I left my heart in Hogsmeade. I went to Orlando recently, and for the first time, I was excited to see something other than Disney. I felt like I was cheating on the Mouse, but I couldn’t wait to visit Wizarding World in Universal’s Islands of Adventure. It was everything I imagined Harry Potter-land would be, and it surpassed all of my expectations. I didn’t know a theme park atmosphere could be so charming, but I walked around in a state of absolute wonder for the duration of my visit. From my first cry of joy at seeing Hogsmeade to practically shedding tears at having to leave – Universal, you did good.
Getting the J. K. Rowling stamp of approval for a theme park version of her world wasn’t easy. When she finally agreed to let Universal build her universe, she did so with some stipulations. She expected nothing less than the very best representation and wanted the buildings and attractions to be able to stand toe to toe with the quality of the sets in the films. To that end, she brought in the production designer from the 8.5 Harry Potter movies, Stuart Craig. No expense was spared; I’ve never felt so immersed in a theme park. Rowling even went so far as to prohibit Coke products from being sold in Wizarding World. Those little touches make this little corner of Islands of Adventure the most appealing place to be.
I’ve heard people complain about the size of Hogsmeade or at least mention it as a deterrent. The area that Wizarding World covers is on the small side. It especially feels that way because it’s so delightful you don’t want it to end. You want to walk on its cobbled streets all day looking at fake snow, and marveling at storefronts. It is cozy though. There are just a few rides, and it would be challenging to stay busy in this one section for a full day (well, if it’s not a crowded day at the park).
I admit the only reason I bought a ticket to Universal Studios was for Wizarding World. I figured if I had fun in other lands, great. If not, I was going to be thrilled about butterbeer and seeing Hogwarts. I think Wizarding World is absolutely worth the price of admission even though it’s a small part of Islands of Adventure.
I mentioned there are just a few rides. One of them is an amazing E-ticket superstar, and the other two are fun, but still kind of “meh”. The attraction that you’ve probably heard about is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This high energy ride takes you through Hogwarts on what’s supposed to be an enchanted, flying bench. Your legs dangle as you are twisted, turned almost upside down, and generally tossed about the halls of the castle. There’s a fire-breathing dragon, Quidditch, the Forbidden Forest, the Whomping Willow, and spiders that spit (that part is as gross as it sounds). I’ve never rode anything quite like the Forbidden Journey, and even though I am a wuss who stays away from roller coasters and tends to go on rides that are barely more aggressive than a carousel, I had a great time. I mean, I wouldn’t ride it immediately after lunch, but I was fine.
The line for this ride is usually one of the longest in the park. People wait hours to fly through Hogwarts. I was spoiled with small crowds and never waited more than 30 minutes. I almost wanted to be stuck in line since there’s so much to see once you’re inside the castle! You’ll spot a ton of props from the movie, such as the cups measuring house points, the Mirror of Erised, and the Pensieve. You’ll walk through a room of talking and moving portraits that are done so perfectly you’ll wonder who’s casting spells on them. You’ll visit Dumbledore’s office, and he’ll speak to you about your upcoming adventure. You move into a Hogwarts classroom and Harry, Ron, and Hermione explain how they’re going to get you out of listening to a boring lecture. The actors from the films appear in the holographs, and if the line is moving, you need to pull over and let people pass by so you can watch. The queue is just as cool as the ride.
The other two actual rides are less impressive. Universal just converted coasters that were already present to fit into the Harry Potter theme. The Flight of the Hippogriff is a baby roller coaster (my kind of coaster) that is over almost as quickly as it begins. However, you do pass Hagrid’s Hut in the line and Buckbeak makes an appearance during the ride. The Dragon Challenge coasters used to be known as the Dueling Dragons. They looked like a little more than my fragile self could handle, so I skipped them. They didn’t look like they were the least bit themed to fit the new land anyway.
Despite those lackluster aspects, Wizarding World offers plenty more to keep you entertained. I loved seeing the Frog Choir (kids in Hogwarts uniforms holding stuffed frogs and singing – it’s much better than it sounds) and experiencing the show in Ollivanders Wand Shop. It shouldn’t be missed. I’ve never enjoyed theme park shopping so much either. Though many of the storefronts were just facades with dazzling window displays, a handful of shops were open. You could buy a wand in Ollivanders of course, and the shop stocked plenty of general merchandise featuring the different house colors and sigils. I drooled over chocolate frogs and cauldron cakes in Honeydukes and was grossed out by the Extendable Ears in Zonko’s. You know how in the Harry Potter films, the stores have narrow aisles and always look crowded? Rowling made sure that was built into the design here as well. Even though the park wasn’t crowded during my visits, I was constantly bumping into people—but I was weirdly happy about it.
Another detail that was nailed to perfection was the food. Let me tell you: the hype you’ve heard about butterbeer? It’s absolutely true. The liquid heaven tastes like cream soda with a butterscotch finish. It’s cloyingly sweet but oh so delicious. I preferred the regular version over the frozen one.
You can give yourself a cavity with treats from Zonko’s, but I highly recommend taking the time to stop in the Three Broomsticks for food like Cornish pasties and shepherd’s pie. They also offer the most delicious apple pie I’ve ever devoured. When you’re done with food, switch to Hog’s Head Pub. It’s at the rear of the tavern and appeared to offer several choice beers on tap.
I hope Universal’s re-creation of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts will be used as a guide on how fictional worlds should be interpreted. I felt like I walked onto the set of a movie or into the pages of Rowling’s books. More than once I looked up only to see the snow-covered chimneys and lights of Hogsmeade, and I felt utterly transported. I desperately wanted to find a cupboard under stairs and never leave. Could you imagine living that close to a constant supply of butterbeer? Now that’s something I would be willing to give up the Muggle lifestyle for.
View tons more photos of Wizarding World here.