I’ll never forget my first glimpse of Hogwarts: the soaring spires, the winged-pig statues, the snow-covered rooftops of the surrounding Hogsmeade village. As a devout fan of the source material, those magical images will be etched into my memory forever. Of course, I’ll also never forget the sheer volume of wand-toting, spell-casting, butterbeer-guzzling people all around me, either. Elbow to elbow, we jostled for position under the hot Orlando sun like the crowds at the Quidditch World Cup.
Harry Potter Theme Park Tips
The mass of people didn’t diminish the experience for me, but it did get me thinking about the Harry Potter theme park tips I wish I’d known before my first visit. I made a few rookie mistakes my first time, but maybe you won’t have to. Here are my best tips for visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando.
1. Buy the Universal Express Pass
Seriously, do it. Remortgage the house if you have to. It’s worth it. Universal Express Passes let you zip through the lines on nearly all of the rides at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, including all of the Harry Potter theme park rides. Express Passes are pricey, but they are unquestionably worth every penny—especially if this is your first visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Express Passes come in two varieties: Universal Express (which allows you one express entry per theme park ride) and Universal Express Unlimited (which, as the name suggests, allows unlimited express entries to all rides that accept passes). For me, with a family of four including two children under 11, the Universal Express Passes did more to improve the quality of our trip than everything else combined.
Most rides at Universal have two separate lines: the standard line and the Express line. Express lines are more direct than the standard lines. This means you might wait about 15 minutes using the Universal Express Pass line to board Harry Potter themed rides. In the standard line, the wait times routinely reach 90 minutes to two hours.
For many, visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are places where it might makes sense to cut corners to save money, but this is not one of them. Pay the extra price and zip through the lines rather than spending most of your day waiting in them.
Universal Express Passes are available for purchase before your trip or at various well-marked locations throughout the parks. Special lanyards for displaying Express Passes are available for sale throughout the parks and many shops as well.
2. You Need to Visit Both Parks
You need to visit both Universal Studios Florida and the adjacent Islands of Adventure parks to get the full Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park experience. And you will need at least two days to see it all.
Hogwarts Castle and the surrounding Hogsmeade environs are located inside Universal Studios Florida; Diagon Alley and its shops and rides are located in the Islands of Adventure. They are connected via the Hogwarts Express, a short train ride that’s only accessible when you purchase multi-park passes that allow you to travel between the two parks any time you want.
To sweeten the deal, Universal has made the Hogwarts Express into a short but entertaining experience, like a mini-ride all its own. I won’t spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say it’s a different experience traveling from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade than it is traveling in the other direction. True Harry Potter aficionados will want to experience the ride in both directions.
The other way to travel between the two parks is via an area called Universal City Walk, which is mostly shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues connecting the two parks. You don’t need tickets to explore Universal City Walk, but you will need tickets to gain access from the City Walk to either park.
3. Arrive to the Park Early
Get there early. Like, before-it-opens early. Leave now if you can. Once the park opens, walk directly to the Harry Potter area without stopping for anything. I can’t stress this Harry Potter theme park tip enough: If you want to experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter without shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, you must arrive before everyone else does. There’s no other way.
With the Universal Express Pass, you can get onto virtually every ride in both parks in pretty short order. But Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley aren’t rides—they’re open areas with shops, restaurants, vendors, and all of the design details you dream about when you imagine your visit. So naturally they are quickly overwhelmed by the crowds.
By arriving at the Harry Potter theme park area first, you’ll get roughly 30 to 60 minutes of relative freedom to explore these magical spaces without the crowds. This is especially important if you or your children want to try your hand at spellcasting. Universal sells replica wands that allow you to “cast spells” at dozens of locations across the Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley areas. (I’ll talk more about the wands later.) But unless you imagined yourself or your children standing in line with scores of other people waiting your turn, you need to get there before everyone else.
Casting a successful spell in a virtually empty Diagon Alley is magical; being 10th in line to perform the same trick is frustrating and a bit ludicrous.
When you arrive at the parks, go directly to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley, wander around, take it all in, maybe browse the shops—enjoy the scenery and the atmosphere of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter before everyone else gets there. Then, once the rest of the world arrives, use your Express Pass to quickly hop on the various Harry Potter-themed rides.
4. Stay at a Universal Studios Hotel
Speaking of getting to the park early, staying at a Universal Studios hotel is one of the easiest Harry Potter theme park tips to take advantage of. My family stayed at the retro-chic Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which offers a free shuttle to the parks and is within walking distance of Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, Universal City Walk, and the Volcano Bay Water Park.
The major advantage of staying at the Cabana Bay or another Universal Studios resort, as opposed to other area hotels, is the early access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. When you book, check which park is offering early access during your scheduled dates and plan your visit accordingly. Some Universal Resort packages also include Universal Express and Universal Express Unlimited Passes.
One small advantage of staying at a Universal Studios resort: access to the gift shop merchandise at your hotel. Sure, it’s crass commercialism, but let’s face it—you’re probably going to buy that Gryffindor Quidditch team captain T-shirt anyway, so why not buy it during your down time at the hotel instead of wasting time shopping at the parks?
5. You Don’t Have to Buy Your Interactive Wand at the Park
If you’ve always dreamed of wandering into Ollivander’s and letting your wand choose you—then by all means buy the wand at Universal Studios. You won’t be disappointed with the attention to detail inside the wand shop. But if you do go this route, arrive early, go straight to Ollivanders Wand Shop (in Diagon Alley) or Dervish and Banges (in Hogsmeade) and make your purchase before the line begins to stretch outside the store.
If you’re more interested in casting spells with your wand than the experience of purchasing it, do yourself a favor and buy the wand literally anywhere else. There’s a Universal Studios gift shop at the Orlando airport and in all the Universal hotels. You can even buy it online before you arrive.
You’re going to spend upwards of $50 per wand no matter where you get it. Don’t stand in line if you don’t have to. This applies to nearly all of the merchandise you can find in the park.
6. Try the Butterbeer
This non-alcoholic drink, which comes in both cold and frozen varieties, is sold everywhere inside the Harry Potter areas of the parks. Depending on where you purchase your drinks, you might come away with a replica goblet or beer stein souvenir as well. The sweet and frothy brew tastes like a combination of cream soda and butterscotch, but pinning down the exact flavor is hard to do—other than to say it’s pretty much perfection.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that drinking the butterbeer might be reason enough to visit the Harry Potter theme park. It’s that good. Often imitated, never equaled, the secret recipe for butterbeer is a closely guarded culinary secret—and it really hits the spot when the Orlando temperatures start to rise.
7. Check Height Requirements Beforehand
There are only a handful of actual Harry Potter theme park rides, but they are all pretty wonderful. Just be sure to check height requirements before you get in line (or get your child excited for a ride he or she won’t be allowed on). Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’s height requirement is 48 inches; Flight of the Hippogriff is 36 inches; Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is 42 inches. There is no minimum height requirement for the Hogwarts Express.
8. You Might Want to Repeat the Rides
Opinions vary on which is the best ride inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, but my kids loved Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts the best. My personal favorite was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which takes you inside Hogwarts. Even waiting in line for the Harry Potter rides is a fun experience for Potter fans, because the walls inside the castle are alive with moving portraits and other interesting set pieces.
It’s worth noting that the Universal Express line and the standard entry line inside Hogwarts take different routes to the ride’s starting point. If you’re a huge fan, you might want to wait in the standard line at some point just for the experience. Get there early for the standard line entry and then go again with your Express Pass.
9. Bring a Small Backpack (or No Backpack at All)
You can bring backpacks and snacks into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park areas of Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, but you can’t bring bags with you on most of the rides.
The park offers free lockers for use during the ride, but there are a few things you should know. First, the lockers are fairly small—so only bring a small backpack or purse with you to the park. Second, the lines to use the lockers can be long and the area around them crowded. If you can avoid bringing a backpack to the park, you’ll save yourself some time and hassle.
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