Dispatches from the Wizarding World

Back in July 2014, I wrote THIS post about the opening of the Diagon Alley expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida.  I spent a great deal of time ranting about the costs involved in visiting the park and, even more infuriatingly, the fact that I wasn’t at the park right that second.  I closed that post by stating that, despite the cost, I would pay it because I wanted to immerse myself in the world of Harry Potter.

My friends, I am happy to report that I have kept my promise.  A few weeks ago, I took my kids to Orlando, and we have Pottered!  (And done a bunch of other stuff, too, but let’s stick to the matter at hand).

In July, I had this to say about paying to see the new expansion: “If all you care about is Harry Potter, what are you really paying for when you buy that ticket? You are buying the right to go to a place to spend more money. That’s all Diagon Alley is. It’s a Harry Potter-themed mall.”

So was I right?  Well, yes.  There is, as I mentioned at the time, only one ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which is basically an indoor roller coaster involving set pieces and newly-filmed segments with actors from the movies.  It all takes place during the Gringotts sequence from the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, so if you haven’t seen that movie, what’s happening during the ride probably won’t make a bit of sense.  It’s still well done, and the bank itself that you walk through as the queue to the ride is amazing.  

 Interior photography by JJ Abrams (Yes, that's a lens flare joke).

Interior photography by JJ Abrams (Yes, that's a lens flare joke).

Once you’re done with the ride, though, you are left with little to do but look at the recreation of Diagon Alley, which is admittedly wonderful, and spend money.  You can eat at the Leaky Cauldron, have ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor, or grab an elixir or a butterbeer from a couple of different places.  In addition to the cold and frozen that was offered when I was at the original Hogsmeade section in Universal’s Islands of Adventure park two years ago, they now have warm butterbeer, which is my new favorite, and butterbeer ice cream.

In addition to the food and drink options, there are, of course, various shops offering Harry Potter items.  At this point I must address something else I brought up in my post from July.  In talking about the Olivander’s wand shop experience, I said that it “made me want to buy a fancy stick that does nothing.”  That may have been true two years ago, but now Universal has changed the situation.  They now sell wands with what I assume to be infrared emitters like a remote control, and these wants can be used around The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to make different effects happen.  For example, they can activate a small fountain or repair a suit of armor at the blacksmith shop.  This does increase the entertainment value of Diagon Alley a bit…if you’re willing to spend the money.

But if you’re not, which I wasn’t, the Diagon Alley area is still very cool to see.  The buildings look perfect.

And, every so often, the dragon perched atop Gringotts breathes fire:

Also, while I railed a bit about the necessity of getting a park-to-park ticket in order to ride it, the Hogwarts Express train is very well done.  The King’s Cross station just outside of Diagon Alley looks like it was dropped there direct from London (But with less graffiti according to the visitors from the UK that my son overheard discussing it), they have found a clever way to recreate running through the wall to reach Platform 9 ¾, and the look of the train and platforms themselves is incredible.  

The train ride itself is brief but very pleasant with comfortable cars, great scenery out the “window,” and a few famous co-passengers passing by along the corridors outside your cabin.  The trips are different in each direction, so you definitely want to travel both ways.  As I expected back in July, it’s a great way to move people between the two parks, and it’s very cool to be on the platform in Hogsmeade when the train pulls into the station (It backs into King’s Cross, which is somewhat less impressive).

But my favorite part of the entire experience was somewhat unexpected: it was the diehard Potter fans.  The shops in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley sell robes, sweaters, ties, and scarves for the four Hogswarts houses, and I saw many visitors to the park that had completely decked themselves out.  I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and movies, but I would not consider myself at the level of a superfan.  I just didn’t think about what visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter must feel like to those people who are deeply invested in this series.  I have had a comparable experience, though.  Well, actually, it was Star Trek: The Experience, which I talked about in THIS POST.  These parks represent what Star Trek: The Experience was for me, a place where the fictional world we love so much comes to life and where we can be a part of it.   Yes, visiting can be pricey, but I am so very glad that it exists.

Finally, while I am not a professional travel advisor, here are a few tips if you want to visit Universal Orlando:

  • Stay at one of the onsite hotels that offers the Express Pass free with your stay.  The Express Pass allows you to get in a shorter line for just about every attraction (Not the three main Harry Potter ones, though) and will allow you to really enjoy your time in the parks.  We weren’t in line for more than 15 minutes for anything that accepted Express Pass.  Depending on the time of year, adding the Express Pass could more than double your ticket price.  Stay onsite, and it’s free.  We stayed at the Royal Pacific, which was very nice, and which offered a water taxi to the parks.
  • Staying onsite also gets you in early.  As of this writing, guests who stay onsite (or at one of the partner hotels) get access to Diagon Alley an hour before the parks officially open.  You can get in, ride Gringotts, eat, shop, and be ready to catch the first train to Hogsmeade when the parks actually open.  From there, you can go on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey inside of Hogwarts Castle with very little line and head back to catch the return train to Diagon Alley.  With that, you will have taken care of the three attractions that won’t accept the Express Pass.
  • Travel light in the park.  I know it can be hard with phones and such, but the more self-contained you can be, the better.  Many rides force you to stow your items in lockers before you can get on the ride.  Since we were there in early December, the temperatures were perfect for a light jacket.  My jacket pockets held my phone and camera with ease.
  • Do not take very young children.  Some people may disagree with me here, since Islands of Adventure has a Dr. Seuss land, and Universal Studios has its own kid-friendly area.  Really, though, outside of these small sections, there’s not a lot for kids to do in the park.  Sure the rest of the rides offer child swap, so the adults can ride, but how fun is that for the kids?  I really feel that there’s little point in taking a child much younger than eight to the Universal Parks.  You and your kids will have a much better time if they are old enough to ride some of the attractions outside of the kiddie area.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter