experiences while you get jostled around on a track (not quite like a rollercoaster). My boyfriend had to go all the way back to our hotel room at 9am after one go around on the forbidden journey for a lie down. By the way, yes of course you come out at one of the better stocked gift shops 😉
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Other rides of note at Islands of Adventure include the ‘Flight of the Hippogriff’ taunted as a kid’s coaster it lulled me into a false sense of security that I would enjoy it. I did not. I am not a roller coaster person. My boyfriend however thought it was great even if a little tame. After that experience of having to hold in the expletives considering there were children aboard, needless to say I did not hop onto the dragon challenge. Which I kinda wish I had but hey – I’m a wuss – whatever 😛
Entertainment outside of rides and shops is probably the one thing I would fault the park on – not to say it’s not there, just maybe not as in your face. There are little skits and musical performances that go on (unscheduled I believe) at the very centre of Hogsmeade where the paths converge. We got to see a choir performance with a performer from each house which was fun. I have seen pictures of the deathly hallows story being depicted with really cool looking puppeteers but we didn’t catch that one.
You can also buy an interactive wand for $50USD (compared to the $40USD for a regular one). These work in the park to turn on water fountains, switch lights inside windows, make an umbrella rain down on those around you etc. A pretty cool experience if you are willing to spend the money. I will say that the interactive wands are less intricately designed and more clunky than the collectable wands and only come in a few popular characters. If you are torn – stand by a few of the spots and watch others use them and see if you would like to experience for yourself. I personally, was content to watch kids enjoy the magic they were creating. The wands come with a map that shows you where you can use them but it’s not hard to see people trying them out.
And of course, the shops. I wish I could say “oh I barely spent any time in the shops, I was outside the whole time” but I wasn’t. Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure) I would say has more variety in each store (clothing, homeware, keyrings, etc.) whereas Diagon Alley (in Universal Studios) has stores that are more genre based!
Some of the cooler shopping experiences at Hogsmeade include the cart selling about 394 different keyrings from standard house colours to the most obscure things like pygmy puffs, Hogwarts express tickets and dark marks. And of course, Honeydukes! Talk about a store that anyone would love let alone Harry Potter lovers! They had a bunch of the sweets from the books and a whole lot that weren’t. I bought Bertie Botts beans and would say that although they are incredibly realistic tasting – I wish they had committed to a box of cool flavours. Our box was 90% cherry, lemon and watermelon with only 1 grass, black pepper, sausage, toothpaste, bogey, and dirt a piece. I know it sounds crazy to complain about getting too many nice ones but when you’re buying them to share the wacky flavours with your friends back home, it’d be cool to only have the wacky flavours and leave the generic ones for every other candy store.
Also, the clothing is actually decent quality. I am not one for novelty t-shirts as I always thought they were tacky… until I went to Harry Potter world that is! My sister had told me to buy myself the Gryffindor Quidditch jersey I had been so keen on as a birthday present from her and I was surprised to see on the tag it was 100% Scottish lamb’s wool! I also bought a Hufflepuff varsity style jumper which I have already had so much use out of! One thing I would say is – if they don’t have your size, don’t settle for the wrong size – there is plenty of other choices here! There are SO many stores within the park (both in HP world and around the entrance gates) and at City Walk. I had liked a Hogwarts T-Shirt but they only had tiny sizes at all the stores in the park. When my boyfriend was checking us out of the hotel I got a call that they had it at the hotel gift store and would I like him to pick it up (yes please!).
There are a few places to eat inside HP world but due to their limited options and me being a fussy britches we ate mostly back at City Walk (up the escalators they have a bunch of cheap eats like Burger King and a Mexican chain restaurant where I got nacho chips with cheese and guac for $1.79) . You are allowed to take the food into the parks too – just not alcohol. The man at the gate made a joke about only getting in if I gave him my nachos. That brings me to my next point – everyone from the ride staff to the people serving ice cream at the entrance are so happy and pleasant. It really makes your experience when you can chat with the man behind the counter about what house he is in and how many times he has ridden the forbidden journey. Read about my wand guessing game here.
Now you're all set and prepared to explore our big wide world, why not sort out everything else out all in one go? If necessary for your travel plans make sure you have brought proper travel insurance, protected your privacy by getting a secure VPN, compared all the top hotel booking sites to find just what you're after, reserved an unbeatable rental car price and - of course - booked the best flight deals!
Many budget travelers (including me) indulge in worldwide airport lounge access, so we can experience luxury while still slumming it in economy. Naturally, we would never leave home without a more a more general travel guide since we couldn’t possibly cover everything here!
Just add an adventurous attitude and plenty of smiles - they go a long way - and that about covers it all! Now go out, find your own path and don't forget to share your best inspiration stories with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram...I'd love to hear from you!