By now, you’ve surely heard that the world of Harry Potter exists in Orlando, Florida. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which first opened at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure park in 2010, takes fanatics and casual readers alike into some of the most popular scenes from the books and movies that captured a generation. First came Hogsmeade, and more importantly, Hogwarts Castle. From fire-breathing dragons to Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, the land realistically captured the magic of the series and served it up with a side of nostalgia.
I grew up on the Harry Potter series, and working in Hogsmeade as an adult was a literal dream come true. Where else can you sip Butterbeer while helping witches and wizards to find their first wand? Life could not be better.
Then Diagon Alley was announced. An expansion of the Wizarding World; Diagon Alley is located within Universal Studios Florida, though you wouldn’t know it once you’ve crossed through the magical brick wall and marveled at the lopsided, colorful buildings and wares of the famous wizarding shopping street. It’s a little strange to watch the movies now and think, “Hey, I’ve been there!”
There are some moments in life you never forget. Your first kiss. Graduation. And for me, the first time I crossed into Diagon Alley, clutching the arm of my friends and feeling as though I’d stepped right into the movies. I could go on and on about how much I love Harry Potter, and share so many embarrassing photos (is it embarrassing if I secretly love those photos?, but let’s get to the good stuff.
For Potter fans, casual readers, and even those who (gasp) claim never to have been fond of the boy wizard, here is your guide to visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
It’s a Two-Park Experience: This is probably the most important thing to know before planning a trip to the Wizarding World. Universal Orlando is comprised of two parks. Diagon Alley is housed within Universal Studios Florida, while Hogsmeade is part of Islands of Adventure.
To see everything, you must have a two-park ticket.The two magical lands are connected by none other than the Hogwarts Express, the iconic red steam engine that takes Harry and his classmates to and from King’s Cross Station and Hogsmeade Station. The train is a ride in itself, and it’s a little different depending on which direction you are traveling. Your two-park ticket doubles as your ticket to the Hogwarts Express, so make sure to keep it on hand throughout the day!
Magic is Real Here: Not only can you walk in the footsteps of Harry and his friends; you can do real actual magic. At Ollivander’s Wand Shop, witness (or even participate in!) the matching of wand and wizard, and feel free to check out the wide selection of wands crafted by Mr. Ollivander himself. Ask for a wand with an RFID chip, which also comes with a collectible map showing where to put those years of Charms practice to work.
And speaking of Ollivander’s, here’s another tip: don’t wait in line at the Hogsmeade shop. Take the Hogwarts Express back to Diagon Alley and see the wand demonstration there. They have additional showrooms, so you likely won’t have to wait long, if at all, to witness magic firsthand.
Just want to buy a wand? Gregorovitch’s is much-smaller wand shop, tucked away from the main road in Diagon Alley, and has many of the same wands available for purchase.
The Magic is in the Details: The experience of simply walking into Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley is impressive, but it’s the small details along the way that really make the Wizarding World an immersive experience. Fans of the books especially will thrill over details like Fred and George Weasley’s U-No-Poo storefront display, or the simple existence of Gillywater. One of my favorite things about Diagon Alley in particular is this attention to detail. I could spend hours roaming the small streets, just looking at all the businesses, merchandise and window displays.
As a huge Potter fan myself, what makes this area feel real are the everyday details like an ad for magical services, or the storefront for the House Elf Placement Agency. Many of the details around the area are interactive, or move when least expected. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say there’s a shrieking Mandrake in Hogsmeade, so cover you ears!
You Don’t Have to Ride a Thing: While there are several impressive rides between the two areas, they aren’t for everyone. There are two 3-D simulator rides, a kiddie coaster, and my favorite coaster in the park, Dragon Challenge (which has two different ride tracks for double the excitment). Of course, there’s also the Hogwarts Express, but you don’t even have to ride that, if you’d prefer to walk to the other park. I think the rides add to the experience, but if you don’t want to ride anything, you can still spend hours in the area and not get bored. There are plenty of entertainment, shopping, and food options available. Go check out the wand demonstration at Ollivander’s wand shop, or catch one of four shows that happen throughout the day.
I especially recommend The Tales of Beedle the Bard, located in Diagon Alley, which reenacts the beautifully-animated Tale of the Three Brothers as seen in part 1 of the final Harry Potter movie. Grab a Butterbeer, or an actual beer if you like, and take your time poking around the area.
BONUS: From time to time, “tours” of Hogwarts castle are available, so you can see some of the interior details that make the castle so engaging, like Dumbledore’s study. Simply ask one of the witches or wizards working at the castle for a tour. Feeling shy? Just go in through the single rider’s line, which generally is not as full. You’ll be able to see some of the gorgeous details firsthand, and exit without riding if you choose.
Beat the lines: If you do choose to ride, the single rider’s line can be a desirable alternative to waiting in an hour-plus line for popular rides such as Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, or Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It’s usually available in peak seasons, such as spring break, summer, or the holiday season. The catch? You will be separated from your party once you get to the front of the line. The single rider’s line helps employees to fill every seat and reduce the regular wait time, and it helps you to get on more quickly if you don’t mind riding with strangers. It’s also a good option if no one else in your party wants to ride!
The Food is Awesome: Between The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade, and The Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, there is plenty of tasty food for everyone in your group. The prices are reasonable, considering how much a simple burger and fries can cost in a theme park, and the seating system is wonderful. You order at the elaborately-themed counter, and an employee whisks you away to a table and later delivers your food. In other words, you won’t be circling a full dining room for ten minutes before deciding to go eat on a vacant spot of sidewalk.
Most of the food is traditional British fare, while the beverages are taken directly from the pages of the Harry Potter books. And speaking of the drinks…
Try the Butterbeer! There are three versions of this famous beverage available, with multiple purchase locations throughout the parks. Butterbeer “cold” or “on tap” is a fizzy, cream soda-esque concoction, “frozen” is a sweet, frosty treat with a Slushee consistency, and “hot” is the best damn thing you will ever drink.
All versions are topped with the most delicious, thick, sweet cream, and it just takes the whole thing to another level. As if that weren’t enough, you can also get Butterbeer soft-serve ice cream. You know you want to.
But There’s More Than Just Butterbeer! I’m telling you, you have to try the other drinks and snacks in the Wizarding World. They are just *magical*. Heh. Gillywater, Fizzy Lifting Juice, Green Ale, and Dragon Scale brew are just a few of the interesting concoctions available for purchase. I like the Green Ale, which reminds me of boba tea. And you absolutely cannot miss the ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s, where Harry would sit and eat peanut butter and strawberry ice cream after running away from home in the third book.
Sorry, my nerd is showing. The “Salted Caramel Blondie” and “Earl Grey and Lavender” are my top ice cream picks.
Don’t Forget Knockturn Alley: I was one of those Slytherin kids who fangirled all over Draco Malfoy, so getting to see the dark corridor frequented by Malfoy and his family come to life is just the cherry on top of an already-incredible experience. Step into Borgin and Burkes to gape at some of the dark, unsettling displays of magical artifacts. Knockturn Alley is relatively small and dark, but take your time exploring all the dark corners and seeing what turns up.
Consider Staying at an Onsite Hotel: There are currently four hotels located on Universal Property, with one more in the works. Staying at any one of these hotels will grant you access to early park admission, in which you and your fellow hotel guests enter the park a full hour before it is scheduled to open. At this early hour, only the Wizarding World will be open. Check at the hotel to find out which of the two lands will be available during your stay. If you’re lucky, you might even get access to both parks!
All of the current onsite hotels, excepting Cabana Bay, also grant access to the much-shorter Express lines throughout the day. It’s worth noting that the two major attractions, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, do not currently have an Express line, so expect to wait. The passes are valid at nearly every other ride, and are enormously useful in navigating the rest of the park once you’ve finished up with the Wizarding World. I always recommend staying onsite if you visit during an especially busy time, because those Express passes are like gold.
Maybe it’s because my own Harry Potter experience was spoiler-free (from books to movies to theme park visits), but you won’t find any “spots to look for” in this post. I just think it is so much more magical to discover a place and all its little quirks, without reading too much in advance and spoiling the surprise. I tell you to take your time and check out the details, but I won’t spill the beans on what exactly you should look for. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is full of clever little nods to the series, be it in window displays or via unexpected special effects. Please comment and let me know if you are interested in a follow-up post, sharing some of these “secret” spots or hidden gems within an already-magical world. I’ll give you one to get things started: that dragon on top on Gringotts breathes actual fire on the half hour.