There are two pilgrimages Harry Potter die-hards should make. The first is the Warner Brothers’ set in London where all eight movies were made, and where Harry, Hermione, Ron Weasley and company literally grew up. The other is Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida where the world of Harry Potter comes fully alive in wondrously immersive, theme park style. This is hardcore, brain-fever inducing Harry Potter heaven. If your kids have been seriously good this year, the December hols is the time to pack up your wands and go.
What can the holiday be like? Imagine waking up every morning bright and early, having breakfast and being in Hogsmeade — its winter there permanently — by 8am. Every day. For three days at least.
The entire Harry Potter experience there is called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It is divided into two locations — Universal’s Island of Adventure and adjacent to it, Universal Studios Florida. It is linked seamlessly by a 10-minute ride on the Hogwarts Express.
As it is a considerable trek there, you’ll definitely want to maximise your Harry Potter pilgrimage, so planning well is key. Firstly, stay on-site in one of the Universal Orlando Resort hotels so you are never too far away. We stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel, a 10-minute stroll from the gates of heaven through a shady, beautifully manicured park along the river. (This is important because you waste no time waiting for the ferry boats which are also available to take you there.) Upon check-in, we bought the express pass for the theme parks so we don’t have to queue too. What’s more, hotel guests get access into the parks an hour before the general public does. So here’s how we maxed out on our time there.
Make sure you finish breakfast and are out of the hotel by 7.45am. Walk out the hotel from the pool, turn right and follow the path to the entrance of Universal’s Island of Adventure. Doors open to hotel guests at 8am and you want to be there without a minute to lose. Just follow the rest of the people there — they are all heading to Hogsmeade to be the first to ride the Forbidden Journey where the express pass does not apply.
Walk through the cobble-stoned streets of Hogsmeade, where it is perpetually winter, to a full size Hogwarts Castle where the ride takes place. The queue, which still takes about 15 minutes, brings you through the elaborately detailed corridors and medieval halls of the castle, complete with the talking portraits, gadgets, tools and specimens of monsters. You’ll also wind past Dumbledore’s office with lots of things to see and hear. The ride is fabulous, but I won’t say more.
After that, make a beeline for Hogwart’s Express and take it to Diagon Alley, in Universal Studios Florida, the other theme park. While serving as a functional link, Hogwart Express itself — decked in cosy, vintage fashion — is a fun experience. Look out for the corner where people ahead of you walk into the wall at Platform 93/4, and while on the train, watch out for death eaters and the Weasley’s flying car. Don’t forget to wave at Hagrid.
From there, take the short walk to Diagon Alley, and head straight to Gringott’s Bank and get onto the Escape From Gringott’s ride, which also does not except the express pass. Again, the route to the ride takes you into the grand hall of Gringott’s bank where the stern looking dwarves peer at you from behind their desks. You descend into the bowels of the building where another fabulously exhilarating ride awaits.
After this routine, your morning ‘rush’ to get to the best of the Harry Potter experiences is done. Now you can take your time to explore the winding lanes and shops of Daigon Alley (some areas here can be rather scary for the very young) or have an early lunch at the Leaky Cauldron which tends to get quite crowded nearer lunch.
Then get back onto the Hogwarts Express for Hogsmeade. Take the Dragon’s Challenge, a moderately thrilling roller coaster, have a pint of butterbeer, get some candy at Honeydukes and pop into Ollivander’s to see a wand choose a wizard. There are lots of other things to check out in these two locations of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter so take your time from here, and remember to buy lots and lots of souvenirs.
Beyond that, the rest of the theme parks await. Top rides in my view are The Transformers ride, Spiderman and The Minions.