Going Solo at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

by Gray Cargill on November 30, 2011

Hogwarts Castle at Universal

Hogwarts Castle at Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter

If you’re a fan of the Harry Potter books and films, raise your hand. Me too! (I’m raising my hand right now.) I’ve read all the books, seen all the movies (some more than once) and when I heard that Universal Orlando was creating a theme park for the Harry Potter series, I thought it was the most brilliant idea I’ve heard in a long time. (Except for maybe that Star Trek theme park they’re building in Jordan.) Naturally, I knew I had to visit it. I finally had my chance during my trip to Orlando at the beginning of November.

Cauldron sign

I'll take the self-stirring cauldron, please

My timing, as is so often the case, could have been better: After my plane tickets and hotels were booked, I learned that the weekend I’d chosen to spend at Universal was the same weekend as a Harry Potter Convention. This meant I would be jockeying for space in ride lines with hundreds of Harry Potter fans. And we all know how much I love crowds. (That’s me being sarcastic. The thicker the crowd, the more claustrophobic I feel.)

I stayed on-site at the Hard Rock Hotel (a very nice hotel but ridiculously overpriced), which offered two perks: Your room key serves as an Express Pass (meaning you can skip the long lines at most rides, though not the Forbidden Journey in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) and you can get into the parks an hour earlier than the general public. It was that extra hour I was hoping would serve me well–and it did.

Owl

Have you ever seen eyes that color before???

Friday morning, I was up before it was even light out (on my vacation no less–ugh!) to shower, have a quick bite to eat and head over to Islands of Adventure, one of two Universal Orlando parks (the other being Universal Studios).  I followed other park-goers to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, located near Jurassic Park and the Lost Continent. It’s a weird feeling walking from the tropical jungle of Jurassic Park into Hogsmeade, with its peaked roofs capped with snow and hanging with icicles. Even at eight a.m., Hogsmeade was bustling (but not nearly as mobbed as it was later in the day). First things first: I headed straight to the castle of Hogwarts (School of Witchraft and Wizardry) to ride the Forbidden Journey.

Snow-capped roofs of Hogsmeade

Snow-capped roofs of Hogsmeade

The Forbidden Journey is a great motion simulator ride (combined with 3D elements) with a detailed story featuring a dragon, a brief flight across the Quidditch field, dementors, spiders, the Whomping Willow, and our three favorite young wizards, Harry, Ron and Hermione. But the queue line is just as entertaining as the ride itself. It features the talking sorting hat, the “living portraits”, and videos of Headmaster Dumbledore and Harry, Ron, and Hermione setting up the scenario for the ride. (Sorry, I have no photos, because it was just too dark to even bother.) The Forbidden Journey has a single rider line if you want to skip the long wait, but I don’t recommend using it. Here’s why:

You can’t get into the single rider line until you’ve already been standing in line outside the castle for God knows how long. Once you do get into the single rider line, you miss all the great details inside the castle. But that’s the part you don’t want to miss! If the single rider line allowed you to skip the long line outside the castle, too, then I’d say it was worth it; but since you only skip the most interesting part of the queue, it’s really not. Your mileage may very, but that’s how I felt.

Potions shop

Potions shop

After this, I rode Flight of the Hippogriff, which feels like the quickest roller coaster ride in the world. The cars feature a Hippogriff head (like Buckbeak from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) in the front. One ride on this was more than enough for me. The cars are a very tight squeeze, and they do put two people per car even when you’re a “one”, so I had to ride with some guy I didn’t know. Normally, I don’t mind riding theme park rides with strangers, but this car was so small, I was literally pressed right up against him (and neither of us were large people). It was not a comfortable ride. Keep that in mind if you’re going solo to this park.

Flight of the Hippogriff

Flight of the Hippogriff

There is a third ride in this area called Dragon Challenge, which is two inverted, intertwined roller coasters (the Chinese Fireball and the Hungarian Horntail, named after two species of dragons in the Harry Potter books). I don’t like going upside down, so I skipped this ride. In hindsight, I should have gone through the queue anyway and then ducked out at the last minute so I could see the Triwizard Tournament themeing. Oh well, there’s always next time.

Dragon Challenge

Dragon Challenge

I returned to the Wizarding World two more times over the next two days, but I still missed a lot of details. There were just so many people around me all the time. There was an upside to the convention, though: many people had purchased Harry Potter garb that they were wearing in the park; it almost felt like being an extra on set of the films. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to pass two young women wearing robes and Gryffindor scarves who looked like students of Hogwarts on a weekend trip into Hogsmeade.

A crowded Hogsmeade

Argh! The crowds!

Ultimately, though, I think I would have enjoyed wandering the streets of Hogsmeade if it had been less crowded. The attention to detail is really outstanding, and I would have appreciated the opportunity to really soak it all in. The town features an owlery, the train engine of the Hogwarts Express, a fast food restaurant in the guise of The Three Broomsticks, and shops familiar to any reader of the books or viewer of the films, such as Zonko’s Joke Shop, Honeydukes Sweet Shop, Gladrags Wizard Wear, and of course, Ollivanders Wand Shop. The line for Ollivanders was ridiculously long every time I passed by, so I didn’t even bother trying to get in to see the show. The Three Broomsticks was also packed the whole time I was there, so there was no chance to grab a bite to eat, though I did pop my head in briefly to look around.

Ollivanders Wand Shop

Ollivanders Wand Shop

One of the longest lines in the park was the line to purchase butterbeer. But of course everyone just has to try it, including me. It’s hard to describe what it tastes like. Some have likened it to cream soda, but that’s not the flavor, exactly. More like a cross between cream soda and butterscotch. The foam on top wasn’t a natural foam; it tasted suspiciously like whipped cream to me. It wasn’t bad, but not something I’d drink on a regular basis.

Butterbeer

Huh. Doesn't taste like butter or beer.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this park solo, I think it also might be fun to go with a group of friends who are also fans of the books and movies. There’s something about sharing an experience like this with like-minded people that appeals. The upshot is, if you’re a Harry Potter fan and you have the wherewithal to make the trip to Orlando, do go to Universal and immerse yourself in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I only wish there were quality theme parks like this for all our favorite books and movies.

You can see all my Wizarding World of Harry Potter photos at my SmugMug galleries.

 

Gray January 23, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Hi, Peter! Love your town. :-) I shudder to think of I-4 at a standstill. Those of you who live there must get so sick of us tourists. But yeah, I had a great time, crowds notwithstanding.

Peter, Orlando Florida January 23, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Hi Gray,

I live here in Orlando and have to say it was complete madness and chaos when the theme park opened. I-4 was a standstill for weeks.
It has subsided a lot. Bit surprised it was THAT busy… that convention must have contributed, no doubt.
Glad you had fun!

Gray December 11, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Yeah, I wasn’t too thrilled about the crowds, either, Christine. Others have told me it wasn’t that crowded when they were there. I think it was an effect of the Potter Convention that weekend.

Grrrl Traveler December 11, 2011 at 4:53 pm

I’m a Harry Potter fan, so I think this theme park is brilliant. Though I’m not to thrilled about the crowds you’re telling me about. Wish you got to take more pics of the inside- am so curious if it will feel like the movie.

Gray December 11, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Yes, I heard that about the California park, too. That’ll make it much easier for folks on the West Coast to visit.

Tawny- Captain and Clark December 10, 2011 at 10:36 pm

I have been itching to visit since it opened. Can’t wait to get my hands on some butterbeer. I heard recently that they’re planning on opening another park in California. It’d make my trip a lot shorter! :)

Gray December 7, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Yes, Rachel, you can do both parks in one day–I did–but you can’t do everything in both parks in one day. Unless you have way more energy and logistical skills than I do! The Universal parks aren’t as spread out as the Disney parks, and you can easily walk between them (via CityWalk) so moving back and forth is not that hard, but it’s still a lot of walking. Single rider lines definitely help, though as I mentioned Forbidden Journey doesn’t have one, so you’d want to go there first thing. Your best bet is to research what you’d want to do in each park. Do the most popular rides first thing, because lines get long as the day goes on. I usually come up with an A list and a B list–the A list is “must dos” and the B list is “would be nice if I have time.”

Rachel December 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm

I am seriously considering going on my Disney trip in March for a day. There are some deals that include the two parks in one day ticket. Do you think this is something that could be done (meaning both Universal parks) and see almost everything in a day? The park hours in March when I go would be 9-7. Obviously being able to take advantage of single rider lines would be a big plus!

Gray December 6, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I hope you can, Cherry! Start saving your pennies! :-)

Cherry December 6, 2011 at 8:33 am

omg! i’m a big fan of Harry Potter, and it’s a dream come true if i could visit this theme park!

Gray Cargill December 4, 2011 at 9:41 am

It is fun, Jenna. Ooh, you’ve been to ComicCon? I definitely want to go to that one of these years.

Jenna Vandenberg December 4, 2011 at 2:01 am

Looks like fun! I love all the details in Disney and glad that Wizarding World didn’t skimp. I’ve been dragged to San Diego for ComicCon before, and sometimes an exuberant crowd can even add to a place :)

Gray December 2, 2011 at 12:41 pm

I hope you get the chance to visit sometime, Farrell.

Farrell December 2, 2011 at 10:49 am

I’d love to try that butterbeer. I am a huge fan and i have watch all the films a lot of times. I have also read the books and the last film made me sad knowing that it is the last of the series. If i got money, i’ll definitely go in that park.

Gray December 2, 2011 at 6:13 am

I hope you get a chance to, Erica! It’s fun.

Erica December 2, 2011 at 2:38 am

Wow! Seriously? I can’t believe there’s a place like this! I hope I could come and visit it one day!

Gray December 1, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I highly recommend it, JoAnn! I don’t think you’d regret it.

JoAnn December 1, 2011 at 8:50 pm

I hope to visit there someday. Maybe on my next Disney trip.

Gray December 1, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Kirstin – You never know, it might be quieter by then. :-) I didn’t realize there was a difference between the British and American versions (I mean except for slight variations in language, I’m sure, like “queue” instead of “line” and that sort of thing). Neat.

Kirstin December 1, 2011 at 4:02 pm

I love Harry Potter, however I don’t think I will be back in the USA for another five years (might be quiet by then?)

I recently started reading the american version of the Harry Potter books. You would not have thought there would be any difference between the british version and the american but I’ve been surprised by not only different words but variations in stories and different ways of describing events – loving it!

Gray December 1, 2011 at 11:23 am

I did have a great time, Charlotte. I hope you get a chance to visit it sometime soon!

Charlotte December 1, 2011 at 11:20 am

Great post. I love Harry Potter, and it looks like you had a great time at the theme park! I can’t wait to go sometime myself!

Gray November 30, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Juno – Is there really? Real butter? That cannot be good for you. :-)

JoAnna – My brother and sister-in-law have assured me it’s not usually that crowded (they go to Universal all the time). I just happened to go during this Harry Potter Convention….

Krista – Yeah, it’s definitely worth the trip. WWOHP is Disney-like in its attention to detail. Good stuff.

Krista November 30, 2011 at 2:11 pm

How fun! I am a Disney girl myself and never cared to see the Orlando Universal but the Harry Potter addition has gotten me intrigued to go next time I go to Orlando. Though, I think I will have to try to find a date that is not so crowded, if that is possible, or else I can’t imagine enjoying it.

JoAnna November 30, 2011 at 11:36 am

Looks like fun! We really want to visit the Harry Potter theme park, but it looks really crowded!

Juno November 30, 2011 at 11:35 am

Aww, I love it! I got to go there at some point. Butter beer… always very curious about that. You know there’s a recipe for that? It includes actual butter. ha! :)
Great post!

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