A year ago, Universal usurped some of Disney World’s claim at the Most Magical Place on Earth when they opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at their Orlando, Fla., Islands of Adventure Park. Despite being a huge Harry Potter geek and living less than two hours away, it took me a year to make a visit to the park. It was well worth the wait.
Universal Islands of Adventure was opened in 1999 and was, surprisingly, the first Orlando theme park to have traditional roller coasters. It has six themed “lands” surrounding a central lagoon (in order clockwise from the Port of Entry):
- Marvel Super Hero Island, home to the amazing 3D Spiderman ride and the shocking Hulk rollercoaster, which is my favorite roller coaster of all time.
- Toon Lagoon, which houses many water rides (great for cooling off) and is themed around various comic strip and TV cartoon characters, including Rocky and Bullwinkle, Gasoline Alley, Blondie, and more.
- Jurassic Park, which can really feel like you’re in the movie if you get caught in a sudden Florida downpour as I did the very first time I visited the park.
- The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, featuring a scale replica of Hogwarts castle and the village of Hogsmeade.
- The Lost Continent, a slightly confusing island, split between Arabian- and Atlantis-themed stores and attractions; it had its third, Medieval portion rethemed for The Wizarding World.
- Seuss Landing, a delight for kids and adults like with Seussian goodies around every corner.
I heard a lot about the Harry Potter portion of the park before we visited: the lines were long, the shops were crowded, the butterbeer was amazing, and most notably, you have to get there early. During busy times, I’ve heard from multiple patrons that entrance to the area is metered or closed entirely to try and combat the over-crowding problem. While I understand that Universal does this for good reason, I do feel they could make this known to patrons better. One of my colleagues was extremely upset to find that, at 2 p.m., the area had reached its capacity when they visited earlier this year. Keeping this in mind, my game plan was to get there shortly after the park opened at 9 a.m. and head straight for Harry Potter, visiting the rest of the islands afterwards. This worked well for my group, as we had all visited the park multiple times before Wizarding World opened, so didn’t feel we needed to go on any other rides. If you are visiting for the first time and can afford the money and time to do so, I would highly recommend spending at least two days at Universal. Especially if you are visiting in the summer and definitely if you are visiting with children, spending one day at Wizarding World and exploring the rest of the islands with your second day would be ideal.
There are two ways to enter TWWoHP; entering through Jurassic Park starts you at Hogwarts, while entering through The Lost Continent starts you at the main entrance to Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts Express. The view is absolutely magical. Seeing the Hogwarts Express, the snow-capped roofs of Hosgmeade, and Hogwarts Castle in the background all in one view can make even the most cynical adult turn into an excited child. Years went into the making of this island, and J.K. Rowling was involved in even the smallest details, of which there are many. It really feels like you are stepping into the actual places (except for the small hints of incongruity, like palm trees lurking in the background of the entrances). After getting a pictures with the Hogwarts Express conductor, we headed for Hogwarts.
Inside Hogwarts is a simulation ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. After a line that wraps you through the castle, then outside and through the greenhouses, you enter the main part of Hogwarts where the ride starts. A projection of Dumbledore lays out the exposition: you Muggles are here to experience a Hogwarts class, The History of Magic with Professor Binns. Things like the entrance to Dumbledore’s office, the Unicorn Tapestry, and the Potions classroom door are all around you as you make your way into a corridor where portraits of the four founders talk to you. The moving portraits were absolutely amazing. Rather than appearing to be projection screens, you can actually see the paint and canvas grain on them as they move and speak to you. It’s such a simple thing, but it really does make the experience feel, forgive the overuse of the word, magical. Shortly, you enter the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom where Harry, Ron, and Hermione greet you, offering to help you sneak out of the castle (and boring class) to visit a Quidditch match. Once on the ride, you experience dragons, dementors, and even the whomping willow, led by the Trio the entire way. The ride is amazing and something every Harry Potter fan should experience. The only critique I have of the ride itself is that it was difficult to actually focus on the screened simulation moments at times, as too much was going on much too close. It didn’t distract from my enjoyment any, though. While it had an advertised wait time of 90 minutes when we got in line (I’ve heard tell of 140 minute wait times, by the way), we were in and out in less than an hour.
Next up on our adventure were Butterbeer, Pumpkin Juice, and shops. Other than Forbidden Journey, Butterbeer was
the thing that was most hyped about Wizarding World to me. There are two variations: cold and frozen, both of which get a creamy froth on the top. The prices are reasonable (for a theme park): $3 cold and $4 frozen, although you can get a keepsake mug for an additional price (I didn’t want to carry it around, so I didn’t get one). While I’d heard may people say they prefer the cold version, if you want something slightly less sweet, go for frozen. The drinks seem to be based on cream soda with some additional vanilla and butterscotch taste. It truly lives up to the hype and was absolutely delicious. I wanted to sneak a barrel out of there and take it home. The Pumpkin Juice is also a delightful treat. Using pumpkin and other fruit juices, it manages to taste like a liquid pumpkin pie in your mouth. I’m not even a huge pumpkin fan, but I really liked it. It’s very sweet, though, so only those with the biggest sweet teeth will be able to drink a whole bottle themselves. Both drinks are caffeine free. While enjoying our drinks, we ventured through the first set of shops: Honeydukes Candy Shop and Zonko’s Joke Shop. Connected inside, the shops bring many products from the Harry Potter universe to life, including new packaging for Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, Chocolate Frogs, Cauldron Cakes, Sugar Skulls, Pygmy Puffs, Extendable Ears, and others. The shop also sells some t-shirts and other merchandise appropriate to the theme of the stores. While tempted to get a pygmy puff, I had my eye on a different souvenir.
Our next stop was Dragon Challenge, a dual track roller coaster. Rethemed from the old Lost Continent ride Dueling Dragons (if you ask an employee for that ride, though, they’ll deny it ever existed), Dragon Challenge is easily changed over to portray the first challenge of the TriWizard Tournament. Banners cheering on Harry, Fleur, Cedric, and Viktor flank the outside line, and inside, you get a glimpse at the Goblet of Fire and the Golden Eggs. Inside the ride, you choose which coaster to ride: Blue or Red. Frequent visitors to Islands of Adventure have long had their favorite dragons (previously named Fire and Ice), and the actual ride hasn’t changed any. The coaster features your legs hanging free, corkscrews, close calls with the other coaster and definitely some Gs pulled at more than one point. One of the great things about the Universal coasters (as compared to Disney, Busch Gardens, Kennywood, and Six Flags over Georgia in my experience) is that, even with quick turns, you never feel like your head is bouncing around against the headrests; the rides are very comfortable, even when they leave you with sea legs when you get off. There is also another rethemed attraction. The mine-cart style coaster The Flying Unicorn was renamed and redesigned as The Flying Hippogriff. Although we didn’t go on it, it’s a great coaster for kids.
As you exit Dragon Challenge, you see the two big shop lines for Ollivander’s Wand Shop. At the end closest to Hogwarts, you can have the Ollivander’s Wand Experience. Groups of people are let into the shop where a child is chosen at random from the group. Ollivander goes through a few choices of wand before one wand picks the child. The parents then have the option of purchasing the wand as the group is let into the bigger wand shop, which is also attached to Dervish and Banges. We skipped the wand experience and waited in the backdoor line (which was probably the worst line experience… it moved slowly and had no shade at all). The only critique I have of the wand experience is that they don’t pre-screen the parents to find out which parents are definitely going to buy a wand for their kid. Meltdowns do happen occasionally, according to the shop workers. So, for parents, do not do the wand experience if you’re not prepared to spend $30 on a wand. Inside the shop, there are two varieties of wands. Character wands (including the Trio, the alternate Trio, Voldemort, Cedric, Sirius, and Professors Snape, Lupin, and McGongall) and specialty wands designed for the attractions that correspond to birthdates. In Dervish and Banges, assorted merchandise includes replicas of house robes, sweaters, and ties, as well as trinkets like Sneakoscopes, Rememberalls, and brooms, all sold in park-exclusive packaging. My one souvenir (pro tip: give yourself a specific budget, otherwise you will buy EVERYTHING) was always going to be a wand. It was hard to choose between Hermione’s and Luna’s, but I went with Miss Granger’s in the end.
Unlike the other islands, which have two to three restaurants each, Wizarding World only has one: The Three Broomsticks. In a feat of organized chaos, at busy times of the day, you wait in a line to get into the restaurant, where you wait in another line to order your food, then wait in another line to receive your food before waiting in another line to be seated. The system works, though, and moves pretty smoothly. It serves English fare, including roast chicken, Shepherd’s Pie (really Cottage Pie), Cornish Pasties, and Fish and Chips. The portion of Cornish Pasties was quite small (three mini-pasties), but the Fish and Chips had a generous portion. Attached to The Three Broomsticks is the Hog’s Head, serving Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice along with more muggle-centric drinks like Anheusser-Busch beverages. In a nod to criticisms of park food being terribly unhealthy, a cart near Hogwarts sells water, fruit juice, and fresh fruit, a perfect snack for waiting in the Forbidden Journey line.
We visited the park on a 96-degree, no-breeze day, and one constant criticism of both Universal parks is that they do not provide enough shaded, sit-down spaces (one hopes they’ll use some of the Wizarding World revenue to add shade to the park). They do seem to have built a specific, shaded area in Wizarding World, which is a start, but it gets crowded quickly. Most lines are indoors, and the outdoor portions have sprayer fans (a godsend in the summer), but for some reason, these weren’t on in the outdoor portion of the Forbidden Journey line for a while (and the greenhouse fans do not have sprayers). If you can, visit in the cooler times of the Florida year: February, April, October, and December provide amazing weather with highs generally in the high 70s and 80s. If you do visit in the summer, stay well hydrated (alternating with something like Gatorade to avoid having an oversaturation of water) and reapply sunscreen often. Vending carts will fill up your water bottles with fresh, cold water for free. From the perspective of someone who has been near heat stroke before (not at Universal), if you do start to feel signs of heat exhaustion, please utilize the first aid stations throughout the park before it gets the better of you. While in the line for Forbidden Journey, we saw a child who had suddenly passed out from heat and hit her head as she fell; it took about 20-30 minutes for medics to get to her and get her out of there. We visited first aid for something as simple as sunscreen in my eyes this visit and were helped by a very friendly medic. Seriously: do not be afraid of first aid stations. Go to them before they need to come to you.
All in all, it was an amazing day. We spent about five hours just in that section of the park and could have happily done everything again or stayed longer to explore all the little details we missed. Small shows with the Beauxbaton girls and Drumstrang boys happen near the entrance to Hogwarts periodically throughout the day. If you go, be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting in lines. If you try to have a good attitude about it, it can even be a fun experience (my math teacher friend was excited to overhear a dad running through square roots with his math-loving son). Universal does allow you to bring in drinks and snacks from home, so, especially if you’re travelling with a child, that’s a great thing to take advantage of. The worst thing about the park is the steep admission price. Regular, one park adult admission is $82 (the Florida Resident Discount barely registers anymore either, at only $8 less – with blackouts through the month of July). For the Harry Potter fan, though, if you can afford the ticket price (and travel to Orlando), the experience is priceless. You even have the chance of meeting some of the actors – when some friends went the week before I did, the Phelps twins (who play Fred and George Weasley) were filming a commercial at the park. It really is a magical experience.
Disclaimer: No form of compensation was provided by Universal or Warner Bros. for this post. Not even a free wand or anything. But if they’d like to send me one now, I’d gladly take Luna’s.