It's no secret among people who know me that I am kind of a big nerd. I've gone Lord of the Rings tours of New Zealand, have written about Harry Potter locations in the UK, and have told you about how a book (“The Historian“) influenced my decision to visit Eastern Europe for the first time. I also may or may not have a ginger cat named Weasley…
So when Universal Orlando offered me tickets to visit their two theme parks during a special “Celebration of Harry Potter” event, I kind of couldn't say no.
After going to Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station (the real one) not once but twice, checking out the “Making of Harry Potter” studio tour in London, and attending more book release parties than I care to admit, one of the last things on my Harry Potter fan to-do list was visiting both “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” parks (Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley) at Universal Orlando.
My friend Stephen and I spent 3 days at Universal Orlando and, whether consciously or not, spent the majority of our time in the Harry Potter parks. (What can I say? Once a nerd, always a nerd.) Even though I've seen pictures of both the Harry Potter sections of the Universal parks, I wasn't fully prepared to see them in real life — let me tell you: they are AWESOME!
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After three days of park-hopping, butterbeer-drinking, and imaginary spell-casting, I've come up with this list of 10 things you MUST do if you visit Universal Orlando's Harry Potter parks:
You can technically fit all of this into just one day if you have a Park-to-Park ticket, or you can spread it out over two days since Hogsmeade is at Island of Adventure and Diagon Alley is at Universal Studios. (I will say, though, that a Park-to-Park ticket for at least one day is worth it, because it's the only way you'll be able to ride the Hogwarts Express between the two parks!)
But now onto the 10 things to do at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter:
1. Exchange money at Gringotts
You'll find Gringotts in Diagon Alley (complete with fire-breathing dragon on top), but the Gringotts building itself is home to a (really cool) ride. But not far away you'll find the Gringotts Money Exchange, where you can exchange your Muggle money for Gringotts bank notes. I was slightly disappointed that you don't get handed a bag full of galleons, but it was fun nonetheless, especially since there's a goblin inside to interact with (ask him about his favorite color). And don't worry — you can use the Gringotts money just about everywhere within the Universal parks.
2. Ride the indoor rides
There aren't a *ton* of rides in the Harry Potter parks – in fact, there's only ONE in Diagon Alley and 3 in Hogsmeade. Meaning it's pretty easy to ride them all if you want to. I enjoyed the Dragon Challenge in Hogsmeade (a set of “racing” roller coasters – make sure to ride them both!), but it was the innovative indoor rides that really blew me away.
The “Forbidden Journey,” located inside Hogwarts Castle in Hogsmeade (in Islands of Adventure), is a grown-up motion simulation ride in which you feel like you're following Harry around on a broomstick, dodging dragons and dementors. And the “Escape From Gringotts” ride in Diagon Alley (in Universal Studios) is a mixture of an indoor roller coaster and a 3-D ride where you get chased by Voldemort and Bellatrix through the vaults. Both were unlike any ride I've ever been on before!
And, pro tip: don't be scared by wait times. Wait times of up to 30 minutes will seem like nothing once you get inside, because the lines have you winding your way through Hogwarts and Gringotts respectively, complete with talking photos, animatronic goblins, and some appearances by Harry Potter characters. The first time we went on the Forbidden Journey the line was only 10 minutes long – and I felt like we actually missed out on part of the experience because we went through the line so fast!
3. Go inside all the shops
Especially in Diagon Alley, make sure to allow enough time to explore all the shops. Just like in J.K. Rowling's version of the magical shopping street, you'll find everything from Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes joke shop to Madame Malkin's robe shop to Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour to Quality Quidditch Supplies to Ollivander's wand shop here. You can even shop for “dark” objects in Borgin and Burkes down Knockturn Alley.
Yes, most of the shops sell souvenirs and t-shirts, but it's still really fun to wander through them all anyway.
And keep an eye on the “fake” shop windows, too (i.e. the ones that don't lead into actual shops) – these are often animated in fun and magical ways.
4. Buy an interactive wand
Okay, it sounds dorky… but if you're going to go to Ollivander's to get a wand, be sure to get the interactive version! Throughout both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, there are interactive shop windows, fountains, and statues where you wave your wand and bring something to life.
It was so fun to watch faces — of both kids AND adults — light up when they made something “move” or made a fountain spring to life with the correct flick of a wand. I didn't know about this feature of the parks before arriving (and had no plans to buy a wand), but thought it was genius and a fantastic way to make people feel like they were really “part” of the magical world.
5. Eat at either the Leaky Cauldron or Three Broomsticks
There's one restaurant in each Harry Potter park (along with various stands selling drinks). You'll find the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley and the Three Broomsticks (and attached Hog's Head Pub) in Hogsmeade. Both serve “traditional British pub food” – I had a plate of mini meat and fish pies – and a range of Harry Potter-inspired drinks and beers. The prices actually aren't terrible, and it's a fun atmospheric thing to do.
6. Drink butterbeer
Speaking of those HP-inspired drinks, you HAVE to try butterbeer. There are three different ways to try it – hot (offered seasonally), cold, and frozen – so pick one and have at it. (For the record, the warm butterbeer was my favorite.) The drink is incredibly sweet, though, so be warned that you may not be able to finish it.
If you want to try something that's not quite so sweet, order a Green Fishy Ale from The Hopping Pot in Diagon Alley. It's a take on bubble tea – it's a green, cinnamon-y drink with blueberry bobas that pop in your mouth. It doesn't LOOK particularly appetizing, but I loved it!
The drink stands and restaurants also sell things like Pumpkin Juice, Otter's Fizzy Orange Juice, Tongue Tying Lemon Squash (lemonade), Peachtree Fizzing Tea, and Gilly Water (just good ol' bottled water), along with assorted alcoholic beverages.
7. Get candy at Honeydukes, or ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s
You of course can't go to Hogsmeade without visiting Honeydukes, the famous wizarding candy shop. Pick up a Chocolate Frog, some Fizzing Whizzbees (chocolate-covered pop rocks – my favorite), and of course some Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans. Play a fun game with these: don't look at the flavor guide, and simply hand them out to your friends and have them guess the flavor! (Warning: There are more gross ones than good-flavored ones.)
If ice cream is more your speed, be sure to stop into Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour in Diagon Alley – they even sell butterbeer-flavored ice cream, which is very popular.
8. Take the Hogwarts Express between parks
If you're going to Universal Orlando mostly for the Harry Potter parks, you want to make sure to get a park-hopper (park-to-park) ticket so you can visit both parks in one day. Then you can take the Hogwarts Express between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade! Get on at Kings Cross Station in Universal Studios, and get off at Hogsmeade Station in Islands of Adventure.
It's a fun way to “travel,” and actually can save you some time walking between parks (assuming the line for the train isn't too long).
The ride itself is fun, too, but I won't give away why – you'll have to ride it yourself to see!
9. Stay at Universal for early park access
One of my biggest tips for visiting Universal Orlando is to stay at one of the park-associated hotels. There are five of them — the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, the Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. Staying at any of these hotels will give you access to both Universal parks one hour before they officially open — meaning this is the best way to see Diagon Alley without any people, or to get in line for the Gringotts ride when there's no wait.
We stayed at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which is new, having just opened in 2015. It has two pool areas, a lazy river, a Starbucks right inside the hotel, and a free shuttle bus to take you to CityWalk and back that operates from 7 a.m. – 2 a.m. every day. And the prices are more than reasonable — we paid an average of $125 per night.
Any of the on-site hotels are great choices, though. If you can't decide which one you want to stay at, compare prices of hotels near Universal here.
10. Visit during the “Celebration of Harry Potter”
Lastly, if you can plan your trip to Universal Orlando during the park's annual “Celebration of Harry Potter” event (held usually towards the end of January/early February), do it! The 2015 event included an expo hall filled with props and costumes from the movies, sessions with a handful of Harry Potter actors, and some fun stuff for kids, too (like a wand dueling class). Plus, it's just fun to see people in Hogwarts robes roaming all through the Universal parks.
You can read Stephen's post about our weekend here.
And check out these guides to help you make the most out of your time in Orlando:
Are you as nerdy as me? Is going to the Harry Potter parks in Orlando on your bucket list?
*Note: I did receive complimentary park-to-park tickets for the weekend from Universal Orlando. However I paid for everything else myself and all nerdy opinions and tips are completely my own!