Orlando, Florida – Last year, when the twins turned 7, we hosted an all-out over-the-top Harry Potter birthday party, complete with a wand-making workshop, a potions class and a Quidditch match. It was too much fun. And too much work. This year, when the twins turned 8, they wanted to do it again. We balked. And Daddio secretly started planning a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.
We are fortunate to travel frequently with our children, but most of our trips are planned around work obligations and travel writing gigs. Taking a trip for the sole purpose of celebrating the twins’ birthday — to an amusement park, no less — seemed unnecessarily extravagant to me.
But Daddio did his research. He learned that May is one of the best times to visit Universal Studios (and Disney, for that matter). It is not too hot and most importantly, it is not overrun by crowds. So… we knew we would like to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at some point. Why not go for the twins’ birthday?
And that is my top tip of the day: Timing matters, folks. If you want to visit a major Florida theme park, go in May (or September or October, which are the other recommended months).
Universal Studios is confusing, as there are three separate theme parks that fall under one name. One of them is Thunder Bay, a water park, so that’s easy to understand. The other two are the original Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. There is no thematic difference between them (from what I could tell). Not only that, but there are Harry Potter attractions in both, so wizarding fans need to buy tickets that allow access to at least two parks. Hogwarts Castle and Hogsmeade are at Islands of Adventure. Diagon Alley is at the original Universal Studios. The Hogwarts Express runs between them.
We had read that we should allow at least two days to see all the Harry Potter attractions, but we did it all in one day (with no rushing). This is because we did not have to waste time waiting in line, because it is May. We waited about a half-hour to ride Escape from Gringotts, the newest attraction. That was our longest wait. Attendants told us that during peak periods, riders wait up to four hours for this ride.
Both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure have many other non-magical attractions, so there was some fun to have on our second day. Jurassic Park was a favorite. But two days was more than enough time to spend at these two theme parks. We also spent a day at Thunder Bay, which you can read about in the following post.
The twins had a blast. All of the Harry Potter attractions are excellent, with such amazing attention to detail. Everywhere they looked, the twins found evidence to make them believe we were really in Hogwarts (or Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley). The fire-breathing dragon on top of Gringotts is spectacular. The interactive wands from Ollivanders actually work to cast spells in designated spots around the park (Alohomora, Wingardium Leviosa, Aguamenti, etc). The Hogwarts Express is perfect, with relevant scenery projected on the windows and audio clips from the movies providing the soundtrack. The Knight Bus conductor and Dre Head are funny. And the butter beer is refreshing and delicious.
It’s worth noting that there are only a few rides in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Three, to be exact (plus the Hogwarts Express). Besides the rides, there are spells to cast and characters to meet and a few shows to watch. But mostly, there’s shopping and eating. And more shopping and more eating. We actually ran out of things to do.
Fortunately, there was no line to ride the old-fashioned Flight of the Hippogriff and the twins did not get tired of that.