Harry Potter: "Is this real, or is this all happening inside my head?"
Albus Dumbledore: "Of course it is happening inside your head Harry, but why would that mean it's not real?"
- Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows
I admit, I was nervous. Far from a young, oblivious-to-the-heat, teen aged super-fan, I was terrified of braving the relentless Florida sun and three hour lines to see Universal Studios Islands of Adventure's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I had read the horror stories online: enormous wait times for everything (including the shops!), crowds of crazed fans packing the walkways, families at the front gates clutching crying children unable to ride the Flight of the Hippogriff because the Wizarding World had reached its muggle capacity, heat stroke, exhaustion, two hour waits for Butterbeer...it seemed as though our planned excursion was doomed from the start.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Wizarding World is, at the end of the day, a theme park and thus its schedule of opening and closing times, crowd levels and daily attendance patterns closely resembles those of it's other theme park cousins. Almost every Florida guidebook on the market will give you a run down of the most popular, most crowded and most frustrating times to visit the state's many theme parks. Universal Studios and it's Islands of Adventure counterpart (which houses the WWoHP) is no different. We made our visit to the park on Sept. 2, just before the ever-popular Labor Day travel weekend and found this to be an almost ideal time for the trip. Parents with young children may have Labor Day Monday off but they are reluctant to take their kiddos out of school so early in the term. Thus, we were able to take advantage of the free vacation day* for this trip while still avoiding a lot of the crowds.
Universal will likely try to sell you on a variety of vacation packages, some of which are great deals, but you should know that you can easily do the WWoHP in a single day. In fact, we found we had ample time to ride each of the rides, shop every shop and still explore the other islands of adventure included in the park. The old theme-park rule #1 still applies here: arriving early is still your best bet. While wait times never went past 20 to 30 minutes for each attraction, the shortest waits were still to be found first thing in the morning.
Following the advice of our fellow travelers who'd already ventured into Hogsmeade Village, we made a beeline for the Hogwarts castle and the much-talked-about Forbidden Journey. So concerned, were we, that we were shocked to find that there was almost no one there. No, really, no one. We snuck in photos of ourselves with the Hogwarts Express, enjoyed great views of the mostly unoccupied stores and really got the opportunity to enjoy our stroll through the streets of Hogsmeade before finding ourselves be in front of the massive castle.
Through the magic of clever planning and optical illusion, the castle appears to be huge. Massive and looming over the comparatively small village below it, it's an impressive visual accomplishment. It's also a giant visual symbol of the immersion experience WWoHP promises. It's pretty easy to believe that you've actually entered the mysterious castle JK Rowling writes of in her books. The attention to detail is astounding - from the glass containers holding house points to the pensive tucked away in the corner of Professor Dumbledore's office, you'll find all of your favorite bits of Potter history.
The shops are no different offering popular selections such as chocolate frogs (these are considerably different than the less expensive, mass-produced version which could be found in candy stores at the height of Potter mania - WWoHP chocolate frogs come in boxes like those seen in the films, include a wizard card and are sized more like chocolate Easter bunnies than vending machine snacks) as well wares that will tempt the pickiest Potter fans. Our favorite find was located in Filch's Emporium where you could purchase a Marauders Map which, through a trick of technology we still can't figure out, actually moved. Yep, we were impressed.
What Makes Them Special: The Shops
Each themed store in WWoHP carries the merchandise it might stock in Rowling's fictional world. Honeydukes specializes in the aforementioned chocolate frogs but a friendly shop worker was kind enough to let us in on the secret of the cauldron cake. These tasty snacks feature chocolate cake, molded chocolate and chocolate mousse crafted each day in the Universal kitchens. Priced between $3 and $4, they're a tasty little pick-me-up after a day of spell casting.
Dervish and Banges, Olivander's and the Owlery all back into one another next to a covered pavilion that offers a cool, shady place for a rest. (Look up while you're sitting on one of the convenient benches, the detail of the owls in the rafters is nothing short of obsessive.) To witness the 10 minute show in Olivander's, you must wait in a line at the far end of the clump of shops which, during the summer months, is in full sun and terribly warm. This was one of those horror stories we'd heard many times before embarking on this adventure. The lines, we were told, at Olivander's are hours long, blazing hot and only one person, typically a child, is selected for the demonstration. While that last bit is true, we waited only twenty minutes to access the cramped shop and the magic that happens within is well worth the short wait. (Admittedly, I might not feel the same had I experienced the two hour lines guests encountered when the park first opened. Our suggestion? If it's 30 minutes or less, go for it. Otherwise, allow the costumed employees in the Owlery, where Olivander's demo ultimately places you, to help you find the wand that will ultimately select you.
Helpful Hint: As shared by many others on various blogs, waiting in the Olivander's line is NOT the only way to access the Owlery and Dervish and Banges. There is a back door immediately behind the Owlery that puts you into Dervish and Banges. From there, you can cross into the Owlery and purchase your wand. You'll find it easily if you are exiting the Dragon Challenge or if you follow the wall of the building nearest the benches around the back. During busy times, D&B employees will control access to the store via that door.
If you're interested in buying a wand (which will run you about $30), be aware that only the wands that select YOU carry the Olivander's branding on the boxes. Character wands (Harry and his friends, selected Hogwarts professors and Voldemort) are also available but they'll go home with you in plain WWoHP boxes.
Filch's Emporium is where you'll find your Hogwarts-themed school shirts, sweatshirts, hats and other assorted goods and Zonko's Joke Shop contains some random tricks and practical jokes as well as the famous pink pygmy puffs. Make sure you have a name ready for yours before you purchase and the shop employee will make a little announcement about your new friend.
What Makes Them Special: The Rides
Truthfully, there is little that is special about the two roller coasters - The Flight of the Hippogriff & Dragon Challenge. Both are fine examples of what you'd find at other parks across the country and these are even remodeled leftovers from the "Lost Continent" which had previously occupied this space. (I've read a lot of speculation that the "Lost Continent" may eventually be lost forever when Potter's island expands in future.) Hippogriff is gentle and appropriate for young kids (although not, as we found out, easily frightened senior citizens...one parent on our trip, who shall remain nameless, swore loudly for the entire 45 second ride which, we're pretty sure, ruined some of the magic for the small children seated in the next car). Dragon Challenge is considerably more intense but I wouldn't say either are particularly noteworthy.
The Forbidden Journey, however, is the masterpiece of Potter technology. Riders are strapped to "flying benches" which have been enchanted by a filmed projection Hermione Granger (actress Emma Watson). The goal is to allow the muggle visitors to go to a Quidditch game with their pals Harry and Ron but, in usual Hogwarts fashion, things go slightly amiss, allowing visitors to encounter some of their favorite monsters and places. Executed via a combination of animatronics, 3-D film footage and the movement of a mechanical arm, which each bench is connected to, visitors are given an experience akin to actually flying. This is, by far, WWoHP's greatest achievement and is not to be missed. That said, this is not the first blog to point out that some guests will not fit properly into the harness and it is a bit of a wild ride. We were a tad shaky after our tour and had to avoid anything that moved for a bit. Guests with motion sickness or an aversion to being momentarily tossed upside-down may not be fans.
Helpful Hint: The Single Rider Line will get you on the Forbidden Journey quickly. In doing so, however, you miss out on a LOT of the experience. The regular line takes you through the various rooms of Hogwarts castle starting in the greenhouse and eventually winding through Dumbledore's office, the Gryffindor common room and the room of requirement. Seeing the detail, encountering the Fat Lady and watching paintings on the wall actually move makes the wait worth it. Again, plan your visiting times. We waited a grand total of 10 minutes to get on the ride - 5 of which we spent taking photos.
Finally, the Universal staff makes it very clear that you cannot take loose objects - bags, sunglasses, hats - on the ride. Lockers are provided but there is usually a line to access them. If you're lucky and a member of your party is not riding, load them up with all your stuff.
What Makes It Special: The Food
Three Broomsticks is the only food option in Hogsmeade and the adjoining Hogshead Pub serves up beverages. If you'd like to get inside either, you do have to be making a food or drink purchase, so do save your meal for this establishment as it's worth the look. Three Broomsticks serves classic British favorites like fish and chips, roasts and a salad or two. The system is pretty efficient - food is ordered at a counter where payment is taken. Guests then get a receipt and an order number and are directed to one of several numbered pick-up windows where another server will hand over the food and drinks. Condiments, napkins and tableware can be obtained at another counter after which a final set of employees will direct your party to an appropriately sized table. During our visit, the whole restaurant was kept very clean and we had no difficulty obtaining a seat once we had our food. Portions are huge - easily a full meal including a serving of veggies - and comparatively priced given you're in a theme park. (My pet peeve is when travelers complain about the theme-park up-charge. You're in a theme park! They're holding you hostage for the day...of course you're about to get soaked for a few extra bucks! Want to avoid that? Visit an actual English country pub where food is both excellent and cheap. Otherwise, you're paying for the experience so just enjoy it.)
If you leave WWoHP without a butterbeer, you've lost your mind. Easily our favorite purchase of the day, butterbeer comes in both the "regular" and frozen varieties. Looking and tasting a bit like butterscotch flavored root beer, we found we preferred the frozen option. It comes with a creamy dairy topping that is nothing short of magic. Collectible mugs are offered at an additional cost but one worker told us they are going for as much as $200 on eBay so it might be a smart investment. We doubt it but I'm enjoying using mine as a pen holder on my desk at the moment.
The Bottom Line
A single day adult ticket will cost you about $90 per person (multiple day tickets bring the per-day cost down quite a bit) and children get in for slightly less. Unless your family includes big fans of the park's other attractions, one day is likely all you'll need at this park. (Islands of Adventure's sister park, Universal Studios, can also be included on the ticket depending on the package you purchase and both parks may require more than one day to fully explore.) Thus, if WWoHP is your only planned destination, it may not be enough to justify an entire trip to central Florida. That said, it's certainly worth the price of admission for Potter fans and even just the generally curious. We were impressed by attention to detail as well how smoothly the Universal staff ran this section of the park. The trial-by-fire opening summer seems to have made these guys pretty good at their jobs.
Go: if you like Harry, enjoy a little magic, are a huge fan of roller coasters or you're a creative mind looking for inspiration for your own projects
Don't Go: if you hate theme parks, dislike Harry or have no desire to deal with the Florida heat or seasonal crowds. A visit here will likely not change your mind.
For more info: www.universalorlando.com/harrypotter/
*Free Vacation Days: These are days your company gives you for free aka: they don't count against your ten day vacation total! Although they tend to correspond with high crowd levels at many vacation destinations (after all, everyone else is probably off, too), proper planning can help you avoid some of the issues associated with "holiday" travel. You're limited enough, already! Don't hurt yourself farther by failing to take advantage of these free gifts!