A Muggle's Guide to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventureby Jeff Kober, contributing writer
If you're like many folks, you love Disney, usually stay on Disney property, and generally spend all your time on property when you're visiting Walt Disney World. And, yet, there's this new Harry Potter attraction at Universal's Islands of Adventure. Should I go? Should I just go for one day? Should I stay on property? If not, how do I get there and back? And when I go, how do I experience it in a way that I don't end up spending hours in line? If you've been asking those questions, then this is the guide for you.
Should You Go See Harry Potter?
Do you or someone in your family love Harry Potter? Then absolutely, you must go. You will experience the world of Harry Potter in a way that you never thought possible.
Are you not a big fan per se, but you love great theme park rides and attractions? Then yes! You should definitely go the next time you're in Orlando. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a must-do attraction.
What if you've never been to Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios Florida? Then definitely, you really should go, especially if you've been to Walt Disney World enough times before.
If you fit the earlier categories, then the question is not if, but how to make it work, especially if you usually are doing a multiday experience at Walt Disney World. It's not like whether you should try a Walt Disney water park or see Cirque Du Soleil's La Nouba. It's about going off property to a place that isn't supported transportation-wise by Disney. You have to think through your options more carefully. Here are some questions you should ask:
Should I Stay at Universal Studios or Walt Disney World?
If you've "been there done that" with Walt Disney World, then you may want to consider staying a few days at one of Universal's hotels. There are three fairly outstanding accommodations, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (think Venetian style); Hard Rock Hotel; and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. I highly recommend the Royal Pacific, but that may be my own preference. I love the tropical theme at the Royal Pacific, and sometimes you can get a pretty good bargain if you shop on the Internet. Moreover, there's a huge benefit to staying at these hotels, besides being close to both parks. You get early park admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, one hour before the park opens. You also get a complimentary Universal Express Pass that allows you to "FastPass" on most all of the attractions. Therefore, it's definitely worth considering.
Even if you don't stay on property, you can purchase a Universal Express Pass, which essentially allows you the same "FastPass" privileges as staying on Universal property. Prices vary depending on the number of days and number of parks. But take note! The Express Pass does NOT give front of the line access to the two biggest attractions on property: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Universal Studio's Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit (which currently is closed anyway due to some serious ride issues). So, buyer beware. I would probably only recommend this if the parks were crowded, your time was really limited, and you don't care about what it costs.
How Do I Get There If I'm Staying On Disney Property?
Most likely, if you're a big Disney fan, you're probably going to stay on Walt Disney World property. After all, there are a variety of hotel choices on property, and you can take advantage of Disney's Magical Express if you came from the airport. But you still need a way to get there, so what are your options? Well, you could take a taxi. Cabs can cost $50 or more, each way. The advantage of that is that they are likely waiting outside your hotel, ready to take you over there when you're ready to go. They also drop you off at Universal a little closer to the parks, so not as much walking from the parking lot.
You could also take a shuttle. Mears, the big transportation service provider, charges around $16 per person, round trip, on their shuttles. Of course, you may have to wait for them to show up, and that may cost you valuable time. And time is critical in those early morning hours if you want to not wait in line at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It's an affordable choice, just plan carefully for it.
Then there's also renting a car. Renting a car the entire trip puts additional cost on your experience. A better bet may be to go with Alamo, the official rental car of the Walt Disney World Resort. Rent from Alamo—not at the airport—but onsite at Walt Disney World for the day(s) you need it. Depending on time of year, you may get a pretty good value, especially if you reserve in advance. Remember, you'll pay additional to park it at Universal Studios, but this way you only need to use the car for the time you need it, and you'll be able to take off and leave when you want to. A shuttle service to and from your hotel to the rental car location (near the Magic Kingdom parking entrance) is provided seven days a week, Monday through Friday from 6 a.m.-8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Note that you need to make a reservation for that shuttle service at least one hour in advance.
How Much Time Should I Spend at Universal Studios?
That depends. Have you been to Universal Studios before? What time of the year are you going? Are you wanting to just see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, or are you wanting to do other major attractions at both Islands of Adventure and the adjoining Universal Studios Florida park?
Only you can make that decision, but here are some important guidelines. If you only care about Harry Potter, and just Harry Potter, one day will be more than fine, and at that, all you need to do is purchase a one day pass to Islands of Adventure. If you have never seen Islands of Adventure and/or Universal Studios, and you'd like to check it all out, you are definitely going to need more than one day. Your best bet may be the popular two-day, two-park ticket. If you have been to one of the parks before, and you're just trying to get to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and catch a few things, then you could do it in one day. If you put your effort in getting there early, and you make a plan of what you're doing ahead of time, you could do both in a day.
But let me put a huge caveat in any interest in doing it all in one day. The walking time between the parking lots, CityWalk, Islands of Adventure, and Universal Studios Florida is huge. There are moving sidewalks at Universal, but no parking lot trams. You must walk through CityWalk to get to either/both of the parks. And the best attractions at each parks is on the opposite ends of that park. You will be hauling several, several miles before you are done. And then there's standing in line. That's why, if you aren't willing to hustle, don't try to do it all in one day. You will probably fail miserably at it, and you won't be happy with yourself. Conversely, both parks merit one good day, and you will find value from spending time at each. Just don't fall for the park-hopper deal. Like at Disney, park hopping is simply a way of keeping you busy going between parks, rather than really enjoying your time at the parks. Don't fall for the value of hopping unless time is really short, and you just want to cover the favorites.
By the way, how much does a one-day, one-park ticket to Universal Studios cost? I'd list those and other prices in this article, but they are always changing. But generally speaking, it's about the same as a one-day, one-park ticket to a park at Walt Disney World. They tend to keep that particular price point competitive. But from there on, there are many different possibilities, depending on the number of days, the number of parks, any add ons—like Wet 'n Wild—or where you are buying that ticket. You want to go and shop online at the official Universal site, and other distribution sites. You want to talk to your hotel where you're staying, as well. Like Disney, you can find some great deals the longer you stay and the more you do. Whatever you do, try to make your purchase ahead of time, rather than wait in line at the gate.
What Should I See At The Wizarding World of Harry Potter?
The crown prince of all theme park attractions is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which takes place at Hogwarts. It really is a great attraction, and well worth the investment you will make coming to Islands of Adventure. How scary/fast/turbulent is the ride? The best comparison I can make is that it's the same ride technology as the Sum of All Thrills at Epcot, but without the screen-like helmet covering over your face. You aren't flipped around. But you are nearly upside down on your back. The second comparison I would make would be Dinosaur at Disney's Animal Kingdom or the Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye at Disneyland, simply from the sense that you are experiencing huge movement and that you are in the dark. If you can handle that, you'll do great. And you will probably want to do the attraction twice…it's that good. Note that there is a 48-inch height requirement. There were also concerns about size and weight, but they made some alterations, and as a fairly big guy, I was able to comfortably enjoy it.
The second major attraction is the Dragon Challenge (dueling tracks where one is Chinese Fireball and the other is Hungarian Horntail). If you've been to Islands of Adventure before, this is simply the old Fire and Ice roller coaster, with different theming in the queue. It's a great roller coaster if you like such, but pay attention to when you want to ride it. That ideal time might not be right after you've gone on Forbidden Journey. There is a 54-inch height requirement on this attraction, as well as size requirements. Like Harry Potter, you can try the seat outside the entrance. It can feel fairly embarrassing to have a young employee try to throw their body weight on your harness so that they can get the seat belt to connect. Ask questions up front if you're concerned.
There's another roller coaster known as the Flight of the Hippogriff. It's a much tamer coaster along the lines of Goofy's Barnstormer. It's worth riding, but not worth waiting in lines more than 20 minutes to enjoy.
Beyond that, there's plenty to see in the shops and restaurants throughout. The most popular attraction is Ollivander's Wand Shop. There you can choose a wand, or as they say, the wand chooses you. You can buy such wands in several locations without waiting, but they have a wonderful, intimate experience behind buying the wand at Ollivander's, and if you really love all things Harry Potter, you'll want to see it.
How Do I Keep From Waiting In Line at Harry Potter?
This is fairly easy to do. That is if you do it the right way. Here's a way to experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter without spending hours in line:
Purchase tickets in advance. Arrive early. Leave the parking lot of your hotel at least an hour before park opening. When you arrive, move into a line closest to the center of the opening gates. They will usually open the park to everyone about 15 minutes prior to the stated opening (remember that those staying on property are already entering the park). Five minutes prior to that, they will likely open some additional queues in the center of the turnstile area. You will know in advance that is happening, because you will see some temporary-type turnstiles. When they become manned, move into those.
When the gates open, move quickly toward the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, turning right when you reach the lagoon, and staying to the left when you hit Seuss Landing. After passing through the Lost Continent section of the park, head through the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to the Hogwarts castle. Check anything you are carrying with you into the complimentary lockers (or better yet, don't carry anything that can't be kept in your pocket) and enjoy Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. If you follow all these instructions, you will likely be boarding the ride vehicles by the stated time the parks said it was going to open. When you get off, turn around and ride it again. This time the line will probably be about 20 minutes or a little longer in length. Don't worry, you will have already seen that there is plenty in the queue and you will want to stop to catch what you missed the first time around. By the time you exit that attraction the second time, it will be about a 30 minutes after opening.
You will be tempted at this point to go to Ollivander's or Dragon Challenge or Flight of the Hippogriff. If the Hippogriff line is less than 10 minutes, go for it. Otherwise, avoid the others. The line at Ollivander's will likely be some 20-30 minutes minimum at this point. Come back at the end of the day. Dragon Challenge will state something like a 10 minute wait. That will sound good, but check out the ride. Do you see the coasters moving? Is there another set in motion within two minutes after the first was in motion? Or is there a two-minute wait where there is nothing going on? That probably means only one set of coasters is in motion, and that the queue is going to actually be much longer. Come back at a later time in the day for that.
What I recommend at this point is seeing the other attractions at Islands of Adventure. If you are into thrill rides, that might mean The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk Coaster. If you have younger kids, that might mean taking in Pteranadon Flyers and/or The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride. I mention these two in particular, because they are attractions that are very slow in boarding. So any line means you will wait quite a while. And kids younger than 10 are going to probably want to ride either/both of these attractions. Other attractions in the park usually do not have as slow a wait, except during peak season.
There are many great attractions to enjoy. I love One Fish, Two Fish, which is simply a "Dumbo" style ride. But listen carefully, or you will get wet. Speaking of water, Dudley Do-Right's Rip Saw Falls as well as Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges will guarantee to cool you off in the hot Florida sun.
Over at the Studios, you'll find Jaws and ET the Adventure to be very unique experiences. And don't miss the lesser-hyped attractions. I love the I Love Lucy exhibit at Universal, while Poseidon's Fury at Islands of Adventure is one that most people don't know exists. It's simply unique enough, that you ought not miss it.
At the end of the day, about 90 minutes before park closing, head back to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This may be the time to enjoy the Dragon's Challenge. It's also an ideal time to visit Ollivander's. The queue for this will likely be much smaller than earlier in the day. Ask about the wait time and when they cut off the line, which can be a half hour before the park's stated closing. Then take in one last opportunity to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey right before the park closes.
What About Food?
There are several thoughts on this. If you're looking at value—meaning you want to stay full without paying a lot of money—you may want to consider the Universal Meal Deal, which allows you to choose any of three restaurants in the park. Each provides a buffeteria-style experience, where you choose one entree and one dessert. You can do this as often as you want all day. But there are several things to consider. First, you can only dine in a few select counter-service restaurants in the park, many of which are not the best of Universal's offerings. Second, you can only choose one entree and one dessert for every time through the line, though you can go through the line as many times as you want. That means if you want two slices of pizza, you will have to come back for that second. Don't plan on taking two up front. Remember that you have to pay additional to use that option in both parks that day, to use it toward a meal in one of several City Walk restaurants, or to include an unlimited beverage (which can be purchased separately). In short, read the fine print before purchasing.
What about dining at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? In terms of snacks, you won't want to miss your chance at a Butterbeer or pumpkin juice. I recommend seeking out Hog's Head Tavern, which includes not only a variety of libations, but a chance to get out of the sun and crowds. Three Broomsticks is a well-themed counter-service experience. You may note that they have specials, which includes a full meal for a family of four. But study the menu carefully, if you have young children, you would save money to go with the children's meal options that are not-so-well headlined.
If you're looking for a really great dining experience, and you're not as concerned about the price, by all means visit Mythos while you are at Islands of Adventure. They have been ranked by others as one of the top theme park restaurants. Of course, at CityWalk, there is Emeril's, which you can't miss when you are heading toward Islands of Adventure.
Be sure to make reservations. Personally my favorite is Emeril's Tchoup Chop over at Universal's Royal Pacific Resort. The name Tchoup takes its cue from New Orleans' famous Tchoupitoulas Street, where Emeril's parent restaurant is located. But, make no mistake, the culinary experience here is a unique combination of Asian and Polynesian influences. Really the best choice, and worth going out of the way.
What About Shopping?
I am stunned by the amount of unique merchandise tailored to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. If you love the books, come with a big wallet. You will be very tempted to buy. And even if you don't care to shop, still take the time to window shop. They are attractions in and of themselves, and are very impressive in their detail.
Having lived in Orlando for nearly 20 years, I am still impressed with the variety of things there are to see and do. I don't think I'd live here if there wasn't Disney. But rest assured, there is much more than Disney to see and do. Universal Studios Florida is worth the visit. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter makes that visit a must. I'm grateful for that, because I think when parks compete for guests by building new attractions like this, it raises the bar. And we all benefit as park guests from that.
Next time I'll turn the wand over to my daughter, who will provide the Muggle-Born's Guide to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which will explore the detail and theming of this new land.