I recently had the honor and privilege to visit one of the newest attractions to Universal Studios in Orlando Florida: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I will share my magical experience with you all, along with a few helpful tips on making the most of your journey with Harry.
When my feet touched the cobblestone streets of Hogsmeade, I could hear the sweet melody of Hedwig’s theme as I approached the entrance, and truly felt as if I stepped into the fantasy world of the beloved J.K. Rowling created. With one glance from the snow-covered rooftops (that unfortunately did not do much to cool down the 95 degree temperatures) to the rust finish on the castle walls, my dreams of visiting Hogwarts had come finally true.
Tip #1. Avoid the Wizarding World in the early morning, wait until the late afternoon. Trust me on this, I know you die-hard fans are going to make a deadbolt run to the gates of Hogsmeade (like I did) but keep in mind that everyone else in the park will be right behind you. Waiting until the late afternoon when the crowds die down will make for a better experience. Also, the staff is much nicer in the afternoon. Obviously with the thousands of crowds to manage (mostly by teenagers) frustration enviably follows.
One of my complaints pertaining to the authenticity of Wizarding World is that the actual size of the shops are very small. Zonkos, Honeydukes, and the Dervish and Banges are the only stores where you can purchase HP goods within the actual Wizarding World section of the park. Zonkos or Honeydukes are both equally exciting stores to visit, here you can find classic Harry Potter paraphernalia. (My favorites being U-No-Poop and Dumbledore’s favorite candy, Sherbet Lemon.)
As for Dervish and Banges, I felt they should have made this store a little bit bigger, since this is where one can actually purchase wizard robes, mugs, keychains and even a wand. (Especially if you don’t want to wait on the long line, and I mean LONG, line for Ollivander’s Wand shop, which I will explain later) I’m slightly torn because I feel that you do want to experience the world as a Hogwarts student but this is a theme park with thousands of people expected to attend and participate. I do find it to be a little disappointing to wait in line just to get into a store. Unfortunately, I found myself doing that a lot of the time (especially during the morning) with little to no room to move around.
Tip# 2. You can find most of the Harry Potter merchandise in the Universal shops scattered among both parks, as well as the airport! There is a Harry Potter Store inside the Orlando International Airport, so if you forgot to get gifts for any expectant Muggles, chocolate frogs and Gryffindor t-shirts are in steady supply.
Don’t forget to try a butterbeer! Luckily you can purchase butterbeer and pumpkin juice on wheeled carts outside the stores with little to no lines. The frozen butterbeer, which is a cross between a cream soda and butterscotch ice cream, is the perfect treat for those with a sweet tooth on a hot sunny day. Pumpkin juice is a bit of an acquired taste, of course, a love of pumpkins helps a lot here.
On to the rides! And there are only three rides in the Harry Potter theme park. The first and most popular being inside Hogwarts: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. I have to give credit to the ride designers on this one…the best part of this ride was waiting in line! About half of your wait is done inside an air-conditioned castle. You pass through Dumbledore’s office, the DADA classroom, the castle hallways complete with talking paintings, the Sorting Hat, and so much more on your way. Take your time and enjoy the sites; almost everything is very interactive and does an excellent job of distracting you from waiting on that long line.
Which brings us to the actual Forbidden Journey ride. If you’re looking for a non-stop action-packed sequence with all the scary and life threatening experiences the trio endured all wrapped up into one three minute wild ride… well, then this is for you! I’m a die-hard rollercoaster fan—I will go on pretty much anything that twists, drops, and tries to pull you apart. Hogwarts is an INTENSE combination of simulated video and animatronics unlike anything I have ever seen. You feel as if you are actually riding with Harry through Hogwarts and have joined him through all of his adventures. (Including a creepy encounter with Aragog, may he rest in peace.)
The second ride I went on was The Dueling Dragons, which is a classic rollercoaster. Here again, waiting in line is all part of the fun. You pass some of the most memorable icons from the movies, including the Triwizard cup and the flying Ford Anglia conveniently parked at the entrance.
I have to admit I skipped the Flight of the Hippogriff, mostly because Hagrid’s hut is visible from the Dueling Dragons wait line and there were simply not enough hours in the day!
After expending all of that energy you will probably need to stop into the Three Broomsticks and have a bite to eat. Luckily, this is one of the places they did expect to accommodate large groups of people. This cafeteria-style eatery has dishes similar to those found in the books, which is mostly traditional English pub food. The quality was—I have to admit—average, and I somehow don’t recall there being a smoked turkey leg in any of the books, but it certainly makes its appearance here in the Three Broomsticks. I felt this was a perfect place to relax with an ice-cold butterbeer and maybe try to solve a Harry Potter mystery or two. For those 21 and older, you can head over to the Hogs Head pub located within Three Broomsticks, a truly authentic pub complete with good old dusty grime! (I’m sure it’s completely clean, but it did look a little grungy.) No firewhiskey, sad to report, but they did have an interesting Hog’s Head Ale.
And now probably the most popular attraction of the park: Ollivander’s! Ollivander’s is actually a show in which they take groups of 30 into a small room that is connected to the Dervish and Banges store. It’s a tight fit! The store is filled ceiling to floor with wands in their boxes, just like you expect it to be—oh, and plenty of dust! This show is made to mimic Harry’s first time shopping for a wand. Only one lucky audience member is chosen to receive a wand during the show and I just happened to be the one!
Here’s what happens: “Ollivander” picks one person out of the crowd, takes out his measuring tape and begins “fitting” you for your wand. (If you’re wondering, it is exactly the same experience Harry has when he buys his first wand.) You are given three wands to “test” out. For the first two when you attempt to perform a spell, “terrible” things happen within the store, like flowers wilting or books tumbling off shelves. But have no fear, because we all know the wand chooses the wizard! For that magic moment when THE wand is placed into your hands, a gush of wind blows through your hair, a beam of light from above shines upon your head, and somewhere in the background you can hear angelic music softly humming into your ears. I promise it’s unforgettable.
Tip #3. I have a little advice if you want to be the lucky person chosen for a wand fitting. BE EXCITED! Now, I don’t recommend running and screaming around the store like a panicked Hippogriff (mostly because you won’t have room to do so), but
the actor Ollivander reads the vibe of the room and obviously the people who are most excited and want to be there will be the one he chooses. My advice is to try to get yourself noticed by taking lots of pictures, talking about how excited you are so Ollivander can hear, and making your way to the front as visibly as possible.
As you can tell, Harry Potter holds a special place in my heart and it was a very thrilling experience able to have a small taste of this magical world. My last bit of advice, do allow yourself to believe, even if it’s just for one day. Universal will take care of the rest.
Stephanie Garbarino lives in New York, absolutely hates egg salad sandwiches, and has reconnected with her former love of all things SFF thanks to her job here at tor.com.