Vacation to The Magic of Harry Potter
From the first few chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to the afterward of the seventh book, my son Collin and I devoured the popular book series and waited in lines for the hardbook releases. So when we heard that Universal Florida was adding a Harry Potter theme park section, we eagerly followed nuggets of news shared with the Muggle, or nonmagical, world.
When the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in June 2010, reports of lengthy lines kept us away until fall, when a family trip to a nearby town provided the perfect opportunity for an overnight detour in Orlando. Even then, I wondered, would the lines be awful? Would the experience be a letdown after months of buildup and our own imaginations?
Balancing value with convenience
When visiting Universal from out of town, the main decisions include where to stay, what type of admission ticket to purchase, and whether to buy additional Express Plus Pass tickets.
Multiple-day, multiple-park tickets include admission to both Universal's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, home of the new Rip Ride Rockit music-themed roller coaster and a special spring Mardi Gras celebration with concerts and a family-friendly Mardi Gras parade. My husband, son and I only had one day to play and wanted to spend a good chunk of it at the Harry Potter area plus enjoy other favorite rides at Islands of Adventure.
We wanted to maximize time at the park and minimize inconvenience, lines and, if possible, expenses. Staying off-site means lower hotel rates, but driving to the big paid parking garage and walking to the park entrances. The benefits of staying on-site outweighed the additional expense for us. We opted for the Hard Rock Hotel so we could use the Express lines an unlimited number of time at no extra cost and enter the Harry Potter part of the park one hour early.
We took full advantage of the early entrance benefit, arriving at the main gate in plenty of time after grabbing a quick breakfast from The Kitchen downstairs and walking to the park.
Riding a broom with Harry Potter
Once inside the turnstiles, we quickly followed the crowd to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and straight to the Forbidden Journey experience inside the impressive Hogwarts Castle. It is tough to hustle through Hogsmead without being distracted. The village re-creation is impressive, from the storefront windows to the snow-capped roofs and cobbled streets.
If it's crowded and you have a bag or backpack, detour by the lockers near the Hogwarts Express train. Forbidder Journey riders have to check bags before entering the castle. Although there are lockers at the ride, using other ones could reduce your wait. Pay attention to the lines at the ride, and don't get in the one for the castle lockers if you don't need to.
Waking up for the one-hour early entrance paid off. We walked quickly through the outdoor herbology greenhouses and castle rooms straight to the ride-loading area. Without a line to slow us down, we whizzed past important parts of the attraction, including the scene in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom where Ron, Harry and Hermione explain the basis of the ride. If you're also fortunate to not wait in line, be sure to go through the castle again to take in the details of the Gryffindor Common Room, the Portrait Gallery and Dumbledore's office, complete with a pensieve.
The Forbidden Journey simulates a broomstick ride, and you come face to face with huge spiders, dementors and a dragon. It's rated by Universal as family-friendly, but it might be too scary for sensitive younger children or riders who don't like to feel as if they are flying through space. The ride view changes slightly depending on where you sit, so choose another seating arrangement if you ride more than once.
We rode twice before there was much of a line, and Collin and I later used the single-rider entrance to bypass much of the wait, an option for families with children old enough to ride alone. It's easy to miss the door for single riders in the dark of the castle entry area, so ask an employee if you can't find it.
The Forbidden Journey ride is fun if you are a real Harry Potter follower, although the storyline doesn't fit any particular book or familiar situation. If you haven't wondered which house you'd be sorted into and are only marginally familiar with the characters, you can still enjoy the special effects, but it may not be as interesting without a bit more background.
The wand chooses
Our second stop was another attraction that reportedly has long lines, and we did wait. In Ollivander's Wand Shop, an actor picks one person (or a sibling pair during our visit) to enact the story of the wand choosing the child. Try to be in the front of an admitted group for the best chance of having your child selected, and stand up near the rail inside the room. The experience is probably magical for the selected person, but we found it a little lackluster.
Hippogriffs and dragons
Don't bypass the family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster even if your older kids – and you – love the Dragon Challenge, which is the Dueling Dragon ride reinvented. The Flight of the Hippogriff provides a terrific view of that park area and Hagrid's hut outside the castle.
The Dragon Challenge suspended dual coaster has been revamped to be part of the Harry Potter story's Tri-Wizard Challenge, and it's still the same great thrill of a ride, whether you choose the Chinese Fireball or the Hungarian Horntail. The front seats of both are terrific rides, especially if the timing of the coaster starts is right and you fly head-first toward each other partway through.
Bottoms up with butterbeer
Plenty of Harry Potter fans have wondered what butterbeer tastes like. Now more than 1 million mugs have been sold to Muggles, according to Universal. The best description is a mix between cream soda and butterscotch with a thick, foamy head. Butterbeer comes regular or frozen. Frozen may be many fans' favorite, but we preferred the regular.
If the line at the butterbeer cart in Hogsmead village is long, head to Hog's Head Pub in the back of Three Broomsticks Tavern, which serves English and American fare. If you don't like butterbeer, maybe pumpkin juice will suit your taste. The pub also sells adult beverages. (Watch the boar behind the bar.)
All the rest
After getting our fill of Harry Potter, we headed to the rest of the park, which was relatively empty. Collin and I rode the Incredible Hulk coaster a couple of times, waiting for the front car for maximum blast-off effect. Spider Man is my husband's favorite, which he thinks has a more developed storyline and better ride than the Forbidden Journey in Harry Potter.
Dr. Seuss lovers can imagine they are strolling or riding through his books in Seussville, an area that is mainly geared toward the younger kids but everyone can appreciate. Kids (and adults) cool off in water features of If I Ran the Zoo and play in water at Me Ship, the Olive, where you can squirt unsuspecting riders of Bilge Rat Barge, a neighboring ride that soaks its passengers. Younger kids who want a thrill and don't mind getting wet may enjoy Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls.
The park closes earlier during off-season, but visitors can stay a little longer shopping and enjoying the sights. Strolling through Harry Potter world in the evening lets visitors take in the details, and the lights if it's dark. Check the website for hours.
After spending many years in Florida, I'm always up for a visit to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, in this case the restaurant at Universal's CityWalk. We enjoyed dinner on the porch before riding the water taxi back to the hotel to collect our belongings and rental car to continue our journey in Florida. Too bad we couldn't just use floo powder.
If You Go
The Universal Orlando Resort website is full of information to help you plan your visit: www.universalorlando.com. You can preview the Harry Potter area, find the Mardi Gras musical lineup, purchase tickets and Express Plus Pass options, and make hotel reservations.
The Hard Rock Hotel periodically hosts live bands in the Velvet bar. The Velvet Sessions can be loud, especially if you have small children. Ask for a room away from the main areas and several floors up if you are there at that time and don't want to hear the music.
Be sure to check with membership clubs for hotel and admission rate comparisons.
Benefits of On-site Lodging
On-site property guests get unlimited Express privileges, which lets you skip the regular lines and use the Express Pass entrances multiple times at rides that offer the special entrance.
Other ticket holders may purchase an Express Plus Pass, but they can only be used once at each participating ride. They also vary in availability and price depending on the date (approximately $20-$60 plus tax, in addition to a ticket). Check the Express Plus Pass price online for the dates you're considering to see what ticket combination works best for your family.
Property guests have been able to enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter one hour before it opens to the general public. Since Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction doesn't have an Express pass entrance, getting in early reduces wait times at this featured ride.
On-site hotel and Express Pass benefits are subject to change, so check online for the most updated information.