The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry may be all about teaching magic, but Universal Orlando’s version is your basic physics lesson: finite space + thousands of Harry Potter fans = crowds, especially when real-life Muggle schools are on break.
The hoopla over the Wizarding World is no surprise. As soon as Universal announced five years ago that Hogwarts and its neighboring village of Hogsmeade would rise in its Islands of Adventure theme park, it was a foregone conclusion that devoted fans of the boy wizard would be hyperventilating. A more recent conclusion: Universal could learn a few things about people moving from a certain big-eared fellow down the street. Still, that’s no reason to miss the Potter magic. Just dust off your patience spells and enjoy.
5…How to get into Hogwarts.
It’s tempting to fly through the Wizarding World, sprinting from line to line to get it done. But, remember—it’s a vacation. And besides, if you rush you’ll miss such diligently obsessive touches as the mandrakes in the store windows and the ghostly voice of Moaning Myrtle bouncing off the walls of the restrooms.
First-timers should enter through the main gate at the Lost Continent. It’s probably your only option early in the day anyway -- later, when the masses thin, you can cross the less-crowded bridge from Jurassic Park. Plus when you come in this way you get the snapshot-worthy view past the Hogwarts Express, down the main Hogsmeade thoroughfare of shops and up to Hogwarts Castle. True Potter fans will note that in the books, Hogwarts isn’t quite so close to sweet shop Honeydukes as it is here, and that wand store Ollivanders doesn’t belong in Hogsmeade at all – Universal only had 20 acres to build on, after all. But park staff will cheerfully point out that this Ollivander’s came to Hogsmeade as a “branch” store with the blessing of Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling.
4...The secret to shopping in Hogsmeade.
An Ollivander’s wand won’t actually turn fellow park goers into ferrets but if you’ve got to have a wand, head to Hogsmeade, where you’ll also find a Nimbus 2000 broom and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Cheese-flavored jelly beans, anyone?
Hogsmeade emporiums are delightfully replicated to the last snow-covered roof. Alas, they’re just as quant, meaning small, inside. Expect one long, long line just to get in to Hogsmeade and yet another to buy, especially in Ollivanders, where wand shopping is done in small groups and starts with a special-effects show. That’s not to say you should skip the fun of joke shop Zonko’s, wizarding general store Dervish and Banges, or heaven knows Filche’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods, but some trinkets are best bought elsewhere. Coveted Honeydukes’ chocolate frogs can be found virtually line free at Universal stores inside Island’s front gate, on CityWalk and, yes, even at Orlando International Airport. Opting for the airport will protect such perishables as chocolate frogs from the wilting sun, but that said, Potter inventory in Orlando-area stores is inconsistent; eyeball merchandise before entering the park and if you must, buy your must-haves at the main-gate store when you arrive and ask to have them kept in the store’s convenient -- and air conditioned -- package pickup for end-of-day retrieval.
3… Room keys are magical, sometimes.
Unlike an Ollivander’s replica, your room key really will work as a magic wand if you stay at one of three on-site Universal hotels. You’ll be permitted to bypass many ride lines with such a room key, though it has its limits— the keycard magic won’t work on the flagship Forbidden Journey ride. You could buy a similarly-functioning Express Pass (from $60, plus price of admission) but the cheapest pass only nets front-of-line privileges in one Universal park; room keys from on-site hotels allow line-cutting perks at both the Wizarding World and original Universal Studios park next door. Plus, on-site keys have the power to get you into Wizarding World an hour early, a major trick since by the public opening, just passing “go” can take hours. Universal also offers bundles room rates and park tickets, but these packages aren’t always your best value. Depending on your needs, you might be better buying the pieces separately.
2... Butterbeer, here (and real beer, too).
Got a hankering for shepherd’s pie? You’re in luck. Sustenance in Wizarding World is as book-worthy as the scenery. Designers were pretty picky about the fare. How picky? There’s no soda. “Have you ever seen a wizard drinking soda?” laughed a worker. Quaffs include actual beer -- nectar to grown-ups after all the lines—as well as Butterbeer, the butterscotchy drink of Quidditch champions that’s also served in ice-creamy, frozen form. Pumpkin juice is on tap, too.
Wizarding World’s Three Broomsticks’ British fare -- fish ‘n chips, turkey legs -- is open to all during the day, though at breakfast is only made available to visitors partaking of special Potter-package deals. It’s largely an English breakfast anyway -- grilled tomatoes, for instance -- and purists might prefer the hearty American buffet at Portofino Bay’s Trattoria Del Porto ($16.50, reservations: 407-503-3463). While it’s a kick to pull up a chair at this straight-from-the-book Hogsmeade establishment, Three Broomsticks’ long counter-service lines and tasty though not-all-together remarkable fare might make eating elsewhere preferable. Best bet: take a quick spin through the Broomsticks dining room and the attached Hog’s Head Pub to appreciate the decor, and then find a less crowded eatery elsewhere.
1... Make the most of your Forbidden Journey.
Thrill rides are where Universal separates the men from the mice. If the Magic Kingdom flirts at the edge of scary, Universal gleefully catapults over it.
Veteran Universal theme park visitors will recognize Wizarding World’s two coasters -- the supercharged, inverted, looping Dragon Challenge and tamer Flight of the Hippogriff kiddie coaster -- as retrofits from the park’s “Lost Continent.” On the other hand, the newly-built Forbidden Journey is the ride that had Potterheads impatiently idling their brooms for months.
The ride takes the concept of the popular Disney attraction Soarin’ – where visitors strapped into suspended, flying benches are virtually immersed in cinematic scenes -- and ratchets it way up. Keep your eyes peeled as you fly past Harry, Hermione, spiders, and all the rest – the ride’s only about four minutes and you may not know what’s going on half the time. The experience is also herky jerky so please, don’t ride after ingesting Butterbeer.
One shrewd move on the part of the designers was to have the line for the ride wind through the oh-so-cool Hogwarts Castle -- Holographs! Sorting Hat! Portrait Hall! -- making the queue alone a Potter fan must. Conventional wisdom dictates arriving first thing for this ride, but that isn’t wise unless you’re gaining early entrance to the park. If you’re simply one of the many Muggles entering the park during normal hours, visit Forbidden Journey during the last hour or two of the park’s operation when there are shorter waits for the ride -- meaning 80 minutes versus 120 --plus relatively line-free entry into Wizarding World itself.
Photos by the author