Last week, we took a long-awaited trip to Florida for Spring Break and spent two glorious days at Universal Studios, home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In one word, it was UH-MAY-ZING! It started out as a niggling idea in the back of my brain because my oldest daughter, now 22, who grew up in England, is (slowly) transitioning out of her childhood and into her adult self. She has loved Harry Potter since she learned to read, which happens to correspond to the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 1997. She is a self-proclaimed, unabashed, robe-wearing, House of Hufflepuff member who is president of her college Quidditch team (Yes, it's a thing -- she is a chaser).
Mary scoring a goal at the USQ West Regional Tournament, BYU vs USU.
I wanted to go somewhere that would appeal to all of my children (Clara is 12, Sam is 9 and Gus is 7), so, way back last summer, we started to plan. We started reading a chapter of Harry Potter every night before bed, and when we finished a book, we all watched the movie together. Our Spring Break didn't really correspond to Mary's school schedule, so we planned to go to the park over a weekend so she wouldn't miss class. We flew her to Florida for 48 hours of hog(warts) heaven. The week before, the rest of us spent a week at this cute beach house I found on Airbnb.com, but I digress.
I have never been to Universal Studios, so I didn't really know what to expect. So, here is my list of discoveries with editorial comments:
1. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is just a very small part of the Universal Studios park -- wait -- PARKS. There are TWO parks to which you must pay admission if you want access to all of the Harry Potter stuff. One is called the Islands of Adventure and the other is called Universal Studios Florida. If you want to see both Diagon Alley AND Hogsmeade, you have to buy a park-to-park ticket. If you don't want to buy a park-to-park ticket, I would choose Diagon Alley (in Universal Studios Florida) over Hogsmeade (in Islands of Adventure), but if you do this, be warned, you won't be able to ride the Hogwarts Express between the two parks, which was INCREDIBLY cool. And this leads me to my next point:
2. If you're going to do this right, you MUST stay in a resort hotel. When you book a room at a hotel on the resort grounds, you get an EXPRESS PASS which means you skip the regular lines on most rides throughout the park. We used this perk like crazy and never waited in line for more than 10 minutes... during Spring Break! Be warned, though -- the express pass is not valid for the following attractions:
Universal Studios Florida
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™
Kang & Kodos' Twirl 'n' Hurl
Universal's Islands of Adventure
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™
...which leads me to the next perk of staying on site: you get admission to the park an hour before everyone else! In reality, they open the gates an hour and ten minutes before. When we were there, we left the hotel on the water shuttle at 6:15am, waited in line at the entrance for about 20 minutes and at 6:50am, they opened the gates and we were off! For one glorious hour at dawn, it was like we had Diagon Alley to ourselves. Both mornings, we practically sprinted to the back of the park and went straight on the Gringott's ride followed by a chaser of butterbeer.
3. And OHHH, the BUTTERBEER! Butterbeer is absolutely delicious. It's like a liquid Butter Rum Lifesaver with a thick head of soft cream soda-y goodness on the top. But wait, there's more: Plain cold Butterbeer is amazing, but you can also indulge in Butterbeer Fudge and Butterbeer Ice Cream, Frozen Butterbeer and even hot Butterbeer in the colder months.
4. One of the coolest experiences of visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is that you can actually visit Ollivander's Wand Shop and choose a wand OR, if you get lucky, a wand will choose you. It's an interactive experience very similar to the film when Harry goes wand shopping. An actor plays Ollivander and chooses one boy or girl to take the place of a Hogart's student looking for a wand. After the presentation, you are led into the shop where you can buy a wand. There, you can choose an interactive wand that will actually do spells all throughout the park. The wand comes with a map that shows you where to find the "spell spots" and the words to say. My kids loved this. You can pick out a replica of your favorite character's wand or you can go for a more generic wand based more on the type of wood it's made of. We did this early on the morning of our first day and we are sure glad we did. The lines got really long later in the day.
5. If you do buy a park-to-park pass, the Hogwarts Express is pretty amazing. It takes you from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade and back. Before we boarded, be bought some chocolate frogs and Bertie Bots Every Flavour Beans so that we could eat them on the train just like Harry and Ron did during their first trop. The outbound trip is a different experience than the inbound trip so make sure you take the trip in both directions. Before you get on the train, you can disappear onto platform 9 3/4 (using mirrors) and if you ask one of the conductors (park employees) where platform 9 3/4 is they will say things like, "9 3/4 of what?"
6. There are several live plays or vignettes that you can see throughout the day at both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. My 4 children (below) were mesmerized by these.
The costumes and effects are fantastic and some of the content was totally original. It was a real treat for Harry Potter fans like us.
7. Appreciate the detail. The dragon on top of Gringotts actually breathes fire. Moaning Myrtle haunts the loos in Hogsmeade. The shrunken head on the knight bus actually has a conversation with you and the conductor. Knocturn Alley is actually colder and the sky is different than Diagon Alley. I'm just scratching the surface here. The level of detail is mind-boggling. Just google "detail at Wizarding World..." and you'll find several websites devoted to listing several tiny details of the park -- you could actually spend DAYS there and still not appreciate every little thing.
8. Try the food. It was so much fun eating at the Three Broomsticks and The Leaky Caldron. The British fare just added to the authenticity of the experience. Think cottage pie, bangers and mash, Scotch eggs, fish and chips, etc.
9. The souvenir selection is pretty amazing. If you have the funds (see my next tip), you can deck yourself out entirely in a Hogwarts uniform, or in full quidditch robes. You can buy an owl, a rat, a bat, a practical joke, a snake, a talking journal, textbooks, a Marauder's Map... And I could go on and on.
10. Now, you must be thinking, "Wow, this probably cost a pretty penny." Well, you're right. If you're going to go, and indulge fully, it's expensive, so save up, take a deep breath and go for it. I'm tellin' ya, it's worth it. When we arrived in Diagon Alley on the second morning of our visit, my 22 year-old said, glassy-eyed, "Mom, it's just as amazing today as it was yesterday."