I read all the Harry Potter books in my 20s before having children. Much to my delight, Universal Studios opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter on June 18, 2010, less than three months after my daughter’s birth.
Much to my chagrin, I am the kind of mother who avoids venturing out into the larger world with tiny infants, and so I waited for the right time to go as a family. Here are the tips and shortcuts I learned to help you maximize your family’s time at Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, and Diagon Alley.
Note: Staying at the Universal-owned Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, or Loews Royal Pacific Resort entitles guests to free Express Passes and entry to the parks one hour before the gates officially open, though you do need to purchase tickets separately. I wrote this post assuming that, like us, you chose not to pay the $400-$500 per night cost to stay at these resorts.
Tip #1: Your Kids’ Ages Matter
We waited until my daughter turned nine years old and exceeded the minimum height for all the rides at Universal before deciding to go. At age 13, my son still likes his family enough to enjoy spending time with us and is old enough to enjoy some of the edgier rides, like The Mummy Returns.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is spread across two parks: Islands of Adventure, which houses the original Hogwarts and Hogsmeade area of the park, and Universal Studios, which boasts the newer London location for all things Potter, including Diagon Alley and King’s Cross Station.
Since the Harry Potter worlds are located at the back of these two parks, you and your beautiful offspring will walk – a lot. We clocked an average of 6 miles per day. For your own sake and to give your kids a chance to have enjoyable memories of these parks, wait until they are old enough to go, walk, have fun, and remember.
Tip #2: Buy a Park-to-Park Ticket
An incredibly detailed replica of the Hogwarts Express runs as an actual ride between the two Harry Potter parks with a different pseudo-cinematic experience each way.
To hop on the Hogwarts Express and move between the parks, you need to buy a park-to-park ticket. The train station personnel scan your ticket and verify your biometric fingerprint, performing the exact same ticket taking process as for your initial entry to one of the parks, since you literally leave one park and enter the other when you take the Hogwarts Express. This step happens before you can wait in line for the train.
Pay attention to the ages of your children when purchasing tickets.
Children ages 3 through 9 qualify for a Child ticket, which exempts them from the fingerprint verification. Children ages 10 and older require an Adult ticket. Since Child tickets usually only cost about $10 less than Adult tickets, the expense isn’t as big of a deal as the biometric exemption. My 13-year-old son forgot which finger he used to access the parks, and the ticket taker had to reset his biometric access information. (Note: If you do not share the same last name as any of your children over age 10, bring some form of ID for the child with you, if possible. It’s required for the fingerprint reset. Luckily, I brought my son’s military ID, and the reset went smoothly.)
In terms of cost, we took advantage of an online deal for two-day park-to-park tickets with two extra days free, giving us the option of visiting the parks 4 days out of 7 calendar days. The total came to $1,154 for four of us, including taxes and fees, which amounted to $72 per person per ticket per day for two parks each day. We ended up going to the parks four days in a row, which allowed us plenty of time to explore and then revisit our favorite attractions.
Tip #3: Download the Universal FL App
I recommend getting the Universal Studios Orlando app when you buy the tickets. Since you always have your phone with you, it’s an easy way to pull up your tickets on demand without worrying about losing paper. Additionally, if you print tickets purchased online, you need to bring the entire 8.5 x 11 print-out page with the fine print for each person with you to get into the park. If you try to cut the page and just bring the ticket part, Universal staff may turn you away, which almost happened to us before I pulled up the app. Trust me: just use the app for park entry and rides on the Hogwarts Express.
Additionally, you can check wait times for all the rides in both parks from the app and plan the attractions you want to hit accordingly. Collectively, our family struggles to tolerate a wait time longer than 45 minutes, so we used that as our threshold in planning our movements around the parks each day. We ended up walking a little more as a result, but the decreased wait times made the extra steps worth it to us.
Tip #4: Upgrade to Prime Parking (Preferably for Free)
Prime parking allows you to park on the top level of the parking garage without waiting in a long line of cars and circling the garage for standard parking. The Prime option gives you instant access to a parking spot on the same level as the (long) walkway into the two parks. When we visited during peak spring break time, Prime parking cost $40 versus the $25 rate for standard parking. If you rent a car with Avis and give your contract number to the parking cashier, you receive a free upgrade to Prime parking for the cost of Standard parking. (Winner!)
Tip #5: Arrive Early, Plan Your Path, and Stick to It
The parks allow entry up to 20 minutes before their official posted opening time, so plan to arrive at least that early. From the parking garage, you walk to the security area, where you and your belongings pass through metal detectors. (Personally, I found it comforting, despite the oppressive crowds, to spend several days enjoying a place with an almost nonexistent risk of a public mass shooting. It felt safer than leaving my kids at school.)
From the security checkpoint, you then hoof it through CityWalk, replete with theme restaurants and a giant movie theater, over a bridge, and through one of the park entrances. For some reason, Universal Studios seemed to be busier and more crowded than Islands of Adventure, so if you choose to hit Universal first, do not waver from your plan. By this advice, I mean NO SELFIES OR FAMILY PHOTOS as you enter and navigate the park to your first attraction. All of those people taking selfies at the park entrance with the Universal globe? Blow right past them. Walk as fast as your littlest’s legs will take your family. You will then delight to see those selfie people standing twenty minutes behind you in line at your first attraction.
Since you primarily came to the parks to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (right?), I recommend two possible starting points for two separate days.
On your first day, enter through the Islands of Adventure park. Take a right-hand turn after going through the Port of Entry and head towards Seuss Landing. When you hit the Green Eggs and Ham Café, turn left and cut through the outdoor seating area. Taking this shortcut allows you to bypass walking the long way through Seuss Landing and drops you into The Lost Continent.
From there, head straight until you reach the entrance to Hogsmeade. At this point, resist the urge to take photos again, and head straight to Hogwarts Castle.
Immediately get in line for the ride inside the castle, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. If you’re lucky, you now face a 10 to 20 minute wait time, versus the 60 to 120 minute waits common after 11 am that can last through 5:30 pm during peak season. Bonus: The line snakes through Hogwarts Castle and offers a cool experience in and of itself. Feel free to take advantage of longer lines later in the day to enjoy it, if you wish.
After you score this short wait time at the parks’ signature Harry Potter attraction, hang out in Hogsmeade until 11 am when it becomes so clogged with wall-to-wall people that you’ll need to escape to a less crowded area.
At the tail end of this time, feel free to ride the Hogwarts Express to Universal Studios to experience the Hogsmeade station and the movie/story in that direction. When you arrive at King’s Cross Station, exit the Harry Potter world.
There are a lot of worthwhile rides in Universal with shorter wait times, including Men in Black: Alien Attack, Transformers: The Ride-3D, Shrek 4-D, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, and Revenge of the Mummy. You may also want to hit Despicable Me Minion Mayhem at some point, but be warned: the line can be as long or longer than the Harry Potter attractions. Even worse, the line is entirely outside in the heat with nothing particularly appealing to look at. To add insult to injury, you are forced to watch the Express Pass people repeatedly cut in front of you, slowing you down further. Since this ride is at the front of the Universal Studios park, it pretty much has a one-hour or longer wait time all day. I recommend avoiding this one at the end of the day when littles are cranky and tired. Hitting it after lunch may be your best bet, giving you time to digest while you wait for the festivities.
On your second day, enter through the Universal Studios park, and head straight. (Same rules: no selfies, no family photos, no kidding.) At Shrek 4-D, turn right, and then turn left at Transformers: The Ride-3D. Walk towards San Francisco. The entrance to Diagon Alley is hidden behind what at first looks like a solid brick wall (of course!). Hint: In case, like me, you can’t find it at first in your excitement, it’s right across from the Knight Bus. After you pass through the wall, head straight ahead to Gringott’s Bank. (You can’t miss it; a giant, fire-breathing dragon (literally) perches atop it.)
At 9 am, when it opens, you still face a 25-minute wait, which is a piece of cake for this ride. Use the time to enjoy the incredible detail of the bank lobby, complete with ginormous chandeliers and animatronic goblins. Once you exit this ride, explore Diagon Alley until about 11 am, and then get out before the crowds suffocate you. We enjoyed shopping for stuffed animals in the Magical Menagerie, discovering the darkness, both literal and figurative, of Knockturn Alley, and watching the dragon breathe fire every 8 minutes or so. Head to King’s Cross station and enjoy the incredibly realistic experience of platform 9 ¾, including the brick wall into which your family disappear via an optical illusion.
The journey on the train back to Hogsmeade includes a different move/story. Back at Islands of Adventure, explore Jurassic Park and Marvel Super Hero Island. In Jurassic Park, Pteranadon Flyers offers a neat overhead view of the park, and adults can only ride when accompanied by a child between 36 and 56 inches in height. My daughter barely squeaked under the height requirement, and we enjoyed this ride together for the first and last time in our lives.
Choose one day when you plan to stay until the close of the Islands of Adventure park in order to enjoy The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle.
Check the park maps or online for the schedule, as this show does not run every night. At least 30 minutes before dusk, queue up as close to the castle as you can in order to enjoy the light show. (Bring bug spray and apply it, or the mosquitoes will eat you all alive.) Don’t take video of it on your phone, as you can watch millions of videos of it on YouTube. Just enjoy. Be present. It’s amazing.
Tip #6: Child Swap vs. Lockers
Loose items, including purses, backpacks, sunglasses, water bottles, phones outside of pockets, and so on are forbidden on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Universal offers lockers where you can store your loose stuff, but if you think the lines for these rides are long, the lines for lockers are insultingly long given that they prevent you from getting in the ride line in a timely manner. Additionally, only small lockers are free of charge. Backpack-sized lockers cost $2 and require that extra step of rendering payment. Tickets on the app won’t scan for the lockers, so you’ll need to see an attendant for a one-day locker ticket.
The solution? Universal staff will allow a non-rider, with or without a child, to sit in the Child Swap area with your stuff. Obviously, it’s better if that person goes with a child, as they receive a ticket to ride the ride after the first group in your party finishes. The adult who stays behind with your stuff and, hopefully, a child can then choose to ride with the child who stayed in Child Swap (since kids get scared towards the front of the line and then change their minds about wanting to ride). Alternately, the child who rode the first time can ride again.
Tip #7: Food
While the Universal parks do allow you to bring outside food, I advise against it due to the size of the bag it would require. Remember, a backpack-sized bag necessitates payment for a large locker to ride many of the attractions or for one person in your party to sit in Child Swap with your bag of food. I recommend having a decent breakfast, giving each person in your party a water bottle to hold while walking around the park, and then carrying the minimal other necessities you need. For a couple of days, we each carried a small snack bag (pretzels, cheddar crackers, nuts, and gummies), but we rarely ate them. On one of our shorter days in the parks, we each grabbed a large pretzel from Auntie Anne’s with lemonade or a soft drink to wash it down. That large snack got us through until 3 or 4 pm.
If you want a full lunch, expect more lines, and, despite nifty aesthetic differences in the decorations of the park restaurants, similar menus.
For example, the retro Mel’s Drive-In at Universal Studios and The Burger Digs inside of Jurassic Park at Islands of Adventure offer the same menu: burgers, chicken sandwiches, chicken fingers, fries, and milkshakes. If you want to avoid longer lines and eat some healthier fare, head to the less visited Lost Continent within Islands of Adventure. Restaurants here offer kebabs, gyros, falafels, and other Greek or Middle Eastern food at lower prices with the choice of a healthy hummus and vegetable side.
If you want to eat in one of the Harry Potter restaurants, the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure) or the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley (Universal Studios), prepare to brave massive lines in the middle of the day.
Having dinner at one of these eateries will give you a more pleasant and less crowded dining experience. Additionally, the heavier meals offered at these restaurants, like cottage pie, fish and chips, and beef pasties, go down a little easier when it’s not 90 degrees outside.
If your family can survive on snacks for the better part of a day, getting ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlor in Diagon Alley (Universal Studios) is a great option. The line moves quickly, and you can choose from both hard-pack and soft-serve (aka “creemie”) ice cream. This place offers intriguing flavors like Chili Chocolate, Butterbeer, and Earl Grey and Lavender ice cream.
Obviously, you must try Butterbeer at least once. The shortest line always seemed to be at the little kiosk directly in front of Hogwarts castle. You can opt for frozen or regular Butterbeer. We bought one frozen for the four of us and passed it around.
Tip #8: Interactive Wands for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
In the Harry Potter worlds, interactive wand spots marked by golden circles embedded in the pavement allow owners of interactive wands to perform the spells imprinted on the markers. Despite the $50 price tag, my daughter came to the parks intent on procuring one of these wands and with enough of her allowance saved up to do so. You can purchase them in pretty much any Universal gift store, as well as the Ollivander’s wand shops in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.
We skipped the little show where the wand chooses the wizard for one lucky child, as each show only seats 30 people in a cramped, claustrophobic little room, requiring long waits in the heat outside of the theaters. While my daughter enjoyed unlocking the door and making the skeleton dance in Knockturn Alley, you may want to skip the wand purchase and just watch other people who queue up to make magic happen.
Tip #9: What You Can Skip
Even with four full days in the parks, we didn’t see everything, and I’m not sorry. Unless you are a mega-fan of any of the following attractions, you won’t miss much if you flat out skip these:
- Islands of Adventure: Toon Lagoon (Classic Comic Strip themed weirdness)
- Islands of Adventure: Skull Island: Reign of Kong (similar to the Transformers Ride with gross giant slugs)
- Islands of Adventure: The Lost Continent (except for the food)
- Islands of Adventure: Seuss Landing (unless you have tiny children, but it’s still so creepy)
- Universal Studios: Springfield: Home of the Simpsons (I hate everything about The Simpsons, so just walking through this place annoyed me.)
- Universal Studios: Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone (even the E.T. Adventure ride is just bizarre)
- Universal Studios: Hollywood (unless you are on vacation to test out new TV shows)