Happy Birthday, Harry Potter! And Happy Birthday to my son Daniel who turns 11 next month. (He’s ready to receive his invite to Hogwarts!)
To celebrate, we surprised him and his sister with a trip to Universal Studios Orlando to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It was our first time at Universal. Daniel is a HUGE Harry Potter fan, so we knew he’d be excited. We bought “Park-to-Park” tickets to experience all of Harry Potter in both Universal Studios (Diagon Alley) and the Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade and Hogwarts). If you are planning on visiting, you’ll need to keep your tickets handy to ride the Hogwarts Express between both parks.
We booked a one night stay at a Universal resort and woke up ready for a full day of magical fun, rides, and butter beer. Here’s how it all went down:
We arrived at the entrance to Universal Studios so we’d be ready to run when they opened the gates. I highly recommend you stay at a Universal Studios resort so you can have the perk of entering the park an hour early. This is key for hitting all those Harry Potter attractions without long lines and blistering summer heat. When the gates opened, we went straight to the Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride in Diagon Alley.
The Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride had a short five minute wait. Score! Since this was our first ever ride in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we were awestruck at every turn. The waiting area alone is Harry Potter immersive. It’s the famous Gringotts bank from the second “Deathly Hollows” movie. The goblins writing checks are awesome to watch. And the actual 3D ride is fantastic! You strap into a thrilling runaway car where you will be greeted by villains Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange and attacked by snakes, statues, and one really scary dragon. It might be a bit spooky for little ones, but my tweens loved it. Before you walk away, be sure to look up and wait for the giant dragon on top of Gringotts to breath fire. I was able to capture the moment!
As soon as we were done with the Gringotts ride, we went straight to Ollivander’s Wand Shop across the way. This was my favorite moment of the day. You are split into groups and led into a small, dimly lit room inside the wand shop. One lucky “wizard” is picked from each group to have their wand specifically chosen for them. Daniel was picked from our group! It was seriously the coolest thing ever. The wandmaker, Ollivander, gave Daniel three tries before he was presented him with his chosen wand. There were neat special effects and lot of magical touches along the way. Daniel ended up with a 16 inch oak wand with dragon heart string, the exact one he wanted. How magical is that? Then, we were all led into the shop to purchase the wands. Annabel picked out an ivy one. They were fifty bucks each, but it’s the best souvenir from our trip. Be sure to pick at least one “interactive wand” so you can have fun with the magic throughout the park. The interactive wands cause water to shoot from fountains and make the window displays come to life all throughout Diagon Alley.
Now it was time for Butter Beer! We could not wait any longer to try the signature Harry Potter drink. It’s a cool mix of butterscotch and cream soda with a sugary cream foam on top. You can order the iced, frozen, or even hot version! We indulged in the traditional iced version and we all gave it two thumbs up. (Daniel ordered a second one for lunch!) I also tried the Fishy Green Ale which is a minty cinnamon boba tea with blueberry bubbles. It was delicious, but I would pick the butter beer if I had to choose only one.
We were off to Kings Cross Station near the entrance to Diagon Alley to finally take the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade. This was my favorite ride by far. It was not crowded, so we had time to watch each other walk through the brick wall to Platform 9 3/4. The special effects are super cool, so be on the look out for this when you’re in line. We boarded the train and sat in our own family car. The train ride feels very real as we “traveled” from London to Hogsmeade. You’ll want to look out the window and into the hallway to capture every moment.
We arrived in Hogsmeade and ventured uphill toward the Hogwarts Castle for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. After reading all the reviews about motion sickness, I decided to take a pass. But my husband and kids loved it. The stomach-turning ride takes you through Hogwarts Castle where you feel like you’re flying on a broomstick. You’ll see Dumbledore’s office, dementors, spiders, and a Quidditch match. The ride uses realistic holographic images and 4D elements like water and smoke. Even though I passed on the ride, I was still able to do the “Castle Tour” to see all the fantastic features and that iconic Sorting Hat.
Since the Flight of the Hippogriff was right next door, we took a quick spin on this kid-friendly roller coaster. It reminded me of Goofy’s Barnstormer from Disney’s Magic Kingdom. It’s bumpy and fast with milder hills, so it’s perfect for younger ones. The line was a little long, but we were entertained by Hagrid’s hut, pumpkin patch, and the interactive hippogriff.
Daniel and my husband were the only two brave enough to try the Dragon Challenge roller coaster* which is based on the dragon challenge in the “Goblet of Fire.” You can pick the coaster you want to ride: the Hungarian Horntail or the Chinese Fireball. They rode the Hungarian Horntail and Daniel said he loved the big drop and upside down loops. You can get back in line and compare both coasters, but my boys decided once was enough, so off we went to search for sweet treats.
*Note: Dragon Challenge is closing September 2017 to make way for a new ride coming soon.
There were fun Harry Potter-inspired singing and dancing shows on a stage near the coasters. Be sure to stop and watch one or two between rides. We caught one of the Hogwarts Frog Choirs as we were walked to Honeydukes. Honeydukes is the famous candy shop featuring the Chocolate Frog, Pumpkin Pastry, and “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.” We got one of each and they were all yummy. Well, except when Daniel tried a bunch of the beans and “accidentally” ate a “vomit” and “dirt” one. Ewww. We then stopped in the Owl Post to see where all the letters get mailed.
We decided it was time for lunch and we all agreed to eat at the Leaky Cauldron back in Diagon Alley. You can also choose to eat at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade. Both locations serve classic English fare. The Leaky Cauldron is a bit larger and the kids thought it looked just like the movie, so we jumped on the Hogwarts Express and headed back to Diagon Alley. The train ride back was just as special as the first time with the scenic views and magical effects.
The line at the Leaky Cauldron was not that bad and we were ready for some cooling off time indoors. The restaurant is a traditional British tavern and it completely resembles the spot where the wizards enter Diagon Alley for the first time. You will want to walk around and check out all the cool details. The menu features fish and chips, smoked turkey legs, fish pie, and bangers and mash. They also have kids menus with mac and cheese and chicken fingers.
After lunch, we let the kids run wild with their interactive wands and test them out on all the special sensory areas in Diagon Alley. They had a great time exploring all the shops and magical spots including Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. I loved window shopping and taking photos of the kids in the colorful scarves and robes. Afterwards, the kids had a chat with the conductor of the three-story purple Knight Bus, the bus featured in the “Prisoner of Azkaban.” The shrunken head in the driver’s seat had a conversation with Daniel about his birthday! Then, they checked out the English red phone booth right outside Kings Cross Station. If you dial the word “MAGIC,” you’ll get a special message from the Ministry.
Seven hours later, we had covered all of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and even had extra time to explore some of the other rides in Universal Studios. We had an awesome first time experience and can’t wait to go back and visit the magical Harry Potter world again.
Happy Birthday, Harry!