From New York to Hogsmeade at Universal

I thoroughly enjoy the Harry Potter series. Let’s just get that out there. I read it soon after my second child was born, the year that the seventh book was released. I plowed through each book with voracity riding the plot’s twists and turns like a roller coaster. By the time I reached the final book I was exhausted, and exhilarated, and hooked. At that moment I couldn’t wait to share the series with my daughters, and eventually they too absorbed the world with delight and fascination.

Hogwarts is illuminated most evenings

A trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando was an obvious place to visit. Where better to bring the books to life?  We visited for a single day in 2017, tacked onto a trip to Disney. Because we didn’t have much time, we concentrated our visit only to Potter-related locales which meant we missed much of what Universal has to offer.

In 2022  I decided to return for a longer stay with my younger daughter rather than attempt another quick day-trip. The first time at Universal, she had only read the first three books and couldn’t appreciate the nuances of the Wizard World. This time we spent four days staying on property, which ended up being only double the price of all four of us visiting for a single day. Universal has many discounts on tickets for those remaining on property in certain months of the year, and they make it very easy for their hotel guests to get around.

Exploring Universal

Universal itself is initially overwhelming. Visitors enter Universal City Walk, a massive outdoor mall area with entertainment, dining and shopping galore. Visitors may enter City Walk without entry to the theme park, so in the evenings the area is packed. The area is poorly marked, so turn around every once in a while to get an idea of the view when returning later that day. Our first visit to Universal, we were completely lost trying to find the parking lot in the dark. This time we knew it would be confusing and got our bearings before entering.

This spot in New York across from San Francisco is ideal for viewing the nightly Cinemagic Celebration

The parks themselves are much easier to navigate, and even the City Walk isn’t too difficult after walking through it more than a single day. The theme park consists of two separate areas: Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. The former, to the left upon entering Universal contains fantasmical stories like Marvel, Jurassic World, Dr. Suess, cartoon characters and Hogwarts. The Universal Studios side is about movie porduction, with live shows about horror makeup and animal training in addition to 4D rides. The park takes visitors from the streets of New York City, to San Francisco, to London and into Diagon Alley at the back.

Generally this is also where visitors can board the Hogwarts Express at Kings Cross Station, but during our stay it was under repair. There’s no other access from one section of the park to the other, so we walked from the back of one park to the back of the other multiple times, logging a minimum of eight miles each day of our stay. To pass from one park to another, visitors must purchase a park-to-park ticket, well-worth the extra price.

Hotel Perks

Each hotel provides transportation to Universal, and we found that we rarely waited long for a bus in the mornings. Entry into the parks is quite simple, and navigating the parks is also very easy. The busses can be crowded in the evenings, and with everyone leaving at the same time we waited in line quite a while.

We stayed at the Endless Summer Resort, one of the least expensive properties but still quite nice. The pool had a sloped entry so it felt like walking into the ocean. Staying on property meant we could enter the parks an hour before regular guests. Not all areas of Universal are open that early, but it allowed us to stand in line for the Hagrid coaster a second time. By the time we finished the ride and walked to the other park, many visitors were entering for the first time.

With the raptor encounter, meet dinosaurs large and small.

Universal has an Express Pass allowing visitors to jump the lines. Because we were staying four days and had enough time to explore the parks, we didn’t mind standing in line. We couldn’t have used the Express Pass for certain rides, like Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, and found we waited at most an hour for the other rides. The Universal Parks app was fairly accurate with wait times, so we relied heavily on that and enjoyed the number of shows and performances midday when lines were longest.

Dining Around Universal

The hotel’s cafeteria offers with a nice variety of dining options,  ideal for grabbing a late snack when returning from the park. The lobby Starbucks was always packed, so instead we grabbed at bite in the parks without the long wait. Preordering food on the Universal app is highly recommended.

Visiting the Wizard World, of course we had to try each version of Butter Beer. We agreed that frozen was best, followed by warm (not ideal in June) and cold was our least favorite. I tried pumpkin juice which was delicious. The Guinness and lamb stew served at each location was also terrific, and my daughter who is picky about most meals decided that we must make this at home.

By far the best meal was at Mythos Restaurant. My daughter noted that it was the only place at Universal with cloth napkins, a server and clean tables. The view was amazing, the food remarkable and the price wasn’t very different than other dining options. We saved this for our last evening, but should have enjoyed it more than once during our visit.

We tried to purchase donuts and other sweet snacks in the afternoon, but found that nearly every location had already sold out. City Walk was the only place we could find ice cream, but leaving midday to relax at the resort proved to be a good choice. We were well rested to return in the evening and enjoy Hogwarts illuminated with the colors of each house.

The Little Things

Incredible Hulk coaster

Universal has many exciting rides such as the Incredible Hulk Coaster, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Jurassic Park River Adventure, but the park isn’t known for the big splashy rides. Some of the smallest things at Universal are the most fun.

Jurassic World’s Raptor Encounter is presented like any other live-animal encounter at a zoo. The Jurassic World pavilion includes many interactive programs and experiences, like scanning a dinosaur egg and figuring out what type of dinosaur is inside. At Universal Studios, we saw the Horror Make-up Show twice. It was quite educational and extremely entertaining, and wasn’t too scary for even elementary-aged children. The evening’s Cinematic Celebration was a highlight and we found the perfect spot across from the San Francisco harbor to watch.

The Wizard World shows are always fun, although with staffing issues and construction woes, those at Hogsmeade were cancelled. Still, we were able to cast spells with interactive wands multiple times – always a treat for a lover of the Harry Potter series.

Having visited Disney multiple times I wasn’t sure what to expect with a multi-day ticket to Universal. Unlike Disney, I found Universal to be a more relaxing visit. The variety of shows and the lack of high-profile rides allowed us to wander the park and enjoy our time rather than rush from spot to spot. Unlike Disney, it was easy to walk between parks -and back again – multiple times a day. Universal is in the process of expanding the Wizard World over the next few years, and I suspect we’ll return for another long visit and appreciate the park once again.

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