My soon to be 8-year-old, like many before her and certainly many to come, has developed a Harry Potter addiction to rival that of tea parties, Oreo cookies, and even, dare I say, carrot cake. Which means that the day I discovered round trip tickets from Raleigh to Orlando for $47 (on Frontier Airlines,they have great deals, see if they fly in a city near you here), I just had to go for it. Seize the day, as they say. And seize it we did.
A little background we utilized 1 day park-to-park passes for our trip. Because we were only spending one day at Universal, we opted to stay on-site – this gives guests an extra hour in the AM at the Islands of Adventure park. Since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter can be crowded, even in the low season, we wanted to get in as much time as possible. We stayed at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which turned out to be a great fit. The rooms are clean and comfortable, the decor is a fun retro style, and the hotel has multiple swimming pools and hot tubs. Breakfast in the morning for my girls only cost $10 combined. That’s practically unheard of in any theme park hotel where I’ve ever stayed. The night of our arrival we took the free shuttle to Universal’s CityWalk, and it really has some great restaurants. Icing on the birthday cake? My daughter’s most favorite restaurant in the entire world, The CowFish, has a location there. She was now seriously psyched (see photographic evidence, below). Not only did they prepare her a sushi roll to order, but she got to create her own fish in their virtual aquarium.
I woke my girlies up before the sunshine the next day, we met up with my dad and his wife, hopped on the shuttle bus to the Islands of Adventure, and our wizarding adventure began.
First things first, to Hogwarts! Or Hogsmeade, I suppose, since Hogwarts is in Hogsmeade. Either way, we made a beeline for the castle and- there were no lines! Seriously, practically none. This is, of course, the beauty of visiting a theme park in January on a weekday and before opening hours. We were actually holding up the line through Hogwarts in order to look at all the interesting rooms, pictures, and props from the movies.If you go, take the time to look around, Hogwarts Castle has so much to see- you’ll pass by the entrance to Dumbledore’s office, meet the Fat Lady (and consequently see the way to the Griffindor common room), listen to the portraits talking, and watch Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they sneak around the castle under the Invisibility Cloak.
Then, dismay. The girls were too short to ride The Forbidden Journey. You need to be 48 inches, and there was absolutely no spell I could do to get them to grow those last 2 inches or so. This was, of course, infinitely upsetting, particularly to my 6-year-old. The very sweet Universal employee gave her a certificate to come to the front of the line the next time we visit and she is taller. In the words of Penelope, “it wasn’t really what I wanted, though. I’d hoped it’d be a baby unicorn”. What can I say, she has high expectations.
Onwards and upwards, after the castle we traipsed back into Hogsmeade to investigate the shop windows, watch the Ollivander’s wand shop show, drink butterbeer, and buy sweets at Honeydukes. The butterbeer really is great, and worth trying. Its pretty much a cream soda doused in extra thick whipped cream, probably with a little additional sugar dumped in for good measure. If you like sweet, its addictive.
My dad and his wife bought the girls house robes as a special treat, and boy were they a hit. Especially since it was a nice, cool day, and the robes actually provided a little needed warmth. The quality is really great- and if a robe is not for you, you can instead opt for a scarf, tie, t-shirt, or assortment of other items.
Honeydukes has practically all the different candies mentioned in the Harry Potter books, and the store itself is like a movie set. My girls loved choosing a treat, but beware, because this place is pricey. A chocolate wand cost $12. It was a piece of cheap chocolate in the shape of a wand. For $12. I’d recommend something of better value, both the chocolate frogs and the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans are a little more fun and whimsical.
We also saw the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students put on a show in the streets of Hogmeade. It was pretty cute and my girls loved it.
After that, off to Diagon Alley.
To travel from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley and back again, you actually need to go from Islands of Adventure to Universal Studios via the Hogwarts Express. This is a brilliant marketing strategy, seeing as you consequently have to pay for a park-to-park pass if you want the entire Harry Potter experience. However, I wouldn’t visit the park without the park-to-park; the Hogwarts Express really is an enjoyable ride in its own right, and it would be a shame to miss it (we took it 3 times), or to miss half of the Wizarding World by only visiting one park or the other.
The Hogwarts Express train looks identical to the one in the movies, and the “windows” give you a view of the wizarding world while you ride, including the Forbidden Forest. Outside of your train compartment, you can see the shadows of Ron, Hermione, and Harry as they wander around, searching for a seat, and you can also listen to them talking. It was very realistic, and I’m actually not sure my girls understood at all that it was make-believe.
And then we arrived in Diagon Alley! This is the newest section of the park, and it really is amazingly cool. I think even non-Harry Potter fans would appreciate it- the lopsided and colorful buildings, magical spells guests can do with interactive wands, and the newest and thoroughly enjoyable ride, Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts. It really feels like the creators of the park were passionate about Harry Potter, and the attention to detail is incredible. Walking in, you first spy an enormous dragon perched atop the bank, breathing fire!
Other great spots in Diagon Alley include the shadowy spooky Knockturn Alley, where you can investigate the dark arts at Borgin and Burkes, Madam Malkin’s Magical Menagerie, where guests can purchase magical creatures and talk to a rather large animatronic snake, and Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, with all sorts of tricks and toys, to name a few. All of these shops are fun just to browse and explore, no buying necessary.
At different spots in each park, guests can perform “spells”, provided they have an interactive wand. We didn’t have one, since we brought wands from home, but it honestly would be worthwhile to borrow or buy one for your visit. The girls were able to take a turn with an older girls’ wand, and they were really amazed when lights turned on or water rained down upon them. This is a pretty spectacular addition to the entire wizarding experience.
To finish up, we ate at the Leaky Cauldron. The food in the park is surprisingly good, and we ate fish and chips that I would definitely say were up to par. Plus, beer. And not just butterbeer, although we did get another one of those, but actual beer. Yum.
Our mini vacation really was magical. My girls were spellbound, and their imaginations piqued. What fun, to experience this wizarding world with them!