Kids have a way of jolting sleepy parents awake in the wee hours of the morning, and this day was no different. Jumping up and down, excitedly sharing goofy antics and laughs at 6:45 a.m., my family waited to board the first water taxi of the morning from Portofino Bay Hotel. Dad and I smiled through our early morning haze, but as we neared the end of the gentle 10-minute boat ride to the Universal Orlando dock, we caught the kids’ joy: Look! There’s the entrance! Hurry, hurry! We’re here! Finally! The Wizarding World of Harry Potter!
Since we were staying at one of Universal’s three on-site resorts, we were privy to a one-hour-prior-to-opening admission, but large crowds were already forming at the gate. Other resort guests hustled before us to reach Hogsmeade in the back of the park – some unabashedly running! We thought our earlier admission would propel us to the head of the class – we fantasized being the first to see steam from the Hogwarts Express billowing into the air and hearing the screeching whistle; we thought we’d get right into Zonko’s joke shop, Honeydukes candy shop, the Owlery and Owl Post, Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods and more – but by the time we reached Hogsmeade there was already an impressive line forming for Ollivanders wand shop! And that’s the thing to know going in: Harry Potter is extremely popular and there will be crowds galore at every spot. To assure that you can experience the magic of Ollivanders wand shop without waiting in line all day – seriously – one person in your party needs to get into the Ollivanders line immediately to secure your family’s spot. What’s the big deal? Ollivanders is a shop like no other, promising a fully immersive and magical wand-buying experience resulting in your very own wand designed just for you. It’s a must!
Ooh and aah all you like (and you will) as you wind through Hogsmeade headed to Hogwarts (sip on a Butterbeer as you go – this frothy, non-alcoholic concoction conjures butterscotch and shortbread with a creamy head) but get thee next to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the main ride located inside Hogwarts.
Not an expense was spared in the artistic replication of Hogwarts or in all of Hogsmeade, for that matter. Just as author J.K. Rowling imagined in the Harry Potter series of books, the films’ production designer and art director joined forces with artisans from Universal Creative to meticulously create The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Heading into Hogwarts for The Forbidden Journey, if you have bags or cameras, you’ll be directed to a locker area where you’ll scan a fingerprint to be assigned a free locker – ingenious technology in itself – then, inside Hogwarts, you’ll wind through numerous darkened passageways and corridors with enchanted portraits. Being in Hogwarts is delightful and the line moves along as your eyes feast on details within. Toward the end of the line, in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, Harry, Ron and Hermione themselves will enchant you before you’re buckled into a moving bench for a fantastic ride into Harry’s exciting life. State-of-the-art technology and filmmaking put you into the scene; my favorite part was flying behind Harry himself, soaring over the water and feeling like I was actually there. There are some spooky aspects to the ride, of course; danger, spirits and spells abound, so be warned, but the technology will blow you away.
Outside Hogwarts, a kiosk offers wands – this is a good option for Harry fans who can’t bear Ollivanders’ line, although you can also purchase wands at Dervish and Banges shop (the line takes approximately 20 minutes). Or simply move onto The Flight of the Hippogriff (based on the magical creature with the head of an eagle), a gentle roller coaster that’s over all too briefly, but one your littlest ones will appreciate. The other ride in Hogsmeade is the devilish Dragon Challenge – two coasters that run at the same time on separate tracks in a whirlwind of spirals and speed. While the rides are fun, what makes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter so awesome is the design and attention to detail in Hogsmeade’s art direction. And after all the excitement of the rides, we were famished.
Shops and Food
I dreaded the thought of standing with a tray of food and jockeying for a table. That’s why parents can really appreciate the Three Broomsticks restaurant. The eatery offers a great feast and does it right. A short line whisks your party forward to order from delicious shepherd’s pie, fish ‘n chips, roasted chicken and potatoes, or traditional items and kiddie fare. Next, you move to another brief line to pick up your food, and happily, once you’ve grabbed your condiments, forks and such, a hostess takes you right to your table. The rustic large tavern offers plenty of seating and crowd control/eating time/table count match up perfectly. We relished in a freshly baked hot apple pie for dessert.
Our bellies full, we were happy to wander around Hogsmeade now without rushing. We took pictures with the Hogwart’s Express conductor, dipped into Dervish and Banges, and spent the rest of the afternoon meandering through the various shops. We considered purchasing Extendable Ears, Fizzing Whizzbees, and Pygmy Puffs, but in the end, came away with a Gryffindor blanket, a Harry Potter scarf and two wands (which had chosen two of my very favorite Muggles for themselves).
Portofino Bay Hotel
At the end of the day, and after wearing ourselves out on some of Universal’s other attractions – we love the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and The Mummy rides – we happily boarded our water taxi back to Portofino Bay. A recreation of the famed Mediterranean village of the same name, Portofino Bay feels authentic and boasts restaurants, shops, pools, a spa and more than 700 guest rooms, among them Dr. Seuss suites for kiddos. We enjoyed the pasta bar at Trattoria Del Porto (every Friday night kids can enjoy character visits), and one evening we gobbled up the delicious pizza at Sal’s Deli. Our rooms were chic – understated Italian – and our beds exceedingly comfortable.
A trip to Orlando to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a big ticket item for sure – but you’ll be able to enjoy all that Universal offers at its parks in addition to Harry – and there are plenty of options for what suits your family. Watch for airline deals or plan a visit during spring break or summer vacation when you can do the drive. The bottom line: you’ll be thrilled if you go. And, like Hermione Granger, you’ll declare Harry Potter … Brilliant!
Susan Swindell Day is a mom of four adventurous kids and editor in chief of this publication.