Harry Potter fans can enjoy a visit to a simulated world from the books and movies at Orlando’s Universal Studios. Perched on the edges of both Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, visitors to both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade find rides, shows, food, and shopping awaiting all who venture there. The two are connected by the Hogwarts Express, which for some reason they call the Hogwarts Railway. You can ride it from one to the other so long as you have a park to park pass.
Universal is divided into 3 areas – City Walk, Islands of Adventure, and Universal Studios. Although visitors can easily walk from one to another they call it 3 separate parks and charge accordingly. You can walk through the City Walk area without buying a special ticket to go there, and can spend your money in its restaurants and shops, but to pass into either of the other parks you have to buy a ticket. To do both you need a park to park pass. Since Diagon Alley is at Universal Studios and Hogsmead in Islands of Adventure you need the park to park ticket in order to see all of the Harry Potter stuff. This is of course far more expensive than just getting a ticket to one park or the other.
We went on a day where lines rarely exceeded 15 minutes and were able to see everything in one day with time enough to spare to go on a few rides in other areas of the park even though it closed earlier that day than it does during peak times. During the busier seasons when lines exceed an hour it would take a lot longer to see it all. If you don’t mind splitting your group you can shorten the wait by going in the single rider line if there is a long wait on some rides. Single riders fill in space where other groups have less people than seats in a given row and that line moves more quickly. It also bypasses the scenery you would otherwise view on the way to the main ride so you don’t quite get the full experience of the ride, but if lines are long it’s a great way to save some time. If you get the free Universal app you can check your phone to see what the wait times are for rides, when the shows are, see maps of where to find things, get directions from your current location to a particular ride or attraction, and more.
Arriving at Universal the parking garage empties into the City Walk area. Be sure to make note of the section and row in which you parked if you ever hope to find your car again. After walking through the City Walk to the park gates you can enter through either of the other parks. We chose to enter through Universal Studios. Diagon Alley is at the far end of the park. You can’t see any of its buildings from the street outside and there’s no sign marking the entrance “to keep the muggles out.”
You know you’re there when you come to King’s Cross Station. Just past the train station there’s an old fashioned red British phonebox and beyond that a bit the Knight Bus is parked across the street.
There’s a nondescript brick wall with openings just after the phone booth and if you go through there you find the brick wall with a hole in it leading into Diagon Alley. The Leaky Cauldron is beyond that entrance rather than something you walk through to get to it.
Pumpkin juice and butterbeer are available on carts around the area as well as at the various restaurants there. It would be nice if they had sample size containers you could buy and try both, but they just came full-sized so I only tried the butterbeer. It tastes like gingerbeer with something sweet and foamy added on top.
Sweet shops sell Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, Chocolate Frogs, and other sweets from the books. Not everyone agrees which are the good and bad flavors of the jelly beans. My 5-year-old grandson thought booger was a good flavor and cinnamon a bad one. Of course this is the same child who on a cruise ship said he liked the raw oysters because they tasted like snot.
Wands are for sale in several of the stores including of course Ollivanders. A lot of people buy the interactive wand. Anyone with one of those can stand on the marked spots in front of the windows of decorative shops and cast the spell engraved there. If they use the proper wand movement shown then something happens with the things in the window. Quiddich balls dance or books open. If you’re in Knockturn Alley you might give a little bird boils or giant feet. We didn’t buy the wand ourselves, but saw other people using them. For those who didn’t get the movements right there was usually a park employee nearby to help. Most of the time people could walk right up to the window to try their spell, but occasionally we saw someone waiting for another person to finish. In peak times I would imagine people would probably have to wait for all of them.
Gringotts has a dragon perched on top and a ride inside. This is one of the rides with a tendency to build up a long line on busy days so if you go in peak season try to arrive early and do the busiest rides first before the lines get too long. Unlike Disney, which has compartments on rides for people to put their things, Universal has locker bays near rides where you would lose loose stuff. Lockers are free to use for the duration of the ride and have a fee for longer term use. Escape from Gringotts is part roller coaster and part visual effects. I tried the single rider line first to scope out the ride and got right on with no wait. It went through corridors with nothing to see along the way. I didn’t think the ride would be too rough for my sister, who was watching her neck and back, so we went back through the regular line together. That line has a lot of scenery throughout the building before you get to the actual ride.
Diagon Alley has a small stage next to a snack shack called the Hopping Pot. At various times throughout the day you can see either Mrs. Weasley’s favorite singer Celestina Warback sing or a group of actors perform a story from the Tales of Beedle the Bard. The shops sell all sorts of things from stuffed magical creatures at the Magical Managerie to wizard robes at Madam Maulkin’s. Surprisingly we saw more people wearing Ravenclaw and Slytherin robes than Gryffindor. Quite a variety of muggle style t-shirts with Hogwarts or other wizard world themes are available everywhere. Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes has unique merchandise as does Borgin & Burke’s. A few of the shop windows have scenes that speak or move even if you don’t have the interactive wand.
You have to exit Diagon Alley to get to King’s Cross Station because of course that is in the muggle world. If you have the park to park pass you can ride the Hogwarts Express. It’s a fair distance from the station entrance until you get to the train. If that was all full of people waiting in line on a crowded day it would take quite some time to get through, but we pretty much just walked straight to the end. If you look carefully around you along the way to the train there is one place where you can see people in the line ahead walking through a brick wall. When you get to that spot you don’t see the holographic wall while you actually walk through it.
Inside the Hogwarts Express you get a bit of a show while it travels between parks. Both through the compartment window and in shadows on the opposite wall. If you watch carefully you can even see the shadows of chocolate frogs hopping on that wall after Harry gets one off the witch’s trolley. There’s a completely different show going in the opposite direction so try to ride the train both ways during your visit if you can.
Hogsmeade village has snow-topped roofs and a road leading to Hogwarts castle perched high on a rock at the far end. Inside Hogwarts is Harry’s Forbidden Adventure and of course a gift shop because all rides in theme parks everywhere exit through gift shops. This ride also has lockers because you can’t bring anything that won’t fit into your pocket. It will build up long lines on busy days. Each 4-seat row dangles from the ceiling and has movement often mimicking the flying broomstick on a video screen that the action follows. One of the park employees said this ride is the one most likely to make people sick because they become disoriented as it switches from video to live animation scenes. I have a tendency toward motion sickness and I got through this ride fine, though I would not want to do it twice in a row.
Flight of the Hippogriff is a basic roller coaster and the ride doesn’t last long. It can sometimes have a long wait when the park is busy. If we had waited in a long line for it we would have been pretty disappointed on the amount of ride time vs wait time, but since we went during an off-peak time the waits weren’t bad anywhere. A lot of the Harry Potter rides don’t allow express passes, but the hippogriff one does.
Dragon Challenge is a much bigger and wilder roller coaster, but even it doesn’t last as long as you would think when you see the track. You can’t bring anything on the dragon challenge, not even a cell phone in your pocket and they do have a station with a scanner somewhere in the line area where they check. Even though we were walking at a normal pace rather than shuffling through a slow-moving line it took far longer to get from the ride entrance to where you get on the actual ride than the amount of time the ride lasted. Once you get to the top there are separate lines for each dragon as well as for those who want the front seats or all other rows. You get to the ride a lot quicker in the all other rows line. Blue and Orange dragons each have their own separate track, but they don’t leave the station together or run side by side so even though they call it a challenge it’s not really a race.
In Hogsmead you can eat at the Three Broomsticks or shop for Harry Potter merchandise in the stores. There’s also a stage not far from the castle where the Frog Choir and Triwizard Spirit Rally perform. The Durmstrang boys do gymnastic tricks and the Beaubaxtons girls dance with ribbons in rhythmic gymnastic style.
The frog choir consists of a Hogwarts student from each house. The Hufflepuff and Gryffindor students each held a pillow with a giant animated frog. In the books everyone just wore black robes, but at Universal the robes have colored linings – red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, green for Slytherin and yellow for Hufflepuff.
Both Diagon Alley and Hogsmead have a wand chooses a wizard show. The line was long when we were in Diagon Alley, but in Hogsmead we happened by when there wasn’t much of a line and only had to wait a few minutes for the show in progress to end before going inside. They picked one kid from the crowd who got to try a few wands, the first few of which went a bit haywire, but the final one of course did what it should.
Overall it’s a fun way to spend the day and a great way for fans to immerse themselves in Harry Potter’s world. I’m really glad we went during an off-peak time though because I’m not a fan of lines. It seemed pretty fitting visiting a magical world a couple days before boarding a ship called Magic.