With the realization that the kids would be on Christmas break until January 10th, I convinced Scott we should head to Florida. Our main Destination? The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal.
The kids are 9, 7 and 4–and absolutely obsessed with all things HP. My oldest started reading the books last year in 3rd grade, and the other two have listened in, watched the movies (as we’ve read the books) and role played along when big bro wants to act out scenes…which is basically every day.
I had a number of “must see” items on my to do list. But, no surprise, there was so much more than I could have ever imagined. Here’s our list of what you should plan to do on a trip to Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter…
FYI: Universal has two parks–right next to each other–with Harry Potter attractions. Think of it this way:
- Islands of Adventure: Hogsmeade, Hogwarts Castle
- Universal Studios: London, Diagon Alley
#1 Get to London
The first day, we went for the ultimate wizard experience. Because Islands of Adventure is the park that opens for “early entrance” for resort guests, it’s a great way to start the day with less people around. By the time we got there and walked all the way to the area where Hogsmeade is, we were able to get on the Hogwarts Express to London. There was no wait to ride the train because it was so early.
We walked into the streets of “London,” at Universal Studios, where there are a ton of Harry Potter photo ops, like posing in front Number 12 Grimmauld Place, the Knight Bus and King’s Cross Station.
Don’t hesitate to take your turn in the Telephone Booth just outside King’s Cross–if you follow the typed directions to contact the Ministry, you’ll be able to listen to the options on the receiver.
Word of Warning: You have to know how to work a rotary phone in order to make this happen.
#2 Find Diagon Alley
It can be a bit tricky to find the entrance to Diagon Alley for the first time. It looks like a wall, but you’ll enter around the side–follow the crowd. Be prepared to be in awe of the deconstructed brick entrance.
#3 Exchange Money at Gringott’s
My kids were excited to go to Gringott’s. You can exchange amounts in $10 increments, to use anywhere in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so we got $20 worth and planned to spend it at Honeyduke’s.
#4 Get Wands
There are multiple spots to buy wands, but we wanted the experience at Ollivander’s. There is a bit of a “show” to it, and even if you’re not selected to be the “one” chosen, it’s really fun to watch. We didn’t have to wait in line because we went early, but I noticed people queing up during the day, so my advice is to get to this experience sooner than later.
The wands are pricey, but you may want to budget for them as part of the park price, since it’s really fun to do spells all over the parks throughout your time there.
Many wand boxes are marked by character name, but you can also choose a wand based on materials. My boys picked the Harry & Ron wands. Revi picked hers based on the look of it.
Try to keep the wands in the box when not in use, as the glass tip is at risk of scratching, and then the spells don’t work. (They will fix it for free if you go to the Owl Post and ask for help.)
The wands work by finding the golden markers on the ground, standing on them and performing the spell that is directed on the gold marker. In reality, you need to point your wand at the “eye” so the in-fared light can transmit the signal.
Within your wand box is a map of the spots all over the two parks where you can use the wands, but they’re easy to locate. If you’re struggliung, other people are more than happy to help you. And as soon as you get it down, you’ll be helping others as if you’re an expert, too.
#5 Visit the Leaky Cauldron
This is another spot you should try to get to early on, as the lines can get long. This place is a “must see.” If you’ve seen the beginning of Prisoner of Azkaban, you’ll be blown away by the experience.
What’s nice is that you are waiting to place your order and then get taken to a table, so you aren’t searching for a place to sit. They serve breakfast and pastries in the morning, so we got a “sweet” to share–the Sticky Toffee Pudding was to die for. But, we were really there for the beverages.
Who says you can’t have Butterbeer for breakfast? We got one for the kids, as well as a Pumpkin Juice. Hubs and I decided on brews–I mean, we were on vacation. You can look up the types of drinks by googling the names, but we tried one of each–The Wizard’s Brew and Dragon Scale.
#6 Escape from Gringott’s
This is an indoor ride, and it is worth experiencing, even–and especially–if there is a wait. For one thing, the excitement starts outside, on top of the building, with an actual fire breathing dragon.
My two younger kids didn’t go on the actual ride, but there is so much to take in during the wait, that if you love Harry Potter, you’ll want to experience.
Plan to do this one before leaving Diagon Alley because this is the only ride in this park. This is a 3D motion experience, so if you’re prone to nausea, prepare yourself.
Universal offers child swap, which meant that the whole family could go through the lines together, and then one of us would wait with the littles while the other one went on the ride. And, it also meant that Dexter got to go twice in a row, so he was overjoyed.
#7 Go Shopping!
Diagon Alley is the place to go if you want to buy any kind of Harry Potter merchandise. While you can also shop in Hogsmeade, the amount of shops is greater in Diagon Alley.
Think of it like Harry’s first time there with Hagrid, and visit all the spots he did–in order to get ready to leave for Hogwarts, such as:
- Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions
- Quality Quidditch Supplies
- Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes
- The Magical Menagerie
Honestly, it’s not even about buying merchandise as much as it is about taking in all the details. My kids were in awe of seeing Hermione’s dress from the Yule Ball in Madam Malkin’s.
#8 Ride the Hogwart’s Express
It IS extra money to do the park-to-park pass, which enables you to go back and forth from Islands of Adventure to Universal Studios, but honestly it’s so worth it. As of now, having the park-to-park pass is the only way to ride the train. The experience of riding the Hogwart’s Express is like none other.
It’s fun to have the experience of Platform 9 & 3/4, at King’s Cross Station, just like Harry did. The entire train ride is a “show,” full of things to watch, listen to & notice. It’s two different experiences going back and forth, so make sure you ride it both ways.
#9 Enjoy Hogsmeade
If you’ve read enough of the books–or watched the movies–you know that the town just outside of Hogwarts is Hogsmeade. Be prepared to have your breath taken away when you see the castle up close for the first time. It’s absolutely awesome.
There are more wand opportunities throughout Hogsmeade, so get ready to cast some spells.
The shops here are unique, I would say they are more about the experience. Just seeing the details mentioned throughout the series was cool enough. For instance, my kids were most excited about getting candy at Honeyduke’s. That was a small fortune.
Dexter chose a Chocolate Frog that he couldn’t even finish. Brock and Revi picked a few pieces from the bulk area–sours and gummies and sweets galore. It was just enough to keep them happy while we sat down for a bit.
The real treat for Scott & I was the “Triple” at the Hog’s Head. This is their version of a Black & Tan. But, it’s not on the menu, so you have ask for it.
As an aside, they will not serve more than one alcoholic beverage per adult. So, even though we were sitting outside, I had to run into the bar to get my beer. (I didn’t have to wait in line, I just had to show up.) This was our experience all through the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, for the record. It’s probably their way of making sure no one gets wasted and ends up in a duel.
Other places to visit in Hogsmeade:
- The Three Broomsticks
- Owl Post (send something postmarked Hogsmeade)
- Dervish & Banges
- Zonko’s Joke Shop (just the exterior)
- Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods
#10 Go Through the Castle (The Forbidden Journey)
This is your chance to see unending replicas of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. You’ll hear and see the Sorting Hat, watch Dumbledore in his office, listen to the Fat Lady & other portraits, see the Mirror of Erised…& so much more.
There are a lot of aspects of this to experience, but we found this ride to be one of the shorter wait times at 10-30 minutes. This is another one of those nausea-inducing, 3D motion rides. I love the experience–hubs, not so much. This ended up being Dexter’s favorite ride–he loved the feeling of flying with Harry through the Quidditch Pitch.
#11 Visit Buckbeak for Flight of the Hippogriff
Hands down, one of our family’s favorite rides. It’s a fun, fast roller coaster. The best part is that anyone can ride it, which is great when you have a tiny, toddler-sized, almost 5 year old, who also happens to be an adrenaline junky. Every single time, Revi would scream, “BEST DAY EVERRRRRRRR!” when we went swooping around the curves.
This was another one where it wasn’t a terrible wait, maybe 10-30 minutes. And, the wait is all outside, under a good amount of shade. We finished our beers while waiting in line the first time, and the kids had a snack. There’s lots to look at, like Hagrid’s Hut and robotic Buckbeak in his nest.
#12 Hagrid’s Motorbike
Is this ride worth a 2 hour wait? I mean…it’s probably one of the most thrilling roller coasters I’ve ever been on. You swoop, you drop, you go backwards, you fly forwards at mach speed–what’s not to love? The wait. Yikes. Who has 2 hours to stand around?!? Dexter & I waited in the single rider line, and we were able to get on the ride in about 40 minutes. Even an hour wait wouldn’t be too bad. Take a snack that you can dispose of by the time you’re heading into the building, which is about 10 minutes before the ride. The views outside are stunning.
#13 Take in a Show
There are shows scheduled daily, in both Diagon Alley & Hogsmeade. Check the schedule before you go so you can enjoy the feats of strength and talent displayed. If you’re catching a show in Diagon Alley, grab some soft serve from Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour beforehand!
- Celestina Warbeck & the Banshees
- Tales of Beetle the Bard
- Frog Choir
- Triwizard Spirit Rally
- Hogwart’s Light Show
The Goblet of Fire was a favorite book, and it’s the last movie we’ve seen, so the Triwizard Spirit Rally was very exciting for the kids.
Enjoy students from Durmstrang and Beaux Baton showing off their best moves.
The Hogwart’s Light Show
We almost missed this one because I didn’t hear about it ahead of time, and they don’t really broadcast it. It lasts just under six minutes, and it is a spectacular sight to see. The light show takes place on the castle, so we got prime spots on the bridge just to the left of the castle.
Extra Tips for Enjoying the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Get to Know the Park:
Download the Universal app prior to visiting. Check in during the days before you go to see what times might be best to go on the rides. Of course, it can vary depending on the time of year, but if you want to get the most out of your trip, familiarizing yourself is a good idea.
The “authentic” robes at Universal are expensive, compared to something you can get from a costume shop, a store or online. Take your own robes–if your family will wear them. We didn’t take ours–and I heard about it, but I would’ve been the one carrying them, so that decision worked out for me.
Like many theme parks, the shops are full of wardrobe accessories and stuffed animals. I stocked the kids with t-shirts, sweatshirts and stuffies before we left, (as part of the scavenger hunt they went on to find out they were going to Universal.) They weren’t as hung up on buying “stuff” because they had a lot already.
Take reusable bottles in a bag so you can stay hydrated. You can find water fountains to fill them, or ask for water, and you won’t be charged if you’re refilling.
Staying at a Universal Resort is a huge asset. To begin with, it was the least expensive lodging option I could find after a day of searching. The shuttle–to and from the parks–is free, so we opted to not get a rental car, saving us money in daily parking at the resort–and at the parks. You also get into Islands of Adventure an hour early, which is a great way to enjoy some features with less crowd. Plus, our hotel had a pool. It was in the 70s/80s the whole trip, so the kids had a day off of the parks and enjoyed some pool time.
What do you think? Are you ready to plan your own trip? What did I leave out? Reach out with questions or comments!