**This is NOT a sponsored post. Just sharing our experience!**
We spent a week at Walt Disney World and Universal, thanks to my parents. What an adventure! After scouring Pinterest, I learned that there was no post, anywhere, that could really walk me through planning an entire trip to Disney. Throughout the series, I shared our days at the parks, tips and tricks, taming the souvenir beast, money saving ideas, things we learned and photos we captured. They’re all linked below. Enjoy!
Day 1: HDYDI – Plan a Multi-Generational Disney Vacation
Day 2: What We Wore to Disney
Day 3: EPCOT: A Mom’s Guide
Day 4: Magic Kingdom: Plan a Visit That’s Fun for All Ages
Day 5: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal: A Family Guide (this post!)
Day 6: Animal Kingdom & Hollywood Studios: All in One Day!
Day 7: Character Meals & Meet/Greets: 13 Tips to Make Them Awesome
Day 8: 10 Things to Buy/Borrow/Make For Your Disney Vacation
Day 9: 6 Tips to Capture Your Disney Vacation on Film
Day 10: Meeting Anna & Elsa: An Honest Account
When we chose to visit Universal, we did so with only one intention: to immerse ourselves into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Yes, there are Minions and Dr. Suess, crazy rollercoasters and plenty of stunt spectaculars. But we love Harry, especially our oldest. A lot. Just check here and here. This post is all about navigating the two Harry Potter worlds, located in Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure, with your family. No post – not one – talked about how to visit the parks, what to see, how to swing lunch and all the cool things there are to do. Welcome to that post.
Wands at the ready? Let’s go.
Express Passes and Photo Connect
Let’s just start by saying that Universal is not Disney. It’s not that the parks aren’t clean (they are), or the staff isn’t friendly (they just weren’t quite as nice as WDW). Just know that if you’ve gotten used to a Disney experience, Universal is its own beast. Knowing that, there are no free passes to ride like Disney’s Fast Pass system. You can utilize Express Passes, but it costs a cool $50 for one park or $60 for two. Take that times 14 people and, um, no. I did have a friend who sprung for the VIP Experience which is $300+park ticket. It gives you front-of-the-line access, free parking and lots of other perks. You might consider that for a person or two in your group. But again, a very pricey option.
Photo Connect is Universal’s version of Memory Maker. A one-day card costs $40 or a three-day pass is $60. The problem? If you spend all your time with Harry, photographers are only in two locations – TWO. That’s ridiculous. If we spent more than one day at Universal, I might’ve considered it, but because we spent all our time in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, that was a negative. And, I rarely saw any photographers in the parks except at the entrance. For that, we can use our own camera!
They do have child swap, but you don’t get a ticket like at Disney. You actually have to find the staff member and say, “Hey, remember me? I’m a rider swap.” Not super efficient and we did get one push-back from one. She was all “you need to bring your child in line and then wait.” And I was all, “that baby is asleep, so let’s see what we can work out.” It’s possible I was slightly sassier, but only I’ll know the truth.
Park Crowd Level
3/10 (Universal Studios), 4/10 (Islands of Adventure), both below average and boy, was that nice!
Where Everything Is
It took me forever to figure out the two parks. Maybe you’re not a slow learner like me. Universal has two parks and the Hogwarts Express connects them both. On one side (Islands of Adventure), you’ll find the older Harry Potter, including Hogsmeade, Honeydukes and the three rides (Forbidden Journey, Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge). The other side (Universal Studios) is the newer Harry Potter, including Diagon Alley, Weasleys’, Escape from Gringotts and the Knight Bus. There is an Ollivander’s Wand Shop in both (I have a definite preference on which one to visit, see below). I hope that helps you get your bearings.
A FAMILY TOURING GUIDE
Decide if you want to stick to seeing just Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley, or if you want to visit both. That will determine the type of ticket you purchase. Universal has a Park-to-Park ticket which allows you entrance to both, as well as access to ride the Hogwarts Express. You can only ride the train if you have P2P admission. Oh, and there are no magic bands. What?! I know. You have to keep up with a paper ticket. Please don’t ask me how stressful that was. You must produce it each time you ride the train.
You can realistically see both parks in one day. That is, if you’re simply sticking to Harry Potter. There are only four rides. Diagon Alley has Escape from Gringotts, while Hogsmead has The Forbidden Journey, Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge. The remainder of Harry Potter is all about the experience – from the butterbeer to Honeyduke’s and Weasley’s to Ollivander’s and everything in between.
Be prepared for quite the experience. If you’ve read the books, you’ll love this park even more than those who are strictly movie lovers. You’ll catch all the nuances. All the inside jokes. All the cool touches. Universal really outdid themselves. I will freely admit when we stepped foot into Diagon Alley, I teared up. That’s so silly to type, but when you have loved this series as long as our family has, you can’t help but appreciate the details. You can see the hand JK Rowling had in every aspect of these parks. It’s phenomenal.
Get there early. I keep saying this, but it’s true. We arrived for a 9am opening shortly after 8am. That meant great parking (in a covered garage, no less!) and easy access to the parks. You do have to walk quite a ways before you actually make it to the gates, so be prepared. The cool thing is Universal is known for opening it’s gates even before the posted opening time. In our case, they opened them at 8:45. Holla.
Hit the newest rides/attractions first. When we visited in May 2015, we chose Diagon Alley (Universal Studios) first. This was the latest addition and Escape from Gringotts was the newest ride. We were among the first ones in line. For the thrill level? It’s high and it can be a bit scary. We took our kids, ages 14, 11 and 7 on this ride. My 5 and 9yos wanted nothing to do with it. Both are the sensitive ones in the bunch. While I would never take them on this one until they’re older, my 7yo had zero fear and wanted to ride it again. You just have to know your kids. If you’re unsure, ask about rider swap, check it out and if you think it’s okay, you can ride it again with your child. Oh, and that dragon breathes fire on the half hour. Be prepared!
Visit Ollivanders in Diagon Alley. There is an identical store in Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure), but the line is notoriously long. After the Gringotts ride, we went straight to Ollivanders because hello, we were in Diagon Alley! It was practically empty which meant that we could really take our time looking around and choosing “the” wand. They have a small show where Ollivander chooses one guest so the wand can choose the wizard. It’s very cool and a great introduction to the store. The shop keepers there were incredibly patient, answering my kids’ endless questions. Plus, you get to see all the character’s wands and choose the one you love. They do have “interactive wands,” but they only work in the park. Instead of purchasing those, we just looked for the people that had one to see what their wands did throughout the park. That was good enough for us. After we walked around Diagon Alley for a short bit, we walked back out to check out the Knight Bus and Kreacher.
Hop on the Hogwarts Express. We jumped on the train at Kings Cross. Zero wait and the train ride over and back is amazing. A ride in and of itself. It lasts about 4-5 minutes. Think death eaters, a whispering Ron, Hermoine and Harry in the hallway and a waving Hagrid as you look out the window. Oh, and the air conditioning in the station is divine!
Do the “big three” at Hogsmeade: Forbidden Journey, Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge. I will say Forbidden Journey is much like Gringotts. Intense and not for the motion-sick rider, as is Dragon Challenge. The Hippogriff coaster is short and my 5yo rode it. He screamed the whole way, but still rode it. While we waited for some of the bigs to ride the thrillers, we were able to catch some great entertainment on the stage, like the Frog Choir.
Eat lunch before the crowds hit. Universal doesn’t allow for coolers to be brought in, unlike Disney. We opted to grab lunch at 11:30 at Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade before the lunch crowd arrived. That way, while everyone else was eating lunch, we’d be touring Hogsmeade. The seating there is pretty fabulous. Once you place your order, you move to a numbered station to pick it up and then a staff member assists you in finding a table. With our large group of 10 (my brother and his family ended up touring the rest of Universal that day) it was a fantastic help. Oh, and don’t forget to order a butterbeer!
After lunch, visit Honeydukes. Or, as my kids like to call it the place that induces sugar comas. I tried to steer the kids toward purchasing candy that they could only find there, like chocolate frogs. After much deliberating, they finally found their winners. Be prepared though, this is a tiny shop so even a few people makes it feel full. We meandered around Hogsmeade for a short bit, popping into a few stores and picking up owl mugs and Gryffindor headbands, but mostly doing a lot of window shopping. That, and soaking in the details at Dervish and Banges, like Ron’s howler, and taking a photo by the Hogwarts Express train.
Load back onto the Hogwarts Express, visit Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes. Hogsmeade was really starting to fill up, around 1pm, so we made our way back to Diagon Alley. A sidenote, here. Gianna was really hungry, so I started nursing her on the train and then found a cool, quiet spot in the station to finish. That was so much better than out in the blazing son with tons of people. Diagon Alley has a great selection of entertainment, too, but our main focus was visiting Fred and George’s shop. I mean, can one really pass up the chance to own his own extendable ear? And, yes, it really does work! That store was just too much fun. The shop keepers often referred to our money as muggle currency. Ha!
Tour Diagon Alley. There is so much to see her. So. Much. There’s Borgin and Burkes, where you can see Lucius Malfoy’s wand in the back of the shop. It’s located in Knockturn Alley, of course. When my oldest asked a staff member where it was, he replied, “You sure you wanna go down there, boy?” It’s a little damp, dark and exactly as one would expect it. You can even spy Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in the window at Flourish and Blotts.
Buy more than one butterbeer! Y’all, this stuff was amazing. We drank the frozen kind because we were there in May. It was divine. And, we’ve even found a great recipe that we recreated back home. It was pretty dang close to the Universal one. I’ll have to share that soon.
Stay all day, or head back at night. We stayed from about 9am-3pm. Obviously, I would’ve loved to have stayed longer, or taken a break and come back. I’ve heard Harry Potter at night is spectacular. However, it just wasn’t in the cards, er wands, for us that day. Also, Universal closed early at 7pm which made coming back a bit tricky.