Monday, May 30, 2016

Girls Weekend in Harry Potter World

Last year my friends and I had a small hiccup in time -- we were turning 30, but there were some not very 30-year-old things we still wanted to accomplish in life.  High on the bucket list: a Harry-Potter themed get away.  I've got lofty travel aspirations, so of course I wanted to fly to London and take the train to the castle where the movies were filmed (inspired by the ultimate Harry Potter fans in my book, Meg and Colleen at Two Delighted).  We settled on the more realistic weekend destination of Harry Potter World in Universal Studios Orlando.

What To See:
Definitely get the park to park pass because if you are going to Universal specifically for Harry Potter World, you'll be missing out if you only get the Islands of Adventure park ticket.  The original Harry Potter World theme park was the Islands of Adventure branch, and that's where you'll find Hogwarts Castle (and the Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey ride inside), and a very nicely acted Olivander's wand selection show.

The snow-capped buildings of Hogsmeade are a nice contrast  to the often sweltering heat of Florida in spring and summer.  
But the truth is, besides two coasters and exploring shops (many of which are just empty store fronts), the Diagon Alley addition in the main Universal Studios park is significantly better.  Almost all the stores are interactive, and the ride there (Escape from Gringotts) is much less nauseating though just a bit too short.  Definitely in the Diagon Alley section you'll feel a bigger submersion into all things Harry Potter; the tighter layout, narrow corridors, and visual seclusion from the rest of the park (it's even hard to find where to go in -- we walked by it about 3 times!) make this area especially authentic.

Calling the Ministry of Magic

Kreacher makes an appearance at the window every few minutes
The Knight Bus is complete with talking head -- the animatronics in Harry Potter World are hands down the best in the park!

The Rides:  I should preface any opinion here by saying that I am scared of roller coasters.  I cry on them routinely, not because I'm having fun but I am legit horrified for my life.  Also motion sickness is an issue.  So if you are not so minded, please take my opinions with a grain of salt.  I loved both Harry Potter themed rides, but the Forbidden Journey one really turned my stomach over. We had lofty goals of riding it back to back during our early admission hour (if you stay at one of the park's hotels this is one of the perks!), but I literally couldn't have physically done that ride twice in a row.  There's something about the offset of the 3D visuals and the movement that doesn't match up quite perfectly, and I'm not the only one I saw get visibly uncomfortable coming off the ride.  They have a bathroom strategically available right where you get off to limit mess-making on the staircase leading back down to the lockers.  The only ride I felt was worse as far as motion sickness goes was the Simpsons ride (previously Back to the Future).  Literally almost didn't eat lunch after that.

Not to miss: While there's lots to do in Harry Potter World, the rest of the park has plenty to offer as well.  My personal favorites were the Jurassic Park River Adventure ride (though the animatronic dinos at the beginning could use an upgrade), The Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster (again, the visuals seem dated but the ride itself is fun), and the Transformers ride.  There are just a few too many rides using motion seats and 3D visuals for my taste (I'm sure these are less expensive to construct, but I'd truly hate if the future of theme parks was to be all 3D effect rides).  The water park rides are also quite fun, especially the Popeye river raft ride.  If you want to have the best river raft fun, try to strategically place yourself in line with a larger group of people.  We went once with a big group and once with a few small kids.  If you don't have enough weight in your raft you won't get nearly the same amount of movement and bounce during the ride!  Heads up: you will get soaked. Like head to toe, wet rat appearance for several hours until you dry out. One thing I found annoying was that all over the park you have free lockers to store your things, but at the water park area, where your items will be drenched, you have to pay for lockers.  It's not expensive but just seems oddly incongruous with the rest of the park.  Also they have water gun stations for watchers to be able to squirt riders with even more water as they go through the course of the ride, but they charge to use those as well.  If they were free, people would be using them all time, but I only saw a handful of people take advantage of the water guns because the park charges you per use.  These little nickle and diming tactics sort of took away the spirit of Islands of Adventure and if remedied would truly add to the overall fun in that side of the park.

What to Eat: 
So I know no one goes to a theme park expecting good food (well, except Disney Epcot which truly delivers in my book). Universal definitely isn't going to provide a foodie experience, but the prices for food are reasonable and we did find a few good meals.  Of everything we ate, The Leaky Cauldron provided the best variety and taste in my opinion.  If you are truly hungry, skip the Guinness stew which ends up being a few scoops of soup and mostly bread bowl.  The Bangers and Mash or Fish and Chips will be more likely to fill you up. We ended up eating here twice, but many of Universal's more popular restaurants were closed during our stay so unless we wanted cafeteria style hamburgers or pizza, this was one of our only options. Obviously you have to try the Butterbeer. It's delicious and refreshing.  Many sites I read recommended the Butterbeer icecream in Diagon Alley, but I'd disagree.  The ice cream turns the flavor almost uncomfortably sweet and since it is trademarked (I'd just like to take a moment and give a girl power nod to J.K. Rowling over that fantastic stroke of genius!), you can't add any toppings or sprinkles to your cone.  I don't know about you, but if I'm going to get ice cream at a Harry Potter theme park, I want it to be kind of ridiculous magical looking ice cream with lots of dumb sprinkles and crazziness. Stick with the traditional Butterbeer in my book (the frozen version kind of waters it down a bit), or if you feel like upping your game to an adult beverage I'd highly recommend the Firewhisky which is a shot of cinnamon whisky splashed into a Strongbow. Delightful taste and definitely delivers a punch.

For a great photo-op, make sure you take a picture from the bridge between Hogsmeade and the Jurassic Park area 
Where to Stay:
For the easiest access to the park, it really is worth it to stay in a Universal Studios hotel.  They offer a free shuttle service to the Universal City Walk area all day, and you get 1 hour of early park access before other guests can enter. This extra hour is a prime time to hit up the Harry Potter World attractions before the lines get completely out of control.  We stayed in the most affordable option, the Cabana Bay resort.  The other hotels on Universal's property are considerably nicer, but how nice do you need?  If you are planning to spend all day in the park, the room is really secondary.  Plus, I found the retro vibe of the hotel rather charming.  The pool area looked spectacular, but we never got a chance to use it because we were park hoping all day.  There is a small bar near the check in which is surprisingly affordable (cocktails around $11, beer around $6).  The Starbucks inside was a great place to grab a coffee in the wee morning hours to enjoy on the shuttle to the park at 7:30 AM and the  subsequent wait at the park gate until it opened at 8. Yes, we are those people.  Another great touch: old cartoons from the 30s and 40s were playing nonstop in the dining areas, many of which I vaguely remembered from my distant childhood when stations like Nickelodeon would still play some of the old stuff.   To save money, try comparing vacation package websites to the standard hotel fees.  We stayed in May for $145 a night by combining flight + hotel with a Southwest Vacation package.

What to Wear: If you are going to Harry Potter World, I'd highly recommend investing in a theme shirt or outfit for your group.  Seeing everyone's costumes was one of my favorite parts of the park experience!  If you are bringing a kid, you'll get so many photo-ops to let them go all out in a robe and broomstick.  I even saw a cute little kid with a stuffed Hedwig strapped to his arm.  Sure, stowing brooms or stuffed animals isn't the best option for riding rides, but if you come back later in the day (a few hours before the park closes is ideal) dressed in full regalia, you'll be primed for great pictures during the less crowded time of the day.  Stay tuned for a post about the Quidditch jerseys I made for our trip!


  1. Great job! Do you outline all of your blog posts? I've read a few of them now and they are way higher quality than other blogs I've read.

    1. Thanks David! I do try to layout everything I want to cover before I start writing, but I'm just really happy someone is finding it useful! We were real late to the blogging game so we don't get many readers. I love reading blogs before I travel and I hope I can contribute to other people's plan making :)