The Boy Who Lived (in Florida): A walkthrough/review of the Wizarding World at Universal (minus Diagon Alley)

AKA Welcome to Crowds and Lines
In May of 2007, Universal Orlando announced that they would be building a themed land based around the insanely popular Harry Potter series and would allow guests to immerse themselves in the world of the title character and his friends.  Construction took about three years, and the land opened to the public in June of 2010.  Lines in those early days were INSANE.  I didn't have the chance to go until last year (2013) so I can't say from first-hand experience, but according to various blogs Universal actually had to start limiting the number of people who could be admitted to the area at any given time.  Thankfully, it calmed down now but it still a very popular area of the park.

So why am I discussing a single area of Universal, rather than discussing the entire two parks at length?  It'd be helpful if I did, right?  Well, I have several reasons.
  1. I am a huge Harry Potter fan, and have been since I was nine.  I was one of those lucky kids who literally got to grow up with the series, and to say it was a big part of my childhood is an understatement.  Putting it simply, there was a time in my life where it was my everything.
  2. People have been super fascinated with WW since it opened, and people who wouldn't have considered buying tickets to Universal otherwise are now making plans to visit.  I want to tell them what to expect!
  3. To be honest (and disclaimer here: I am speaking as an individual, NOT as a Disney cast member) I've found most of Universal to be underwhelming.  They're not bad parks by any means, and have a couple of rides (Spider-Man and Forbidden Journey, for those who care) that I will say are among the most amazing I've ever been on, but overall I don't feel that same connection to what I'm seeing that I do when I'm in a Disney park.  It doesn't help that more of Universal's rides are aimed at thrill seekers and I'm picky about what thrill rides I do or do not enjoy.  But by all means, if you enjoy them that's totally okay.  They're fun and well-staffed.
So here we go!  I'll discuss the area, the shops, the food and the rides, and along the way give my opinions on each.  And once again, this post is entirely for fun - I am speaking as my own individual person, not as a Disney cast member or someone who is getting paid to write.

Getting Around

We're on a bridge!
Every inch of WW is accurate to the books and films - from its stone pathways to its crowded rooftops to its window displays.  If it weren't for the fact that hundreds of guests are walking around in T-shirts and fanny packs you could almost swear you've stepped into the real Hogsmeade.  Of course, Potter purists will point out several inconsistencies - Hogwarts is too close to Hogsmeade, Ollivander's is in Diagon Alley rather than Hogsmeade, etc etc etc.  (I've heard conflicting reports on whether Ollivander's will be moved to the new expansion area when it's opened; this post was written before its official opening.)  Overall, though, it looks awesome.

So what could be wrong with this level of detail, you say?  Well, a lot.  Anyone who has seen any of the films or read any of the books knows that a lot of wizarding areas are very crowded and feature narrow passageways - and, unfortunately, this detail is faithfully replicated.  Did I mention that WW is still super popular?  Trying to simply get from the land's entrance to Hogwarts Castle, which houses Forbidden Journey, can be an exercise in patience and aggressiveness - and for the most part, don't expect to be able to shop comfortably.  This problem is only magnified in summer, when crowds are larger and feature those obstacles known as tour groups.

In short, this is something you're not going to be able to avoid if you want to visit though it is doable to get where you want to go - you just have to be patient.  And while you're wading through the crowds, take the chance to check out the super-cool buildings!

Stuff for Sale

Cue the nerdy squealing.
Warning: if you are a Harry Potter fan with a bad spending habit you may want to avoid this section (and avoid all gift shops as well).  It's gonna get hard to resist the urge to buy things.

So much merchandise has been released for Harry Potter over the years - licensed, unlicensed, mass-produced, handmade by fans, etc.  It's everywhere and on everything.  However, I am very pleased (and still somewhat shocked) to announce that WW actually stocks merch that I have never ever seen anywhere else!  They have just about everything you might want from keychains to stuffed animals, pillows to T-shirts and knickknacks to wands.  They even have costume replicas of student robes, Hermione's Yule Ball dress (fun fact: the real dress that Emma Watson wore is on display in one of the shop windows on the street) and Voldemort's black garb.

However, not all is perfect - some items, such as the aforementioned costumes, are a bit overpriced for the quality they are.  Seriously, go touch the robes when you visit - they're unpleasantly scratchy and the fabric feels cheap (though this may change at any time, I haven't visited in a while).  You're paying for the licensing, of course, but I found that most of the costumes could probably be done better and for less money if you made it yourself.  Some people won't care, but I find it a bit disheartening.  There's also the issue of congestion in the shops, though I discussed that above so I won't get into it again!

Eating and Drinking

Butterbeer: contains 0% beer and 100% sugary goodness.
Prepare your stomachs!  Dining in WW is limited to one quick-service location and several snack stands but everything is themed to the land (except for water bottles and the like, of course).  Among the themed foods is the famous butterbeer, which is drunk by various characters quite often from the third book/movie onwards and has created a sort of strange cult among Potter fans as they tried to recreate it.  This iteration (which is now considered the "official" recipe depending on who you talk to) is a lot like cream soda, though richer and creamier, and comes either in liquid or frozen form.  Yum!

The Three Broomsticks, which should be instantly recognizable to any fan as the pub located in Hogsmeade, is where you go to eat anything besides candy.  It's easily my favorite part of WW theming-wise - I mean, just look at it:

The food served here is pretty decent - the menu goes beyond serving up typical stuff like hamburgers and tries to serve up dishes that feel accurate to the setting, like shepherd's pie and rotisserie chicken, though how well it succeeds depends on how picky you want to be about the food.  It's all pretty good for being quick-service and is definitely among the better places I've eaten at, but doesn't serve up anything especially impressive or gourmet.  (Tip: don't get the pasties.  They taste good but are a lot smaller than they look and aren't very filling.)

Snack-wise, Honeydukes sells a wide variety of candies and other packaged foods form the series including ones that haven't been seen on Muggle shelves before like Acid Pops and Pepper Imps.  Old-fashioned jars of classics like lemon drops also appear with Honeydukes' logo on the front.  Of course, old favorites return as well, including the Chcoclate Frog (which you can buy for about $10 - it includes a holographic card).

Yummy!  Chocolate!
There aren't many let-downs here, since everything is pretty much just candy (overpriced candy, but what did I say before? You're paying for the licensing!) - although in my opinion, there's one notable exception.  Please don't attack me Potter fans... but I really don't like the pumpkin juice WW sells.  It's way too sugary and rich for me (and this is coming from someone who loves pumpkin pie), and doesn't taste at all how I imagined it would.  It comes in a cute bottle though, I'll give it that.

Adventure Time!

You may come across this very  familiar car while waiting in line...
Good news: every ride in WW is really-cool looking and well-themed!  Bad news: there are only three rides in the entire land!  However, the ride shortage is more than made up for, in my opinion, by Forbidden Journey, which as stated before is located in Hogwarts Castle.  There's also two roller coasters - a junior coaster called Flight of the Hippogriff and a much more intense dueling coaster called Dragon Challenge.  Their entrances can be hard to find among all the scenery with all the crowds around so keep a careful look out when going to the attraction you want to ride.

Now I'm not much of a roller coaster person so I haven't been on Dragon Challenge myself (I wanted to ride Flight of the Hippogriff but my traveling companions didn't want to).  However, I've heard that it's a very fun coaster for those who like high-stakes thrills.  Just be aware that the queuing area is pretty dark and it can be hard to see if you're pretty much night-blind like I am.  In addition, there's a pretty nice area (and by that I mean it's nice because it exists) for rider swap or party members who simply don't wish to ride, but there's constantly dragons roaring and other somewhat creepy noises so if you're coming with little kids keep that in mind.

A ride that is a bit harder to describe is Forbidden Journey, which is easily the main draw of the land.  You are strapped into robotic coaster arms and taken along a track, though the cars don't travel along the track that fast so it's not a roller coaster.  You're basically swung all over the place by the arm (though you never go upside down) and might find yourself dangling over scenery or tilted all the way on your back.  I guess you could describe it as a much more active Soarin' (comparison is not entirely mine but one I saw on another blog - and it's much more accurate than anything I could've come up with myself).  You'll also be placed in front of large wraparound screens at some points, and if you easily get motion sick I suggest finding a focus point and sticking with it.

I said before that Forbidden Journey is one of the best rides I've ever been on and I'm not kidding - everything from the theming in the elaborate queue area to the ride experience itself is well thought out and insanely entertaining.  Even if you don't wish to ride you're allowed to "take the tour of Hogwarts" - that is, explore the queue without having to ride - and you definitely don't want to miss out.  There's not much more detail I can really go into here except to say that if you're a Potter fan this ride will incorporate everything you love about the series and you'll be sad when it's all over.

So is this ride right for you?  Well, I'd say that it's definitely not as terrifying as someone who has never been out before might make it out to be.  The ride is very smooth and avoids drastic movements where it would throw you around too much.  If you can handle riding Dinosaur or the Spider-Man ride at Universal I think you should be just fine on FJ, though it all depends on what makes you motion sick.  Stuff jumps out at you at times, though it isn't as sudden as if you were in a haunted house and you can kind of anticipate when stuff might happen.  Definitely give it a try unless you suffer from any health problems that would prevent you from getting on a thrill ride - in that case, you know what's best for you.

Overall Impressions

I don't agree with those who say that Disney is going to lose a chunk of their visitors because of WW - after all, Disney is still a lot more ingrained in the public's minds and one small land in a competing theme park isn't going to change that - but there's no doubt that Universal has outdone themselves working on it.  It is far and away worth the price of admission, and fans and non-fans alike can find something to appreciate.  It can be crowded and difficult to navigate, but it is no harder than some areas in Magic Kingdom so coming with an open mind and patience will take you far.  I look forward to visiting again when I go back to Orlando, and am very excited to tour Diagon Alley once it opens!


  1. Did you try the pumpkin juice? I go to WW twice a year and butterbeer, pumpkin juice, and chocolate frogs are my go to foods!

    1. I tried some of my roommate's and didn't really like it at all - it's too sugary and rich for me. Love butterbeer and chocolate frogs though!