A Disney fan's first impressions of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando
Though The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort opened to the public more than three years ago, I only recently discovered how unique it is, thanks to my 10-year-old son's love of the books and my recent role as a chaperone for his school's field trip to the park. If you're a fan of the popular stories from J.K. Rowling and are planning a visit yourself, I hope these observations and tips gleaned from my first visit will help you make the most of your experience.
My son and I found ourselves at Islands of Adventure on the Friday before Christmas. It's not uncommon for Orlando school chorus groups to perform in the theme parks, especially during the holidays, and I volunteered to help chaperone my son's group. Despite our frequent trips to other Orlando theme parks, we had not been to this one, primarily because my son does not enjoy big rides or roller coasters.
Still, he was very excited to go because he's reading the "Harry Potter" books and could not wait to see Hogsmeade come to life in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We both did a little research before our trip, but we could not plan everything the way we would have if it were to be just he and I. As a chaperone, I would be responsible for other students and we would have to allow for their interests, as well. Plus, we would arrive at the theme park just as the majority of guests do -- between 10 and 10:30 a.m. -- so beating the holiday crowds would be difficult.
Luckily for us, the other boys in our group were happy to start our day immersed in the story of Harry Potter. We walked quickly through the park, stopping briefly at the entrance to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for a few photos. Already the area was jam-packed with guests marveling at the detailed village. They must not have been daredevils, though, because the line for Dragon Challenge was only 10 minutes.
Our group moved quickly to that queue, which largely is inside a small castle and is themed to events in the movie adaptation of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." The ride features two roller coasters, which twist, turn, invert and are launched in a staggered pattern to supposedly chase each other, like Harry being chased by the Hungarian Horntail in the Triwizard Tournament. In fact, the blue track is called the Hungarian Horntail, while the red is the Chinese Fireball.
My son and I offered to hold backpacks and bags while the more adventurous students in our group prepared for the thrill ride. (If everyone in your party wants to ride, however, all personal belongings must be stored in the free lockers available at the start of the queue.) Guests who choose not to ride might enjoy wandering down the same trail they raced up to join the line. Take time to notice the perfect view of Hogwarts Castle -- a great photo opportunity -- and the blue car that is Ron's wrecked vehicle actually used in the movie production.
When riders exit Dragon Challenge, they end up near a stage in Hogsmeade Village, where they can view the Frog Choir, comprised of Hogwarts students and their large croaking frogs, and the Triwizard Spirit Rally, a colorful procession of Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students.
Across the village roadway is the imposing Hogwarts Castle, which houses the Forbidden Journey attraction. This ride is not a roller coaster, but rather more of a moving dark ride with drops and turns. Vehicles are lifted above the track by a robotic arm -- the technology is similar to that used on the Sum of All Thrills at Epcot -- and passengers wear shoulder bars for safety. I'm told Forbidden Journey can be frightening, though the special effects are amazing as guests "fly" around the castle, come face-to-face with the Whomping Willow and a horde of Dementors, and witness a Quidditch match.
If, like me, you can't ride Forbidden Journey for health reasons, don't discount seeing the castle. Touring the inside is just as much of an attraction as the ride itself. The details here are layered and continuous through the queue. My son recognized item after item and exclaimed with excitement at seeing reproductions from the books and movies come to life before his eyes. Islands of Adventure no longer offers a separate tour-only line for Hogwarts Castle, so you'll need to join the ride queue. The line moves quickly inside the castle, so if you want to linger, invite other guests to step in front of you.
A few tips for riding Forbidden Journey: This, too, is an attraction on which you cannot take personal belongings, so if you want to take photos inside the castle, don't plan on riding at that time. You will cut down on your wait time if you choose the single-rider line.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter includes a third ride, Flight of the Hippogriff. In this attraction, Hagrid is teaching wizards how to fly a Hippogriff before allowing a test flight over the Forbidden Forest and Hagrid's Hut. This mild attraction is much like The Barnstormer at the Magic Kingdom with gentle drops and turns. Perhaps the most exciting aspect is being able to see all of The Wizarding World from the top of the lift.
After taking in all the rides, it was time for lunch! Three Broomsticks is the only restaurant in the Harry Potter area, and it serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's a quick-service location, meaning you will order, pick up your food and then be seated. We found the service to be efficient and the team members patient when we asked a *lot* of questions.
The menu offers traditional British foods, such as Shepherd's Pie, Fish and Chips, and Cornish Pasties, though you also will find a theme-park favorite -- the smoked turkey leg -- and soup and salad. Lunch prices range from $7.99 to $13.99. There also is a children's menu with meals priced at $4.99. The food was decent, but not anything I would rave about. What is amazing, though, is the design of the restaurant and the attention to detail (again) in its decor. Supposedly, it was so well done that Three Broomsticks was incorporated in the "Harry Potter" films after it was built at Islands of Adventure.
My son and I were surprised to find that no carbonated beverages were sold at Three Broomsticks. (After a bus ride with the fifth-grade chorus and the morning at a theme park, I was definitely looking forward to a well-caffeinated Diet Coke.) Instead, we opted to try the non-alcoholic Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice. The famous Butterbeer is sold frozen or not and with or without a souvenir mug. Although we didn't dislike the Butterbeer, we preferred the Pumpkin Juice, which tastes like apple cider.
Attached to Three Broomsticks is Hog's Head pub, which also serves Butterbeer, a limited selection of real beer and some mixed drinks. Nearby are large bathrooms, which Moaning Myrtle haunts. The kids in our group thought that was hilarious!
After lunch, it was time to shop. We had heard about Ollivander's, the wand shop that can command hours-long lines. For just that reason, we were not able to experience this store. If you get there early or do decide to wait in the queue, though, you will be allowed into the shop in groups of 25. (Hence, the slow-moving line.) Once inside, a guest -- usually a child -- will be picked for the show, in which a wand chooses the child. It's quintessential Harry Potter, I'm told.
My son really wanted to see and select a wand, so we went next door to The Owlery. Even with the crowds, we were able to talk with one of the shopkeeps about the various types of wands that are categorized by birthdate and story character. My son decided to purchase a Christmas wand since that was the season of our visit. Wands are all priced at about $35. The Owlery also has a large selection of its namesake stuffed animals and a variety of other merchandise.
In the village you also will find shops from the "Harry Potter" stories, such as Zonko's Joke Shop, Honeydukes Sweetshop, Dervish & Banges and Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods. They all sell the items you have read about. Imagine taking home chocolate frogs, Muggle Magic juggling balls, the Master Book of Monsters or a Hogwarts House robe!
It was tough to leave such an immersive experience, but my son and I are looking forward to going back when the new Diagon Alley section opens at Universal Studios this summer. Guests will be able to ride the Hogwarts Express train between the two parks at Universal Orlando to experience both collections of Harry Potter attractions.
Just as Disneyland and Walt Disney World famously set the standards for themed attractions that could transport guests into other worlds, Universal Orlando Resort has done the same with its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And the attraction offers a powerful allure that goes beyond the simple thrill of a roller coaster or dark ride, as my son's experience will attest.