Saturday, October 17, 2015

Making Magic: My Tips for Getting the Most Out of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Back in August of this year, a true childhood dream of mine became a reality: I went to Hogwarts. My boyfriend and I were Harry Potter fanatics for our entire lives before we met each other, so you can imagine how many times we had fantasized about jetting off to Florida to visit Universal Studios' The Wizarding World of Harry Potter once we started dating. This past May when I graduated college, we started discussing the possibility of going to Florida because we knew we would both have a gap in our life schedules, and discovered that Universal had some pretty affordable vacation packages available. With an overwhelming desire to see each other (we have been long distance for almost a year now) and our own money to spend, we decided to jump on the opportunity. We visited Florida in August and spent two days at Universal Studios and two days at Disney World, and I can honestly say it was the most fun and meaningful trip I have ever taken. There are, however, a few things I learned along the way through our experiences, both good and bad, so I wanted to share with you my tips on how to make the most of your trip if you ever decide to take The Hogwarts Express to visit Harry and his friends.

Hogwarts Castle 
  • Purchase a vacation package from Universal and stay at an on site hotel. That is the single biggest piece of advice I would give anyone who wants to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Besides the fact that these vacation packages are much cheaper than they would be if you purchased everything separately, visitors who stay at an on site hotel get access to The Wizarding World in both locations of the park an hour before the general public is allowed admission. I think our entire trip would have been much more stressful if we had not had access to the park starting at that early hour. We got so much done in that time on both days that by the time the crowds started to roll in, we could simply stroll the park at our leisure and really enjoy all the incredible details of the world around us.
    • A quick little plug for the Cabana Bay Beach Resort - we absolutely LOVED staying there! The staff was incredibly helpful, there was tons to eat, pizza available for delivery to your room, and tons of fun stuff to do in the hotel such as a bowling alley, arcade, and large gift shop with Harry Potter merchandise. A shuttle runs every five minutes to take guests to and from the park, so we never had to worry about waiting around to get back to our hotel. We really felt like we got our money's worth here.
    • Downside: There are a few on site hotels that have Fast Passes to the park included in the vacation package, but unfortunately, Cabana Bay wasn't one of them. Thankfully, using the Single Rider Line (to be explained shortly) significantly reduced our time waiting in lines and we felt like we still got to do everything we wanted to. 
  • You have to have a Park to Park ticket to be able to see both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley as well as ride the Hogwarts Express Between the two. 
  •  Plan your time and use your extra hour at the park wisely. If you are planning on spending only one day at Universal to cover both areas of the park, Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, I would suggest going to Diagon Alley as soon as you are allowed early admission and get in line for the Escape From Gringotts Ride. Benjamin and I arrived right at 8 am and there was already a line all the way to the entrance of Diagon Alley. I would say we probably waited about an hour for the ride, so I can't even imagine how crazy the line was later in the day. If you are spending two or more days at Universal, I would plan on spending one full day in Hogsmeade and the other in Diagon Alley. When you visit Hogsmeade, you might want to spend your extra hour jumping in line for the Forbidden Journey ride. However, if you don't have early admission to the park and have to wait in line for Forbidden Journey, there will be lots to occupy you as you walk through Hogwarts Castle. 
  • If you don't mind riding alone, a lot of rides at Universal, including Escape from Gringotts, have a Single Rider line that goes pretty quickly. On many of the rides Benjamin and I chose this option for, we ended up getting to sit in the same car anyway, generally in front or behind one another. This is a great way to beat crazy lines so you have more time to explore.
Escape From Grintotts
  • The earlier you purchase your wands, the more magic you can do around the parks. The wands sold at Ollivander's are "interactive", meaning you can actually make things happen when you wave them at store fronts and other objects. This really added to the authentic feeling you get walking around because everywhere you look, adults and children alike are waving wands and really making things happen with them.
  • Before the park is open to the general public is an amazing time to wait in line at Ollivander's in Hogsmeade to see "The Ollivander's Experience". In this approximately five minute long show, an "employee" of Ollivander's picks someone from the crowd and lets the wand choose the wizard. Benjamin and I wanted to get our wands before just about anything else, so the second thing we did when we arrived in Hogsmeade at 8 am was get in line for The Experience. The line went very quickly at this hour - we were probably in line only about ten minutes max. There were also a fewer number of kids around, so we were hoping we would have a better chance of getting picked to have our wands chosen for us. Unfortunately, we weren't, but another girl around my age was. If you're an adult and desperately want this to happen to you, going when there are fewer children around will definitely up your chances. 
    • If I had my pick, I would go to the Ollivander's in Hogsmeade. It's smaller and feels more authentic than the one in Diagon Alley.
  • Depending on your plans, you might want to head to Hogsmeade first (if you're not waiting in line for Escape from Gringotts). Then you can take the Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley later in the day when it's hotter. Diagon Alley was designed to have cooler areas and awnings to beat the heat. Hogsmeade is definitely more out in the open. 
Diagon Alley
  • Pick up a lanyard in your house colors to put your Park to Park tickets in. When you are getting in line for the Hogwarts Express, it will make it easier for the attendants to scan your ticket and send you on your way. Plus, you gotta rep your house! They are sold in nearly every store. 
  • If you get motion sickness, be weary that a lot of the rides at The Wizarding World contain virtual reality videos - keep a pack of Dramamine on you. 
  • Bring a decent sized backpack or tote with you. There isn't even any point in trying to deny that you will be buying A LOT of souvenirs. Wand boxes, candy, scarves, Butterbeer mugs - it all starts to pile up in size, so plan accordingly. 
    • But make sure it's something you don't mind wadding up - the lockers to ride rides in the Wizarding World are SUPER small. 
  • There are special performances almost every hour in both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, so be on the lookout for them. Ask an employee for a schedule. 
  • If you buy a pigmee puff at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, you will be instructed to place it on your head as the shop keeper announces your new adopted creature's name to the entire store. 
  • Be sure to walk a little past the entrance to Diagon Alley and you will see Number 12 Grimmauld Place. If you stick around a while, you might even see a familiar face peeking back at you from one of the windows. 
Number 12 Grimmauld Place
  • Something Benjamin and I did that I think really increased our enjoyment of the trip was that we went back to the hotel to take a rest in the middle of both days we were there. That way, we didn't have to stand in the heat as long, we could recharge, and come back in the evening when a lot of the families with small children had gone home. Plus, Diagon Alley is absolutely beautiful at night. 
  • Get the butterbeer. It's everywhere in the park so there's really no excuse. It's sweet and creamy and refreshing and everything wonderful about being alive. 
  • Get the frozen butterbeer. It's even better. 
  • If you get a reusable souvenir mug for a few dollars more, refills are only $1 around the entire park! 
  • Florean Fortescue's in Diagon Alley has a wide variety of ice cream flavors and toppings, so plan on going more than once. But you absolutely HAVE to get the Butterbeer ice cream. It tastes perfect in every way. I often say jokingly to Benjamin that one of the biggest downfalls of my entire life is that I can't have it every day. But I'm not really joking though.
Butterbeer Ice Cream 
  • Ride The Hogwarts Express both ways! The experience is different going from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley than it is the opposite way. And make sure you look out both ends of the compartment - there are things happening out in the hallway as well as out the window! 
  • In King's Cross Staion, if you want a picture or video of you walking through Platform 9 3/4, have a friend stay behind to capture the moment - I didn't realize you couldn't see yourself in any kind of mirror, so Benjamin and I walked through without any kind of keepsake from the moment, and I wish I had one! While waiting in line, you can see the people in front of you passing through, but you cannot see yourself.
  • Before you enter Diagon Alley, go spend some time and snap a picture with Stan and the Knight Bus! You might even get to have a real conversation with a shrunken head... 
  • Each wand you can purchase in Ollivander's has a specific description, so be sure to snap a picture of it so you can remember its qualities! And be sure to ask the shopkeeper which wand corresponds with which birth month! 
  • Plan to eat at The Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron either earlier in the morning for breakfast or later at night for dinner. Try to avoid long lines to get into the restaurants by going somewhere else for lunch... or just filling up on candy from Honeyduke's! Benjamin and I ate at the Leaky Cauldron around 7 PM one of the evenings and it wasn't crowded in the least. It made it feel much more authentic.
The Leaky Cauldron
  • Make sure to look up when you're exiting Diagon Alley - you'll see a message that made me tear up as we left on our final day at Universal. It reads: Wayfaring Wizards Welcomed. It reminded me so much of my favorite J.K. Rowling quote: "Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home." 

  • No matter what you do or in what order, take in the magic around you. The details in the Wizarding World are absolutely incredible - every which way you look there is something new to find, and that sense of curiosity will make you feel the same way you did when you first cracked open the books all those years ago. Hug your loved ones and take lots of pictures - no matter what, your trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter will be one you remember and cherish for the rest of your life. 

Mischief managed. 

xoxo Kaley

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