After spending hours reading blog posts and articles recounting others’ visits to the Wizarding World, I thought I was prepared to visit Hogwarts and Hogsmeade in all their glory. Friends, I was wrong; the Wizarding World was even more magical than I hoped for, and while I can’t in all honesty say that I want to go back to Orlando again any time soon (heat, crowds, and gaudiness galore do not a happy Shortlatte make), I do so wish that the Wizarding World wasn’t quite so far away, because I would be holding season passes if I lived within a hundred miles of it.
Yet while my trip was as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be, I have a feeling that I might have been slightly less enamored of my experience if I hadn’t done so extensive research beforehand. As I mentioned before, many have written about their own trips to the park and have provided some useful tips to help get the most out of your visit. Unfortunately, most of these articles spend their time extolling the benefits of staying in an on-site Universal Studios hotel, as hotel guests get free express passes for the Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff rides as well as entry to the park an hour before the general public. Yet, when the boyfriend and I sat down to make travel plans, the pricey Universal package simply wasn’t an option, so I was forced to come up with some strategies of my own.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: there are a lot of useful tips that others have written about that will help you to navigate the park with the least amount of hassle and frustration. I won’t rehash what others have already said, but I will add that your research should span all aspects of your trip to the Wizarding World, including shopping. You might not realize it, but as exciting as the prospect of shopping in Hogsmeade might be, it also poses some serious logistical problems for park-goers. Shopping bags aren’t allowed on the rides, so if you’ve got something that doesn’t fit in a pocket, you’re going to have to rent a locker. Though lockers are free for a certain amount of time, there’s no guarantee that you will be through the waiting line and off the ride before the time is up, so you might wind up having to pay to stash your stuff. Not to mention the fact that the locker line is separate from the actual ride line, adding more time to your overall wait. Then there’s the pesky little problem of buying candy from Honeydukes in ninety-plus degree heat: many a Chocolate Frog have suffered a miserable melty fate from park patrons who insist on toting them around the park all day.
Obviously, visiting the Wizarding World without buying something isn’t an option, so my advice is this: don’t be afraid to do some shopping ahead of time online. I don’t suggest that you make any purchases, but the online shops give a good idea of the range of items available for sale, so you can get a sense of the souvenirs you simply have to take home with you. This leads to step number two: take advantage of the Potter merchandise for sale throughout Orlando. From the airport to the Universal shops in City Walk, most of the stuff available for sale “only” in the Wizarding World is actual available at other locations as well. My boyfriend and I stocked up on the items on our list, including those pesky Chocolate Frogs, upon arriving at the airport and visiting City Walk the night before. Not only did we not have to worry about the problems mentioned above, but we also didn’t have to wait in ridiculously long lines as we would have had we waited to buy our souvenirs at the park. That’s not to say that we didn’t make some purchases there as well, but we were able to wait until just before we were ready to leave the park.
Harry and company weren’t afriad to forego a little sleep when the occasion called for it, and neither should you be. As I mentioned already, if you don’t stay at a Universal hotel, you will be forced to wait in line at the turnstiles until the park officially opens. We got up at six and were at the park before seven, over an hour before the park opened to the general public. We were the first in line and were treated to an hour-long wait during which hordes of hotel guests breezed through the gates right in front of us. You will want to apparate all of those early entrants out of there, but it’s alright. The good news is that by the time you enter the park, the hotel guests have likely already ridden the Forbidden Journey, paving a clear path for you. So when you finally get in, powerwalk straight back to the Wizarding World and resist the urge to take pictures. Those shots of the castle will still be there in an hour, but the lack of line won’t be. We went straight to the Forbidden Castle and rode it without a wait, then went straight to the Dragon Challenge and did the same for both rollercoasters. By the time we got to the Flight of the Hippogriff, there was an hour-long wait, but we managed to experience the most popular rides relatively hassle-free.
Ours was mentioned above. Yours might be different (though I highly encourage bumping the Forbidden Journey to the top of your list). Nevertheless, you need to have an idea of where your priorities lie and do those things first, or else the crowds will swamp you.
You can always go back through the castle on the single rider line or on a castle tour without having to wait on the monstrous line, but those only give you a limited view of the castle. So when you go through the first time, let people pass you as you go along and take pictures to your heart’s content. Stop and absorb everything, because unless you want to wait on the uber-long line more than once, this is the closest you will get to the good stuff.
The stores in Hogsmeade are crowded pretty much morning, noon, and night, but not unmanageably so. The only one that has a truly off-putting line is Ollivander’s, and we opted not to wait for the wand-choosing ceremony. Instead, we ducked through Dervish & Bangles into the adjacent store and checked out the wands there. If you’re really craving the ambiance of Ollivander’s but don’t want to brave the line, there’s a good wand set-up in the Owl Post that gives much the same feel.
You woke up at the crack of dawn and have been walking or standing for hours, so chances are you’ll be hungry early. We headed to the Three Broomsticks around eleven and were seated instantly. A few minutes later, the crowds stormed in, so if you can, eat early to beat the rush. You’ll get a great seat and be able to eat in peace. If you get thirsty, resist the urge to get a Butterbeer from one of the carts and head to the Hog’s Head instead; there’s rarely a line and you can buy the collectible mugs there as well. You can get pumpkin juice (and the delicious Hog’s Head Brew) there too, as well as in Honeydukes.
The designers did a bang-up job with this park. It feels like a real locale rather than a recreation, and nothing shows that off more than the details. Take the time to notice the subtle touches. Look up everywhere you go, because so much of the good stuff is hidden above your head. Duck out back entrances to the Three Broomsticks and down alleyways for unique angles of the castle not visible from the main road. Even the ATM’s and the bathrooms have little touches that bring the world to life.
Had I not taken my own advice and done some shopping research beforehand, I wouldn’t have known about the amazing Skele-Gro keychain sold only at the Wizarding World. As it turns out, it really is sold only in the park, as it’s one of the items not available in other Universal gift shops. Unfortunately, it also didn’t seem to be available in the Hogsmeade shops, as after several passes through I still couldn’t find it. Thankfully, I thought to check the outdoor kiosk outside the Castle, and I found it in all its glory.
The Wizarding World is a totally different experience when as the sun goes down. The heat isn’t as intense, and the crowds die down a lot. Most importantly, the setting sun gives the town a beautiful glow that makes for great photo ops. Hogwarts truly is stunning in the dimming light.