Wizarding World of Harry Potter
If you have never been to Orlando, you have to make time in your already overpacked schedule to visit this amazing place; and if you are a regular visitor but have not been for a while, prepare to be impressed with what Universal have done. It is a mixture of rides and immersive experiences, and the attention to detail is breath-taking. It is not one for young children and they will be bored if they do not know the story - but for everyone else it is the perfect Theme Park. Whether you have read all of the Harry Potter books or seen all of the films, they do not include the tiny details in JK Rowling's imagination.
The guidebooks recommend that you be at the gates at 8am as the wait times are significantly lower than at any other time of the day. Plan your day to be here early although you will be surrounded by other fans who have also read the same books as you. As with other theme parks, Universal reserve the right to restrict visitor numbers in both of the Harry Potter areas once it reaches maximum capacity. The Universal car parks are central so aim to arrive at the car park entrance earlier than gate opening times for the short, travellator-assisted walk to arrive at the gates in time for opening.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is split between both of the Universal parks - you will need to purchase a two park ticket to access all of the Harry Potter attractions. They are joined together by a train ride, for which you will need a ticket with access to both parks, but it allows you to travel between them without having to go to the main entrance. As with other rides iat Universal, you have the option of buying Fast Pass Tickets (or they are complimentary to Universal resort residents). As you would expect with the newest attractions in Orlando, The Wizarding World is very popular at any time of the year.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley - Universal Studios
This area contains the London elements of the Harry Potter stories. Once through the Universal gates, you have a choice of two directions, so turn right and walk through the Hollywood, Kidzone and World Expo areas. Turn left after the Simpsons ride, which brings you over a small bridge to Grimmauld Place and the Knight Bus. Diagon Alley, Horizont Alley and Knockturn Alley are hidden away (as you would expect) behind walls, with Gringotts at the far end of Diagon Alley. Finally, there is Kings Cross station with the Hogwart Express ready to take you to Hogsmeade in the Island of Adventure Park.
Grimmauld Place - A facade of the base for the Order of the Phoenix. There is a copy of the Eros statue from Piccadilly Circus, a facade of Leicester Square station and the red phone box which marks the entrance to the Ministry of Magic.
Knight Bus - Outside Grimmauld Place, there is an ongoing interactive show between tourists, the conductor and the driver (well, actually a shrunken head). Funny, but no queue so you have to get your family to jump in whenever there is a convenient break in proceedings.
Diagon Alley, Horizont Alley and Carkitt Market - Find your way through the hole in the wall (or follow everyone else if you don't spot it!) and prepare to be amazed. These are full-sized alley ways with a market place created as an extra by JK Rowling (just for Universal) with all the shops you would expect from the books - Ollivanders, Dervish & Banges, Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, Madame Malkin's, Gregorovitch's, Flourish & Blott's, Gringott's Money Exchange, the Leaky Cauldron and the Daily Prophet. Each one has a window display that you will want to linger over, with a wealth of detail from the books. Inside, there are shops where you can buy wands, clothes (wizarding and quidditch), practical jokes, sweets such as chocolate frogs and every-flavour beans, ice-cream, and the usual souvenirs.
Ollivanders - an experience as well as a shop. Join the queue outside, and then enter in small groups to meet the wand-keeper. Someone will be selected to choose their own personal wand in a short show, but there is no obligation to buy. If you do buy though, there are secret places hidden throughout the Wizarding World where you can cast spells - look for the bronze plaques set into the ground for details of how to cast each spell. They cost about $40 and don't work anywhere but Universal Orlando but you can just watch other people casting spells and see what happens. This is the best place to buy a wand as the queues move quite quickly, but you can also buy from Gregorovitch's in Carkitt Market or Ollivander's in Hogsmeade.
Gringott's Money Exchange - here you can swap dollars for Wizard Notes and interact with the Goblin Teller, who will answer any question you have for him. Ask him anything!
Knockturn Alley - Hidden away at the back of Diagon Alley, you will find the Dark Arts shop of Borgin and Burkes, with all the menace you would expect and a different set of souvenirs on sale. There is a vanishing cabinet on display, as well as a trunk (which I presume has Mad-Eye Moody in it, as it rattles!)
Gringotts - At the end of Diagon Alley, and topped by a fire-breathing dragon, is the Escape from Gringotts ride - with the perfect mixture of storyline, thrills (but not stomach-churning) and surprises. The queue is an experience in itself - you walk through the banking hall, past goblin tellers and talking pictures, through the bank offices and down a lift to the deeper vaults. Read the books for an idea of what might happen next. You have to leave all your bags and belongings in free lockers to the right of the entrance, and you pick them up after you come out of the ride via the photo collection point and shop.
Hogwart's Express - You enter via a very realistic King's Cross station complete with a clever journey through a brick wall to platform 9 ¾ and board a steam train to Hogwarts. It is a gentle ride on a steam train through the English countryside, incorporating elements from all of the Harry Potter books. There are windows on one side, and a corridor on the other - look both ways if you don't want to miss anything! It is totally believable considering you are not wearing 3D glasses as you travel through the Universal Studio Back Lot. There is a different journey on the way to Hogwarts and on the way back; if you only ride one-way then choose London to Hogwarts as it is a better storyline. It opens at 9.30, which means you can be in Hogsmeade ahead of everyone else if you want to change parks.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade - Universal Islands of Adventure
This park opens at 10am and contains the Hogsmeade and Hogwarts elements of the Harry Potter stories. Again, it contains lots of other non-HP attractions. Once through the gates, you have a choice of two directions. The quicker route is to turn right and go through Seuss Landing and the Lost Continent. The more impressive approach though is to turn left and head through Marvel Super Heroes, Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park - which brings you to Hogsmeade with Hogwarts towering above you. Here you will find both the school and the village, as well as the Hogwarts Express station (where you will arrive if you are coming from the Universal Park).
Hogsmeade - A whole snowy village with all the shops you would expect from the books - Honeydukes, the Owl Post, Dervish and Banges, the Hog's Head and the Three Broomsticks - and there's an extra (smaller) Ollivander's here too, with a show and wand shop. Each one has a window display that you will want to linger over, with a wealth of detail from the books. Inside, there are shops where you can buy the same souvenirs as in Diagon Alley, and if you post a letter at the Owl Post you'll get a Hogsmeade postmark! You can buy Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice at both pubs and at street stalls - but there's less queue and more atmosphere inside. In our opinion Frozen Butterbeer is better than Butterbeer, and Pumpkin Fizz is better than Pumpkin Juice (but both pumpkin drinks are too heavy on the cinnamon) but try them all for yourself. Make sure you visit the toilets here too, as they are haunted by Moaning Myrtle!
Dragon Challenge - two intertwined full-on roller coasters which are not for the faint-hearted. You're seated but your legs are dangling as you loop the loop A LOT. You can choose which track to ride (the Hungarian Horntail or the Chinese Fireball) and can ride the other one immediately afterwards if you follow the re-ride signs to your right on your way out. You have to leave all your bags and belongings in free lockers in the entrance, and you have to go through a metal detector too!
Flight of the Hippogriff - essentially a runaway train. You queue past Hagrid's hut, complete with barking dog.
Hogwarts - The queue for the Forbidden Journey is another experience in itself: you walk through the school corridors, potting shed, common room, classrooms and Dumbledore's office before climbing aboard school benches which are then enchanted by Hermione to fly. It is an amazing ride, incorporating movement and simulation, although a little queasy-making (if you don't want to ride, you can just do the tour). You will want to ride more than once to see everything. You have to leave all your bags and belongings in free lockers in the entrance, and you pick them up after you come out of the ride via the photo collection point and Filch's Emporium.
Extras - There are lots and lots of hidden secrets around the Wizarding World - ranging from hidden items and props from the films to extra interactions. Just search the internet for "hidden Harry Potter Orlando" and you'll find lots of sites which spill the beans. I suggest one of you reads up on them (so you don't miss them) and see if the others can find them for themselves.
Entertainment - There are shows in both parts of the Wizarding World, which have vague associations with the Harry Potter stories but are fairly American in their feel. At the request of JK Rowling, there are no character meets. Harry, Hermione, Ron, Hagrid, Malfoy, Voldermort and Bella Lestrange all feature in the rides - and although there are reference to other characters, there's a notable absence of the actors playing big parts like Dumbledore, Mrs Weasley, Professor Snape and Dolores Umbridge, who have obviously chosen not to be involved.