From butterbeer to wands: Everything you need to know about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando
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A visit to Universal Orlando to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has been on my wish list for a while. The stars finally aligned for a pre-holiday family vacation and we had a blast. Suspension of reality takes place here every day. Visitors don wizarding robes, grab interactive wands and — at least for a day or two — pretend that they are truly living in the magical world created by author J. K. Rowling.
We saw families racing from ride to ride in robes and Harry Potter-style glasses. We witnessed the engagement of two Potter fans right in front of Hogwarts Castle. We might even have wondered for a minute or two what it would be like to be able to cast spells and brew potions.
If this sounds like your cup of butterbeer, here’s what you need to know to make the trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando a success:
When to visit
There is no bad time to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, just times of year when it may be more crowded or pretty darn hot. Don’t stress over the choice of dates. Just check expected crowd levels at calendars like the ones from Undercover Tourist, Touringplans or Orlando Informer, and then use some strategies — like skip-the-line passes and VIP tours — to evade crowds if you need to — more on that later.
Buying the right ticket for Harry’s world
Let’s start with the most important thing you need to know about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: It lives in two different Universal Orlando theme parks. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade is part of Islands of Adventure while The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley can be found at Universal Studios.
Splitting this land into two sections was a brilliant move on Universal’s part since it means you need to purchase the upgraded Park-to-Park admission ticket if you wish to see both parts of Harry’s world on the same day. That also means having a Park-to-Park ticket or a Universal seasonal pass are the only ways you can ride the Hogwarts Express attraction between the two lands. And it would be a real shame if you missed out on that ride as it’s pretty great.
You can use single day one-park tickets to visit each land separately, but there’s no way to use those tickets to board the Hogwarts Express.
You can buy Universal tickets for one, two, three, four or five days. Universal’s website sometimes offers special promotions for multiday passes that throw in extras like a skip-the-line Express Pass, discounted admission to the Volcano Bay water park or a free day at Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure.
The least expensive tickets let you explore one park per day. But unless that’s the only option on the table, for Harry Potter, you really want the Park-to-Park tickets that allow you to visit both theme parks on the same day. That gives you the ultimate in flexibility and access to the Hogwarts Express.
If you plan to visit the parks for more than just a few days, or you think you may visit Universal Orlando twice or more in 12 months, consider a Universal annual pass. I never dreamed I’d become a Universal annual pass holder, but when I planned our trip, I had my eye on a special promotion that gave you an extra day in the parks when you bought a two-day pass. I had thought that was a good deal — but when I looked at pricing for a Florida resident annual pass, I found out it was only $8 per ticket more than the special promotional pass. For just a few bucks more, I went for the annual pass; now we can go back to Universal and get free admission until the pass expires next November.
When buying Universal tickets, look at all the combinations and prices to determine which is the best deal for your family.
Where to buy Universal tickets
You can purchase your tickets directly from Universal. Its website offers a lot of information about ticket types and prices. Alternatively, you can buy from well-respected third-party vendors like Undercover Tourist. This can be an especially good idea right after a ticket price hike. Often, Undercover Tourist will have some tickets left over at the lower price for a few days or weeks after a ticket price increase. Additionally, ticket purchases from Undercover Tourist typically code as travel for the purposes of earning or using credit card points. Bookmark that site and comparison shop whenever you are buying tickets for Universal or other theme parks like Walt Disney World.
How to use points to buy Universal tickets
Savvy theme park-goers know that they can redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou points to buy their Universal Orlando theme park admission. Ultimate Rewards points earned from the Chase Sapphire Reserve are worth 1.5 cents per point toward Universal tickets. Pricing on the Chase Travel portal is comparable to Universal’s direct pricing, though you may pay a few dollars more to purchase tickets via the Chase travel portal. You’ll also notice that Chase charges a $10 “convenience” fee to purchase the tickets, but you can pay that in cash or points.
If you’ve got a stash of Citi ThankYou points, you can use them to pay for Universal tickets too. Points earned from the Citi Premier℠ Card or Citi Prestige® Card can be redeemed at a fixed 1.25 cents per point toward travel. Go to the Citi ThankYou portal to review your options.
The information for the Citi Premier Card and Citi Prestige Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
How to see more of The Wizarding World in less time
I won’t lie to you. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter gets very crowded. We visited Universal at a slow time of year and the attractions in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley were still jammed. If you want to see as much of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter as possible in the shortest amount of time, there are some strategies.
First, you can use an Express Pass. This is a skip-the-line pass that works on all the attractions in The Wizarding World except Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure.
There are three ways to get an Express Pass. The easiest way is to book one of Universal’s on-site Premier hotels. If you stay at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel or Loews Royal Pacific Resort, you’ll get a free Express Pass Unlimited to use throughout your visit. If you have a Premier-level Universal Annual Pass, you’re entitled to Express Pass access beginning at 4 p.m.
Otherwise, you can purchase Express Passes:
- Universal Express: Prices start at $69.99 per person, per day for one park and $74.99 for two parks and go up to almost double that amount. This pass lets you to skip the regular line one time per participating ride at both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks.
- Universal Express Unlimited: Prices start at $89.99 per person, per day. An unlimited pass lets you skip the regular lines at participating rides as many times as you want at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
Be aware that the list of participating rides and attractions is subject to change, so check with Universal Orlando’s website before you purchase an Express Pass to make sure the rides you’re most interested in are included.
Alternatively, think about booking an exclusive VIP tour. You can book a small group or private VIP experience at Universal. The price, while not cheap, packages together walk-on ride access during the tour, Express Passes and a dinner credit to use after the tour ends. The small group VIP tour starts at less than $200 per person while the private tour costs a few thousand dollars for the day.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley
If you are staying at any of the on-site Universal hotels, you can get into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter one hour earlier than general admission. Access is through Universal Studios’ front gates. From there, you’ll need to walk — at a brisk pace, if you can — to Diagon Alley.
The fastest route is straight through the entrance stanchions, take a right after the Shrek 4-D attraction and then walk along the lake — past New York and San Francisco — until you arrive at Hogwarts Express – King’s Cross Station.
If you’re interested in riding the new Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure roller coaster, enter King’s Cross Station and see when the first train departs to travel from this part of The Wizarding World to the portion at Islands of Adventure where Hagrid’s coaster is located. You want to get in line for that roller coaster as early as you can to minimize the wait, which can be super long.
If Hagrid’s ride isn’t on your must-do list, instead walk just a bit further past King’s Cross Station to Leiceister Square Station.
Be careful not to overshoot and walk past the somewhat hidden entrance to Diagon Alley. When you see an opening in a brick wall, you know you’ve found it.
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Once you’ve entered Diagon Alley, walk straight to Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts indoor steel roller coaster ride. You can’t miss it; it’s the building with the fire-breathing dragon perched on the roof. Tip: Find any wizard or witch working on Diagon Alley and ask when the dragon will breathe fire next. The schedule is sporadic so asking is your best bet. Also, when you hear a low growl, that’s your signal that this Ukranian Ironbelly dragon is about to spew some fire.
There are free and paid lockers to the right of the line so you can stash your belongings before the ride.
Children must be 42 inches to ride, so be sure your party meets that requirement before getting to the head of the line and being turned away. (Or just plan to use the child swap rooms to take turns alternating riding or waiting with the little kiddos.) Also note that due to the type of seating and restraint system that includes lap bars, shoulder harnesses and seat belts, visitors with a waistline of 40 inches or greater may not be able to ride. There is a test seat in front of the building where you can confirm whether or not the seating configuration will work for your body style.
Wait times can get long for this ride, but it does have an Express Pass line throughout most of the day. There’s also a lot to look at while in line since you’ll snake through the Gringotts bank lobby and see a multitude of goblins at work. The four chandeliers that hang inside the bank’s lobby are made up of 62,000 individual crystals.
There is a photo opportunity in the line as you pass through Gringotts “security.” You can purchase the photo after the ride if you’d like.
This attraction was once The Wizarding World’s flagship attraction, but it’s been eclipsed by Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure (both of which can be found in Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure). What’s neat about Escape from Gringotts is the motion-based 3-D projections that make you feel as if you’re interacting with characters like Bill Weasley and the goblin Blordak.
After exiting the Gringotts ride, you’re just across from Ollivanders, so get in line to see the show that depicts how a wand chooses its wizard if you are into that type of show. It’s a very personal process. One lucky guest is picked from the audience and the wizard in residence facilitates the wand choosing. After the show, you’re escorted next door to the wand shop where they’ll box up the wand for you to take home … assuming you want to spend the $50 or so for the wand, which is optional.
If you weren’t lucky enough to be chosen for the show, you can pick out and purchase your own wand. Go for an interactive wand that helps you make magic — literally — at many locations in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. (Or, you can opt for a standard, non-interactive wand.)
Once you’ve purchased your interactive wand, watch for brass medallions set into the pavement in both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. These are the spots where you can cast spells and make magic with your wand. A map of all spots to cast spells is included with your wand purchase. Spells are categorized as easy, medium or hard. You also can order an interactive wand in advance of your trip.
Note that there is an identical Ollivanders wand experience at Hogsmeade, so feel free to skip the experience here if you’d prefer to see the show there later in your visit.
Dine at the Leaky Cauldron
If you didn’t eat breakfast before heading to Diagon Alley, now may be the right time to grab a table at the atmospheric Leaky Cauldron. Breakfast is pricey, but when else are you going to have the option of dining among witches and wizards? Breakfast plates for adults all ring in at $17.99.
- Traditional Breakfast: scrambled eggs, sausage links, black pudding, English bacon, baked beans, grilled tomato, sauteed mushrooms and breakfast potatoes
- American Breakfast: scrambled eggs, potatoes, crisp bacon, link sausage and a croissant
- Pancake Breakfast: three buttermilk pancakes, crisp bacon, link sausage and a croissant
- Egg, Leek and Mushroom Pasty: Pastry-wrapped scrambled eggs, mushrooms and leeks served with potatoes and fruit
- Apple Oatmeal Flan with Yogurt & Fruit
The kid’s breakfast plate — traditional, pancake or American — is $12.99. Pumpkin juice will set you back $4.99.
If you’re not a breakfast eater, leave this stop for lunchtime instead where you can order things like fish ‘n’ chips ($16.99), a ploughman’s lunch (cheese, chutney, bread, pickles and Scotch egg) for two ($21.99), bangers and mash ($13.99) or a beef, lamb and Guinness stew ($15.99). Kids’ entrees include things like mac ‘n’ cheese and fish ‘n’ chips for $7.29. Desserts — sticky toffee pudding, Butterbeer potted cream or chocolate potted cream — shouldn’t be missed.
Take in a Harry Potter-themed show
While you’re finishing breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron, take a look at the Universal Orlando App and find out when the shows in Diagon Alley will take place. During our trip, we saw two shows here, including The Tales of Beedle the Bard — complete with puppets — and Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees. There’s seating around the stage if you arrive early enough or there’s always plenty of standing room.
Gringotts Money Exchange
After the show, walk toward the Gringotts ride and you’ll come upon the Gringotts Money Exchange. Go inside and don’t be fooled. This isn’t just a bank. Sure, there is a human clerk assisting with money exchanges here, but there is also a Gringotts goblin behind a teller’s desk. Talk to him and he will interact with you. It’s a neat experience — especially for curious kids.
If it’s a hot day or if it’s raining, don’t miss a visit to Knockturn Alley. The enclosed space is dark and cool and there are five neat spots where you can use your interactive want to cast spells. There’s also a shop, Borgin and Burkes, that’s oozing plenty of dark magic and a few benches where you can rest a bit before continuing your exploration of Diagon Alley right outside.
Explore the shops of Diagon Alley
Once you’ve tried casting spells in Knockturn Alley, go back out into the bright Orlando sun to finish exploring Diagon Alley.
Visit all the shops…
And maybe get an ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour, or a Butterbeer at The Fountain of Fair Fortune or The Hopping Pot.
One word of caution: Harry Potter souvenirs are pretty expensive. You may want to set a budget with your kids before exploring the shops or explain to them why you won’t be purchasing certain items. Robes — with the emblem of your house stitched on them — will set you back $125. A Gryffindor Quidditch robe replica is $150, while Hermione Granger’s Yule Ball Gown in youth sizes is $99.95. Yowza. No wonder many parents bring robes from home.
Check out the Knight Bus and 12 Grimmauld Place
Once you’ve seen everything on Diagon Alley, leave this part of The Wizarding World through the opening in the brick wall. Directly across you’ll see the Knight Bus. Here you can meet Stan the conductor and Ernie the shrunken head that hangs at the front of the bus. Kids and adults love interacting with these two. Sit by the fountain to listen in.
Then, look across the way and you’ll see a replica of a London street. Upon closer inspection, you’ll see 12 Grimmauld Place, the home of Sirius Black (Harry Potter’s godfather). He gifted the property to the Order of the Phoenix that used it as a headquarters. Knock on the door and see what happens.
Hogwarts Express – King’s Cross Station
When you’ve thoroughly explored Diagon Alley and the streets of Harry Potter’s London, it’s time to make your way to King’s Cross Station, where you’ll board the Hogwarts Express and ride the train to Hogsmeade. Remember: You can only ride the Hogwarts Express if you have a Park-to-Park ticket. If you’ve got one-day, one-park tickets, there is no way to experience this attraction.
The wait queue is convincing and it appears as if you are waiting for a train in London. Pay attention to everything as you near the train platform. A neat mirror trick makes it look like you burst through a brick wall to reappear unharmed on Platform 9 3/4. The train whistle builds excitement, and when you see steam escaping from the locomotive, you’ll know you’re almost ready to board. Eight passengers are loaded onto each car and it truly looks as if you’re departing London on your way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The ride’s spectacle takes place on the train windows. Be prepared to see some dementors on the four-minute trip to Hogsmeade. (The show is slightly different on the return trip, so be sure you ride it both ways!)
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade
You’ll find Hogsmeade inside Islands of Adventure theme park. It’s just about opposite the park entrance but the walk is a bit shorter if you go right and walk through Seuss Landing and then The Lost Continent before entering The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade.
Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure
If you have your heart set on riding this new thrill coaster, get in line as soon as you arrive in Hogsmeade. Wait times can get intense and the attraction does not accept Express Passes. We visited during a quiet time of year but the wait for this ride still peaked between two and three hours. For reference purposes, I checked the wait time for this ride on New Year’s Eve at 1:30 p.m. and it was 3.5 hours. That’s not bad for a busy holiday, but do you want to spend 3.5 hours in line when you can be enjoying other parts of the park instead?
You may think that you’ll miss the crowds if you hit this steel coaster at the very end of the day. While that is a solid strategy for other popular rides, it doesn’t work for Hagrid’s coaster since it closes earlier than the park does. When we were there, you had to get in line by 3 p.m. or you were shut out of the opportunity to ride. If this ride is your number one priority for Harry Potter, it can make sense to flip the agenda and do this first.
This is the most intense ride in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It reaches speeds up to 50 miles per hour and includes both spikes into the air and fast drops. You need to be at least 48 inches tall to experience it. You’ll either ride Hagrid’s motorcycle or get in the sidecar. Either spot will make your heart pound, but I think the ride in the sidecar is a bit easier for anyone that might be nervous.
While we’ll talk about the ride that takes place inside Hogwarts Castle next, I wanted to mention the castle itself first. You can see Hogwarts from many distant points in Islands of Adventure. It looks magical from afar but even more impressive as you stand beneath its turrets. There is a bridge with wonderful views of the castle as you leave Jurassic Park and enter Hogsmeade. This is where you can grab that quintessential photo of the castle. Don’t miss it!
We visited during the holiday season and were treated to The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle. As the sky gets dark, the castle is lit up with projections that include scenes from the books, faux fireworks, lasers and more. It is one of those experiences where your jaw will drop and you’ll feel like magic is happening. If you’re visiting during the holidays, it’s worth it to stick around after dark to see this unique show.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
If you don’t plan on riding Hagrid’s roller coaster, head to Hogwarts Castle first to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This was my favorite ride in all of Universal and the queue itself is filled with interesting scenes from the books.
When we visited, we zipped right through the line with our Express Passes and were disappointed that we didn’t see all the neat things leading up to the ride. We decided to ride a second time and went through the normal wait line. We didn’t wait that long (maybe 25 minutes) but we were able to take our time to inspect things like Professor Sprout’s herbology greenhouse, Dumbledor’s office with his talking portrait and the Mirror of Erised.
I was a little worried that I might not be able to ride this attraction since I’m heavyset. Universal’s park guide notes that certain body types might not comfortably fit in the seat, which has a safety bar that comes over your head and shoulders to lock into place at your waistline. For that reason, there is a pair of seats in front of Hogwarts Castle at the entrance for this ride. If you’re not sure the seat will work for you, you can try it out before getting in line. If your waist is larger than 40 inches, you might not be able to ride.
There is another set of test seats about halfway through the queue and I did see two people turned away after an attendant tested them. They weren’t overweight but just very muscular — they could have been football players — and the safety bar just wouldn’t snap shut no matter what they tried. If there’s any doubt that you may not fit comfortably in the seat, try it out before waiting in line.
On this ride, you suspend reality for a few minutes and “ride a broomstick” in and around Hogwarts Castle. The attraction is a “robocoaster,” where a robotic arm holds your seat above a track and you pivot in a multitude of directions. It makes you feel as if you’re flying through the air.
The ride is dark at times, with encounters with dangers like Aragog the spider in the Forbidden Forest, the Whomping Willow and a gang of dementors. But you’ll also screech around the Quidditch field. You must be 48 inches or taller to ride Forbidden Journey. There are lockers to the right of the castle entrance to store your belongings. Trust us, you don’t want anything on your head or in your pockets during this ride.
Flight of the Hippogriff
Flight of the Hippogriff, dubbed a “family-friendly coaster,” is across from the lockers at Hogwarts Castle. The twists, turns and drops reminded me of a slightly tamer Thunder Mountain from Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. My husband is not a fan of roller coasters and didn’t want to ride this one — even if it is just a “junior” coaster — so I went alone. Plenty of little kids were riding and loving it; children just have to be 36 inches tall or taller.
This ride is super quick, so I had to ride a few times to take it all in. The track is elevated so you get a nice view of Hogsmeade. The queue is neat, too, as you walk by Hagrid’s Hut and on to an open area where you’ll recognize the Care of Magical Creatures class site.
Take a break and see a show
After enjoying the rides, it might be a good time to see one of the shows staged in Hogsmeade throughout the day. When we visited, we saw the Frog Choir (a special version for the Christmas holiday) and the Triwizard Spirit Rally. The stage is small but we never had trouble getting a close-up spot as long as we arrived a few minutes before showtime. Check the paper guide given out at the park entrance or the Universal Orlando app for showtimes.
If you didn’t see the “wand picks a wizard” show at the Ollivanders location at Diagon Alley in Universal Studios, you can get in line to see it here. (See the Diagon Alley section above for a full description of the experience.) After the show, shop for a wand if you don’t already have one. There are some neat spots in Hogsmeade where you can cast spells with it.
Dine out, enjoy a drink and go shopping
You can’t truly say you’ve seen Hogsmeade until you’ve had a meal at the Three Broomsticks or grabbed a drink at the Hog’s Head bar next door (serving Butterbeer, beer and spirits).
At the Three Broomsticks, many families opt for The Great Feast that includes a salad plus a combination of rotisserie smoked chicken, spareribs, corn on the cob and roast potatoes. (A platter for four is $60.99; additional servings are $15.99.)
You can also buy British favorites like fish ‘n’ chips, beef pasties, smoked turkey legs and shepherd’s pie, and there are soups and salads on the menu at both lunch or dinner. Kids ages 9 and younger pick from fish ‘n’ chips, chicken fingers, chicken legs or mac ‘n’ cheese — each entree is $7.49.
Nonalcoholic Butterbeer (regular or frozen) is $7.99, while pumpkin juice and pumpkin fizz are $4.99. Two draught beers on tap are Hog’s Head Brew and Dragon Scale (both $9.49).
The Three Broomsticks also serves breakfast.
When you’re ready to roll out of the Three Broomsticks, get ready to do a bit of shopping. Honeydukes is a sweet shop filled with confections like Exploding Bonbons, Cauldron Cakes, Fizzing Whizzbees, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans and Chocolate Frogs.
You can mail postcards or letters from the Owl Post, complete with a special Hogsmeade postmark. You can also purchase all kinds of writing implements (think quills and seals) as well as owl-themed souvenirs.
If you didn’t ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, you would have missed Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods since the ride empties into this shop. This is a terrific shop if you’re looking for house crest banners, T-shirts, hats or scarves.
Get your Hogwarts uniforms and robes, Sneakoscopes, Quaffles and Golden Snitches at Dervish and Banges.
Hogwarts Express – Hogsmeade Station
When you’re ready to leave this part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, walk through the arch toward Hogsmeade Station and get in line for the Hogwarts Express.
The train will take you back to “London” at Universal Studios. The experience is a bit different in each direction, so be sure to hop on — even if you rode the train from London to Hogsmeade earlier in the day.
What credit card to use at Universal
There is no one answer to the question: Which credit card should I use at Universal Orlando? The answer depends on how and where you purchase your theme park tickets and how that credit card codes purchases. Data points from many travelers tell us that tickets bought at an on-site Universal hotel and charged to the hotel room have coded as “travel,” but tickets and VIP tours purchased directly from Universal have coded as “entertainment.”
If you know your charge will code as travel, you’ll do well to use any of the following cards:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve — 3 points per dollar spent
- Citi Premier℠ Card — 2 points per dollar spent
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card — 2 points per dollar spent
- Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Visa® credit card — 2 points per dollar spent
However, if you think your purchase will code as entertainment, two solid credit card options are:
- Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card — 4% cash back
- Citi Premier℠ Card — 2 points per dollar spent
The information for the Citi Premier Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando is an incredible place to visit for muggles and wizards alike. The rides and attractions are fantastic. It’s fun to watch the daily performances that all relate to an aspect of J.K. Rowlings’ magical world, and you must raise a pint of Butterbeer in one of the themed establishments across the land — from the Leaky Cauldron to the Three Broomsticks to the Hog’s Head and other neat spots.
To get the most out of your visit, splurge on Park-to-Park tickets of annual passes and pair that with an Express Pass. Only then will you be able to hop aboard the Hogwarts Express train between Hogsmeade and London and skip the worst lines (other than for the newest ride, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures). The added expense is truly worth it. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, this is a theme park you’ll want to return to again and again.
Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.
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