We don’t usually go to Universal on our trips to Orlando any more. I know that puts us in the minority for British visitors, but unlike Disney, we just don’t feel a need to go back. For us, it is everything that Disney isn’t – it doesn’t have the quality of service, it doesn’t have especially good food, in the parks at least and the rides are made up of too many rollercoasters. And whereas the older rides at Disney feel ‘traditional’ the older rides at Universal – in both the main park and Islands of Adventure, feel really dated.
But on our latest trip, there was no question about it – we were going to be visiting Universal. My love of Disney has only one competitor for its number one spot in the list of ‘things I love that are really for kids’ and that is Harry Potter. I LOVE Harry Potter. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read the books – every time a new film has been released, I’ve re-read the entire series (or however many was out at that point) before I went to see the new film. The opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Island of Adventure had been much publicised and I couldn’t wait to see it.
Unlike Disney, which I organise to the nth degree, I knew very little about the park and I didn’t do much research prior to the trip. I knew it was at Islands of Adventure – a fact which I think many people don’t realise, as in the UK it seems to be talked about as the ‘Harry Potter park’ like it is a theme park in its own right. I know it was only a ‘land’ and therefore I wasn’t expecting it to be huge – but I do think others might be disappointed if they weren’t aware. My tip for other visitors would be to get there early and head right over. It will be what everyone else is doing and there will be a temptation to let the crowds pass and try it later, but while it was busy first thing, that is nothing compared to the crowds later on in the day. We visited on a Tuesday in a non-peak time of year and it was still heaving – when the rest of the park really wasn’t that busy.
The vast majority of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is incredibly well done. In a relatively small space they manage to include the Hogsmeade Express, Hogsmeade, including the Three Broomsticks and numerous shops and then of course, Hogwarts. And it feels really authentic – just like you might imagine it would be, based on both the films and the books. It really has a village-y type feel to the Hogsmeade area, with snowy roofs – which are very odd to see considering how blimming hot it is! There are two entrances. When you first enter the theme park, if you turn right and head to the back that way, you enter Hogsmeade first – and are immediately confronted with a life-size version on the Hogsmeade Express, which looks really amazing. If when you enter the park you turn left and head to the back that way, you go through Jurassic Park and enter right by Hogwarts.
There are only four main attractions, apart from the general setting and shops. The Dragon Challenge is a pair of duelling rollercoasters that wrap around each other – each having a different plan and therefore it is a different experience on each. The two rollercoasters are themed as dragons – the Hungarian Horntail and the Chinese Fireball – representing the dragons Harry and Victor Krum face in the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The idea of dragons obviously fits in very well with the Harry Potter theme – but the ride itself has been there for years – previously called Duelling Dragons, and just re-themed for Harry Potter. The ride has always been ‘duelling’ meaning the two rollercoasters run together, but I’ve read that since incidents where people were hurt by objects falling from the other coaster, Universal now run them separately. It has a height restriction of 4’6″.
The Flight of the Hippogriff is a smaller coaster, that doesn’t go upside down – it has more of a ‘runaway mine train’ type feel to it. Once again this is actually a re-themed coaster – it used to be the Flying Unicorn. Less busy first thing, during the day, we found that despite the ride not being all that special, the wait times get very long. I think that this is possibly because it has the lowest height restriction (3 feet) than the other rides in the Harry Potter area and so really is the only one younger children can go on.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden journey is Universal’s flagship ride and it has to be said, is incredibly good, set in Hogwarts Castle itself. It is also the only new ride for the area. There is far too much to say for just one post, so I will be going into more detail about the ride and the castle in my next post. With a height restriction of 4 feet through, little ones will be disappointed. However, you can do a walking tour of the castle without going on the ride.
The final attraction isn’t a ride, but a mini-show, set in Ollivander’s Wand Shop. Considering what a stickler for detail J K Rowling is renowned for being, I’m surprised she allowed there to be an Ollivander’s in Hogsmeade, as in the books it is located in Diagon Alley. I’ve since read that it is meant to be a branch of the store, but that is not made at all clear in the park itself. The queues for this ‘attraction’ are huge – but this is because only 20 people are allowed in to see the show at a time. Once in, you see a wand ceremony, where one child is selected by the wand maker and the ‘wand chooses the wizard’. It is a fun show and I’m glad I saw it – if I had kids I’d probably go back a few times to see if I could get my child to be the one picked because I think they’d love it. But having done it once, I probably wouldn’t queue up to do it again. Once the show is over, you exit into the wand shop, where you can purchase either a wand based on your birth date or a replica of the wands from the characters. This shop is BUSY and it connects to another shop with lots of fun things to purchase. If you do want to see this shop and not the show, you can enter it through the Dervish and Banges entrances. If however, you’d like to forgo the crowds altogether, there are carts selling the wands near the exit of the Forbidden Journey and they are sold in the main shop at the exit of Islands of Adventure – along with a lot of other Wizarding World Merchandise.
Of course the setting and the shops are also an attraction in themselves. In shops there is Zonko’s, selling joke and tricks, Honeydukes, selling sweets (including chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott’s every flavour beans) and Dervish and Banges, which sells quidditch supplies and leads into the back of Ollivander’s. The largest of the stores is probably Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods – which is at the exit of Forbidden Journey. This is a little bigger than the other stores, which have been kept small to fit into the theming of Hogsmeade. The emporium sells a little of everything, including film prop replicas and more general Harry Potter themed gifts and clothing.
One place really worth exploring is the Three Broomsticks, even if you only want to have a look around. This is the main eatery and considering they’ve had to make it pretty big and full of tables, they do it really well – it definitely has that English pub feel to it. It is quite dark, with lots of wood. If you go in, make sure you have a really good look around – and look up as well! You can see winding staircases and there is a really authentic bar on the far side. It is also one of the places you can find Butterbeer! It is actually worth coming inside to buy it from here – the queues at the carts that sell them outside get massively long. Butterbeer has become extremely popular – you can buy it in either the regular form, or as a frozen slushie. Hubby and I shared a regular one – we wanted the ‘authentic’ version. It is hard to describe but tastes a bit like butterscotch – a bit like liquid Worther’s Originals, with froth on top. At first I really liked it, but after a while it got way too sickly for us, and we actually couldn’t finish even the one between us. But I know lots of people adore it and it is quickly becoming a must-have for many people.
We spent most of the morning in the Wizarding World before heading off to do what we wanted to in the rest of Islands of Adventure and the main Universal park. We were back at the Wizarding World by 4pm – the rest of the parks were exactly as we remembered them and felt dated. As we had mainly come to see Harry Potter, we decided to just make the most of the time we had there. I’m still not sure if we’d come back again on our next trip – if we did it would mainly be for the Forbidden Journey! Having said that, I’m really glad we made the effort to go there this time. If you’re a Disney fan, I think you would enjoy the immersive elements of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts as in the main it is very well done. And if you’re a Harry Potter fan – well you probably don’t need convincing!