Saturday, June 17, 2017

My Trip to Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Disclaimer: Media passes were provided for entrance in exchange for an honest review of my experience.
Universal Orlando The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Review & Tips
Because I was already visiting New Orleans this summer, I thought I might as well extend my trip and travel a bit further south to Orlando to visit the parks of Universal Orlando. Since its opening in 2010 and its more recent expansion in 2014, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is no doubt Universal Orlando's key attraction. We spent two days between the two theme parks and today I want to dedicate a post specifically to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. To read all about my experience and learn few tips that could help you plan your visit, click......

As of June 2017, with the addition of the new Volcano Bay park, Universal Orlando has three individual theme parks. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is split in two, with one section (Diagon Alley) located within Universal Studios and the other (Hogsmeade) located within Islands of Adventures. Each portion of the Wizarding World can be visited on separate days if you have the "One Park Per Day" pass. However, if you get the "Park to Park" ticket, you can commute directly between the two areas via the Hogwarts Express.

The Hogwarts Express:
Connected between the King's Cross Station at Universal Studios Florida Park and the Hogsmeade Station at Island's of Adventure Park, the Hogwarts Express is not only a speedy way to get you from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade (and vice versa, the train runs both ways), it's also a ride attraction in itself.
Once aboard the very realistic and true-to-story train, you can sit back and relax. The train is divided into separate private cabins (just like in the movie) and the window and the doors are actually screens that simulate the journey of traveling between Hogwarts and London. The ride experience is different depending on which way you are traveling. So if you are a serious fan, you'd probably want to ride the express both ways.
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Hogwarts Express
Because the Express Pass (available separately for an added cost) is not applicable to the Hogwarts Express, we waited a pretty long time in line (approximately 30 minutes). I also had an elevated expectation after reading some blog posts about the ride so I was left a bit disappointed afterwards. The simulation experience was novel and entertaining, but the graphics were subpar and there just wasn't enough excitement. After lining up for so long, it was really no more than a ~7-minute train ride between the two parks.

Diagon Alley:
Located on the Universal Studios side of the parks, Diagon Alley is the fictional shopping district in the wizarding London that's completely hidden from the Muggle population. Here is where you will find Ollivanders wand shop, the Leaky Cauldron pub and inn, and Gringott's Wizarding Bank, among many other small shops (gift stores).
Universal Orlando The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Diagon Alley Dragon
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Diagon Alley Dragon
There's almost always a long line to get into Ollivanders as the store only allows a fixed number of patrons to enter at a time. Once inside, the storekeeper will put on a short skit, pick out one or two visitors, and then help them choose a wand (to purchase). Interactive wands can be bought in several stores in Diagon Alley and they can actually be used within the parks. Metal plaques are scattered throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Stand above them and wave your wand around and some magical phenomena will occur (ex. a water fountain will start to flow). The wands were pretty darn pricey by my standards so I stayed away, but if you are bringing kids to the parks, be prepared to shell out anywhere between $43 to $50 per wand.
Universal Orlando The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Diagon Alley
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Diagon Alley
The only ride attraction at Diagon Alley is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which is an indoor roller coaster that employs motion-based 3D effects and physical effects. We visited Diagon Alley on the second day and I was completely "rided out" thanks to my fear of extreme speeds and drops so I opted out of this one. However, my friends that did go on the ride absolutely loved it as they were enamored with the detailed sets and realistic effects. It's also worth noting that the Express Pass is not applicable here, so be prepared to wait at least a good 30 to 45 minutes.
Universal Orlando The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Diagon Alley The Tales of Beedle the Bard
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | The Tales of Beedle the Bard
While waiting around in Diagon Alley as my friends were in line for Escape from Gringotts, I happened to stumble upon a The Tales of Beedle the Bard performance. Different children's stories are told throughout the day and I listened in on "The Fountain of Fair Fortune". The ten-minute story was told by the narrator while the other actors puppeteered around character dolls from the story. There weren't many elaborate sets or dazzling showmanship but it was a nice way to take a quick break from my day in the park.
Universal Orlando The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Diagon Alley Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour Butterbeer Ice Cream
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Butterbeer Ice Cream
While browsing around, I also popped into Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour to get myself some Butterbeer Soft Serve Ice Cream (~$4.50). This was essentially a vanilla soft serve with thin swirls of butterbeer soda syrup. It was pretty good but nothing extraordinary.
Aside from the main attractions (ex. Escape from Gringotts, Ollivanders, Gringotts Money Exchange), Diagon Alley has tons of shops, alleyways, and shop windows that were probably the best part of the wizarding world experience (in my opinion). I loved how the buildings and the sets were so detailed and realistic. It provided such an immersive experience that made me feel as if I were really visiting the world of Harry Potter.
Universal Orlando The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Diagon Alley
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Diagon Alley Shops
While visiting Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure (see below) on our first day, we really wanted to dine at the Three Broomsticks pub and inn for lunch but the lineup was just ridiculous. Therefore, we opted to lunch at the Leaky Cauldron pub and inn located inside Diagon Alley on our second day. With a rustic and intentionally run-down decors, the Leaky Cauldron is a cafeteria style restaurant that serves up a variety of quick and simple pub grub. I got the Bangers & Mash (~$13 CAD) which consisted of two large sausages on top of a bed of peas, carrots, broccoli, roasted tomato, and mashed potato. The sausages were surprisingly juicy and delicious and all the veggies were fresh and yummy with the exception of the carrots, which were noticeably underdone.
Universal Orlando The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Diagon Alley Leaky Cauldron
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Leaky Cauldron
Overall, it was a pretty delicious and reasonably-priced meal (for a theme park, anyways). However, I do have one complaint about the restaurant and that is the complete and utter lack of take-out boxes! I get it, this is a theme park restaurant. But who in their right mind thought that it's okay to not provide take-out boxes? I couldn't finish my meal and because I am absolutely against food waste, I had to get a plastic bag from a gift shop to tote around my leftover sausage!
Universal Orlando The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Leaky Cauldron Bangers & Mash
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Leaky Cauldron Bangers & Mash
Universal Orlando The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Hogsmeade
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Hogsmeade
Hogsmeade:
Located on the Islands of Adventure side of the parks, Hogsmeade is the other portion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Here is where you will find various shops, eateries, and the iconic Hogwarts Castle. The actual ride attractions at Hogsmeade are the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the Flight of Hippogriff junior rollercoaster, and the Dragon Challenge inverted roller coaster. With the exception of the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, both roller coaster rides can be visited with the Express Pass to skip the lines.
Universal Orlando The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Hogsmeade & Butterbeer
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Hogsmeade, Hogwarts & Butterbeer
Again, due to my fear of speed and drops, I only went to the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is a motion-based indoor ride that involved a lot of turns and rotations along dimly-lit corridors. The experience was pretty similar to many other motion-based rides at the park but the storyline is nicely executed so it was a thrilling and immersive experience.
The ride is actually housed in the beautifully-constructed Hogwarts castle and as you line up for the ride, you actually get to walk inside the castle and experience various elements of the school, such as the wall of headmaster portraits.
Universal Orlando The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Hogwarts Caste
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Hogwarts Castle
Hogsmeade was noticeably smaller compared to Diagon Alley (in terms of pedestrian space and stores) but there is a second Ollivanders location so you can experience the wand-choosing ceremony here as well. No visit to the wizarding world would be complete without trying some Butterbeer and I begrudgingly shelled out $7.50 for a cup. The drink is available iced or frozen and I opted for the frozen, which was essentially a butterscotch soda slush topped with a layer of sweet cream. Admittedly, the drink was pretty delicious, but man oh man was it expensive!

Visiting Tips:
This is my first time visiting Universal Orlando so I for sure am not a seasoned park-goer. However, I do want to impart on you a few tips that I wish I knew before visiting.

1. Bring a rain poncho and flip-flops. Depending on the season, Orlando may be eternally sunny during your visit. However, on every single day during the later afternoon hours on our visit, it rained like crazy! Therefore, do yourself a favor and bring a poncho (an umbrella will not be as convenient while navigating through the crowds) and a pair of flip-flops to change into (to prevent your shoes and socks from getting soaked). Universal does sell ponchos when it's raining but they cost $10 a pop!
2. There are no "quiet hours" for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I read online that Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are much less busy in the afternoon. However, I've gone to both places multiple times during our two-day visit and both areas are pretty much packed at all times (unless you are visiting around closing time). So expect big crowds and long waits and be prepared to be photobombed in every single picture you try to take.
With that said, I would probably visit the Wizarding World after lunch time and visit the other attractions in the early morning. Crowds tend to flock directly to the Harry Potter areas immediately after opening, so the other rides all have a very short wait time in the morning hours.
3. Butterbeer is 50 cents cheaper inside the Leaky Cauldron (and probably the other Harry Potter restaurants as well). When you are at a theme park, you really want to save any penny you can. So if you are planning on visiting one of the eateries like the Leaky Cauldron, you might as well save 50 cents and buy your butterbeer there as opposed to the outdoor stands.
Universal Orlando | The Wizarding World of Harry Potter | Frozen Butter Beer
4. If you've already ridden the Hogwarts Express once, you may want to save your time and simply walk from one park to another. Wait times for the train can go up to an hour or more so it may be wise to just walk and save your precious time at Universal.
5. You don't need to line up at Ollivander's to get a wand. The wand ceremony is just a short show so if all you want is a wand, you can buy one directly from one of the many gift shops to avoid the 15- to 30-minute wait.
6. Two days are more than enough for the two parks whether or not you have an Express Pass. We spent an equal amount of time at both theme parks, jumping between the two parks during each day, and there were plenty of hours to spare. If anything, your energy is going to run out much faster than time.
7. If your main interest is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you probably won't need to invest in the Express Pass. As mentioned previously, only the Harry Potter roller coaster rides can be entered with an Express Pass. So if you don't plan on going to many of the rides in the park, the Express Pass won't be of much use.

Overall, my experience at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was fun and memorable. There's no doubt that the place is super crowded and that the Florida heat is simply grueling, but both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade featured some really well-executed and immersive details that brought me as close as possible to the world of Harry Potter. If you are a huge Potterhead, then this place is a must-visit. However, even if you are like me and aren't that into Harry Potter, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando is still a unique and wonderful experience.

About Universal Orlando:
To find out about ticketing prices and plan your visit, click here.
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