Last Sunday, I went to bed as early as possible, because I could not wait for Monday morning to come.
I wish I could say that I figured it all out, and that I am now loving my Mondays, but unfortunately that is not the case.
This was a special occasion. I spent the week of Thanksgiving visiting my family in Jacksonville, Florida. We decided to carve out a day and make the two and a half hour drive to Orlando, for the sole purpose of visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.
Thus the reason that I jumped out of bed at 4:45am on Monday morning, humming the Harry Potter theme song in my head, filled with anticipation for the day to come.
My entire family loves Harry Potter. Harry Potter was what made me (and the rest of the world) fall in love with reading again when I was 13 years old. My sisters and I obsessively read every book as they came out. My family would go to each new movie opening together during the holidays. When book 7 was released in 2007, my best friend Rebecca and I shamelessly stood in line at Barnes and Noble for hours, next to kids dressed up in cloaks and witch hats, waiting to get our grubby little hands on the first copy we could.
When it was announced that Universal Studios was opening The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010, we would all talk about making plans to go, envisioning ourselves running through Hogsmeade, with a delicious Butterbeer in hand.
If I was being honest, there was a part of me that accepted I might never make the time to go see Harry Potter World. I felt like my theme park days were behind me, as the older I get, the less appealing it is to spend hours waiting in line next to children, or attempting to navigate fake worlds amongst waves of other tourists. I knew that any time I had the opportunity to take some time off, I most likely wasn’t going to use that time and money to book a trip to go see Harry Potter World.
However, when my parents moved to Florida this October and Al and I planned an entire week off of work to visit, the magic of Harry Potter started quietly calling me. It seemed like the stars aligned to make this ‘I-would-really-love-to-do-it-one-day-but-probably-never-will‘ dream a reality.
So, we decided to go. We booked our tickets for the Monday before Thanksgiving, hoping it would be a little less crowded earlier in the week.
We also decided that we would go without looking up a single thing about the park beforehand. We wanted to experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter through completely fresh eyes, and explore it with the same sense of excitement and discovery that Harry did in book 1.
I don’t regret doing it this way, as the shock of seeing Diagon alley for the first time when I thought I was going into the women’s restroom (and having no clue it was there) wouldn’t have been possible if I had done my research beforehand.
So, here it is. A 29 year old’s guide to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, based exclusively on my experience. Keep in mind this is also specific to someone that is no longer a fan of crowds, lines, or theme parks, so take it for what you will.
Stay at a Universal resort and get to Islands of Adventure an hour early
We stayed one night at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, just half a mile from Universal Studios. The total cost was $240 a night for a family suite, which was perfect for our group of 5 adults. The hotel provided extremely accessible and easy transportation to and from the park.
Cabana Bay allows guests to go to Islands of Adventure (where Hogsmeade and Hogwarts are located) an hour before the park opens to the the public. This was SO CRUCIAL to our experience, especially as someone who prioritizes avoiding the crowds.
Buy A Park Hopper Ticket, because Universal cleverly spreads Harry Potter out between two parks (Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios)
I had no clue that Harry Potter World was spread out between two different parks. This means you have no choice but to get a park hopper pass to travel between the two via the Hogwarts express.
Ticket cost per person: $148
This is obviously a great way for Universal Studios to force you to go to both of their parks. However, it’s unavoidable. I would argue that it’s not worth going at all if you aren’t planning on including both stops in your Harry Potter visit.
Get Butterbeer right away
We got to Islands of Adventure around 8:30am, and headed straight for Hogsmeade.
The first thing I did, was walk up to a red Butterbeer cart, and shout ‘ACCIO BUTTERBEER!’ The Butterbeer wench did not look impressed, but I got one nonetheless.
Cost of Butterbeer: $5 (note that it can be pricier if you get one of the fancy cups)
I was expecting the drink to be warm, but they only offered them in two forms: frozen and cold. I opted for cold, which I thought was much more delicious than the frozen option. It was frothy and thick, and tasted like a cross between butterscotch and cream soda.
I didn’t realize how lucky I was at the time, to simply walk up to a cart and demand my Butterbeer. Later in the day, when we were walking back through Hogsmeade, the lines for Butterbeer were at least a 25 minute wait at each cart.
So take my advice, and get your Butterbeer right away.
Go to Hogsmeade/Hogwarts first. Take a lunch break at Jurassic Park, and then ride the Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley.
We got to Hogsmeade first, drank a Butterbeer, and then waited 5 minutes to go on the Dragon Challenge rollercoaster. After that, we walked (the 30 steps) to Hogwarts, and waited in line for about 45 minutes to go on the main attraction inside the castle, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
After we exited the Forbidden Journey (which was awesome by the way) lines for the 45 second roller coaster ride Dragon Challenge, had grown to over a 60 minute wait. The line for the Forbidden Journey was over 90 minutes. Throughout this entire time, the line to take the Hogwarts Express over to Universal Studios was over an hour long.
We used this opportunity to go next door to Jurassic Park. It was basically empty at this time, as most people arriving to the park were heading straight to Harry Potter.
We had a long, slow lunch and then waited less than 5 minutes to go on the Jurassic Park: The Ride River Adventures.
Afterwards, we wandered back to Hogsmeade, taking in the shops and enjoying the scenery. By the time we got to Hogsmeade Station, the wait to Diagon Alley was down to 10 minutes.
We were so glad we had started the day backwards, beginning at Hogsmeade. Ride lines were insane as we were leaving, and when we arrived to Diagon Alley, the line to take the Hogwarts Express back to Hogsmeade was close to two hours.
Wait until after 6:30 to go to Ollivander’s Wand Shop
Throughout the day, lines were ridiculously long to go into Ollivanders, so we just decided to avoid it altogether. We noticed lines died down around 6:30, and then completely disappeared by 7pm. We walked right in, and were so glad we did.
I’ll leave out the details, to avoid any spoilers. Suffice it to say, Ollivander’s is worth visiting without the hassle of a 30 minute line.
I won’t tell you where it is or how to find it, but Nocturn Alley exists.
This is probably not an exciting discovery to people who do research beforehand, but it was for us. Al stumbled upon Nocturn Alley completely by accident, and the discovery was one of the highlights of his trip.
Sit on the steps behind Gringotts with a cold Dragon’s Scale, and take it all in.
This was one of my favorite parts of the entire day. Dragon Scale is the local brew with it’s own brand of magic, that ‘starts out as an ale, and ends up as a lager.’ We headed to the small set of steps that climb right behind Gringotts Wizarding Bank.
We sat on the steps for over an hour, just taking in the entire street of Diagon Alley, watching the Muggles run around, and enjoying the break off our feet.
The dragon that sits on the top of Gringotts Bank occasionally spits out actual fire, and from our comfortable seat on the top steps, we could feel the hot blast each time it happened.
Sitting in a quiet spot in Harry Potter World with a view, enjoying a beer: This introvert’s dream.
Relax outside of Hog’s Head for a great (and quiet) view of Hogwarts
Hog’s Head has a great cozy authentic Harry Potter-ish feel to it. If you walk outside to the back patio, it is relatively quiet, and offers a great unobstructed view of Hogwarts:
Ride the Hogwarts Express back to Hogsmeade after 7pm, and call it a day.
The Hogwarts express experience is slightly different depending on which side of the park you are traveling from. We wanted to experience both, so we waited until about 45 minutes before the park closed to ride back to Hogsmeade. This was perfect, mainly because there was less than a 5 minute wait to board the express (wait times are typically 60 minutes), and we got to go through platform 9 3/4.
There were so many tips that we were given, that we didn’t follow (buy a wand because there are places around the park you can use them to cast actual spells, call the ministry of magic from the phone booth outside of Diagon alley, start your day on the Universal Studios side) and we left without a single regret as to how we spent our day.
Most of these activities are (shocker) focused at the kids, so as a group of adults, we were glad when we saw the long line of 6 and 7 year olds waiting to cast a spell with their shiny new wands, that we had opted out of that activity.
We ended our day completely satisfied and took the Hogwarts express from Diagon Alley back to Hogsmeade. We got one last glimpse of the castle, and left the park right around closing time at 8pm.
A word to the wise: wear good shoes. The last time I had stepped foot into Universal Studios was as an energetic 7 year old in 1993. Time and age wasn’t on my side this time around, and by the time we walked out, my legs and lower back ached from the effort of spending 12 hours carrying me around the park. Apparently, some things have changed in the past 22 years.
Then again, some things haven’t changed at all:
At the end of the (very long) day, I was beyond happy with our decision to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, regardless of our aversion to crowds, aging bodies, and distaste for long lines. It just goes to show, you don’t have to be 8 years old to still enjoy this kind of thing. We did it our way, and it was completely worth it.