The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios is any Potterhead’s paradise. Based on the book descriptions and movie sets, the goal of the experience is to immerse the fans and park visitors into the wizarding culture, introducing them to butterbeer, magic and the traditions of culture that has enchanted its audience. Within its walls you can decide if you are a muggle, a wizard or a witch! They don’t make that distinction for you. The fantasy comes alive and you feel like you are in another place frozen in time. There are two versions: the original park in Orlando, Florida and the newly inaugurated version at Hollywood Studios.
The Universal Studios Hollywood park version was designed to improve upon Orlando’s offering to maximize the experience of the smaller park. Like Islands of Adventure, it includes Hogsmeade and Hogwarts in its space but the constrained size of the California park made it impossible to fit Diagon Alley so they decided to compensate by making The Forbidden Journey a 3D ride and adding wand interactions to several Hogsmeade store fronts. The new park doesn’t have the dueling dragons ride, which used to be called Fire and Ice in Orlando and was retrofitted to match the HP theme. If you haven’t been to the original location, you will be none the wiser, and if you have, you may miss it because this park is not huge on rollercoasters as Orlando’s.
Upon arrival, we made a mad dash to the entry way of the village. Through the main gate we went and were met with the skyline of the town and the Hogwarts Express! My sister and I took a picture with the conductor, our first Harry Potter encounter since finding Platform 9 3/4s in King’s Cross station in 2004’s London. Back then the phenomenon was still in its infancy and no one could have imagined all that came after the movies became a box office success. Thank you J.K. Rowling and WB!
The snow covered roofs make the scenery an eternal winter, and today’s overcast weather made the experience even more surreal. It was hard not to imagine that we were inside the Wizarding World. Couples were dressed as Cho and Harry, alternative character pairings abounded. Every single visitor made their encounter magical wearing their best gear and garb. Purchasing merchandise can get expensive but I couldn’t find a single patron that wasn’t willing to spend big bucks to live out their dream. The two hour line at Olivander’s is proof enough of this reality; everyone here means business when it comes to Harry Potter.
Because of the popularity of the children’s books, you will find fans of every age and nationality. People of all social tiers and financial means. VIPs, Front of the Line and regular passes all fight for a spot to enjoy the attractions at their convenience. Many were dressed with their cloaks and house colors, wands at the ready. Since Hogsmeade has 11 wand interaction points, there are always crowds around the marked spots, sometimes covering the starting point. The points are all beautiful designed out of gold colored metal, and have the spells and movements engraved on the floor to make sure you can easily find them. The fun part is helping each other complete the incantation and see the results. Be patient as not everyone will share your same set of manners, and not all of the interaction points are monitored: if there is a line, do not cut or stay too long. Courtesy and kindness to your fellow fans is advised unless you want to be escorted out of the premises. Hagrid escort will not be available, sorry!
The Leaky Cauldron, Hogs Head Pub, Wizard Wear, Zonko’s, Honeydukes and The Owl Post are some of the featured shops at the village. It was hard to get in and out of the tiny, cramped spaces, designed to match the ambiance of the story. Hogs Head Pub sells Butterbeer, Hogs Head Brew (Scottish Ale), Dragon Scale (Lagger) and Wizard’s Brew Stout. There is no need to stand in line in the sun or rain to get these libations since the bar is always empty or has short lines. The opposite is true for the stores though as they are always full of people looking through the offerings; they share most of the same licensed merchandise but they all have something unique to draw you in. Wands are $47+tax, and cloaks can be purchased for $110+tax! Venturing into the spaces and tasting all the drinks can burn a hole through your pocket. Proceed with caution unless you have a padded account at Gringots.
The Forbiden Journey in 3D was definitely worth the long wait, and is the same set as the Orlando version except we all felt there were more dementors. Estimated at 75 minutes wait, not including the locker room visit to drop off wands and bags, the line twists and turns inside the castle where you can see the herbology stores, Dumbledore’s office and the infamous defense against the dark arts classroom. Many people stop at the entrance to the Headmaster’s office to take a picture which can slow the line down. There’s enough memorabilia and wall art to entertain you and make the time fly by fast. After 3 pm the lines subsided and we were able to skip the lines and ride within 10 minutes. The castle was all ours!
The same thing happened with the Olivander’s line. After 6pm it shrunk down to 15 minutes from the 1.5 hr wait time sustainted throughout the day. When we went inside the store I thought we weren’t going to witness a magical event and boy were we wrong! The Wand Keeper, a beautiful, tall and wiry young woman dressed in movie quality robes and accent to match, selected a young girl for the wand fitting. Quiet and brave, the girl withstood all the wand test challenges, which she failed, until her wand found her! My crew was standing right behind her and we all teared up. The witches words to the new student were redacted and delivered in such encouraging and loving manner we forgot we were inside an illusion. The fantasy became real. Her mom was taping the moment and I hope they play it for her during all of life’s hardest moments. My eyes tear up as I remember the feelings tied to the moment. Well done, Universal, well played Wizarding World.
Before we left, we took an opportunity to take a picture with the Beauxbaton and Drumstrang students while the Hogwarts Choir prepared to take the stage with their singing frogs. The walk through the village and out to the real world made me want to acquire a time turner to be able to relive it all over again. The five shout outs my Slytherin shirt got, plus the fact that my husband bought into the hype and selected his wand (Vine, my sister got Ash and I got an Ivy wand) validated that we are never too old to dream, to enjoy the wonder and excitement of living in a world full of enchantment and creativity. For a day we were part of something bigger, of an open yet exclusive international society. No matter how hard life gets or if we never live up to the promise of our youth, we will always have our cloaks ad wands to remind us that our future can be full of new and exciting opportunities; of all the mischief managed.
Check out the park information link. Plan according to your budget. The smiles on your party’s faces as they gaze upon the castle will be totally worth it.