While my love of Disney started in my toddler years, Harry Potter found me when I was in 7th grade. At that point the first three books of the series had been published in the US, and I was hooked. I spent years eagerly awaiting the next Harry Potter book, laughing at midnight in bookstores with fellow aspiring witches and wizards. By the time the final book was released, I was a college student wearing an S.P.E.W (Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare) t-shirt who happily stayed up all night to finish Harry’s journey. That love hasn’t worn off, so my husband and I decided that we would finally make the trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We learned a thing or two along the way, so here come some observations from a Disney girl in the Wizarding World.
Disney Girl in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
First things first, Universal is not Disney. There are pros and cons to both, and the atmospheres are quite different. And for me, within Universal, there is a huge contrast between the Harry Potter areas of the parks and everything else. If you’re a Disney fan, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter will absolutely impress you as it sparks your interest and imagination. It is immersive, detailed, gorgeous, and wonderfully gritty. Leaving these areas to tour the rest of the parks was startling, and left me eager to run back to Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.
The thrill rides at Universal are fun, but as it turns out I’m getting old. A roller coaster that includes a safety warning to remove any prosthetic limbs before boarding (I am not making this up) isn’t something I’ll ride repeatedly anymore! While we rode and enjoyed most of the attractions in both parks, the other areas are not nearly as themed or intimate. Nothing else at Universal compared to Harry (or Disney), and we always started and ended our days with the wizards.
I also appreciated how different Diagon Alley felt from Hogsmeade – as it should! It’s an interesting choice to place snow on the rooftops of Hogsmeade against a sunny Florida sky … but I guess it’s just magic, right? The Knockturn Alley section was all things dark and creepy, literally making me feel like I was out-of-bounds. It was such a good addition to the space. Even the transition between the two train stations into their villages is excellent, giving each location a solid sense of place. It is majorly tempting to stop and take photos of every inch of the place!
So, when am I? And where is Harry?
Being the Harry Potter fan that I am, I noticed a few interesting choices that they made in creating the Wizarding World at Universal. Hogsmeade exists at a time when Harry is still at school. But thanks to the Hogwarts Express and Escape from Gringotts rides, we learn that we’re experiencing Diagon Alley sometime during the Deathly Hallows, and prior to the Battle of Hogwarts. While the two areas contradict each other a little in that sense, it didn’t really bother me. Each of those theming choices provide opportunities for attractions that would have been impossible otherwise.
I think they made a really wise decision in keeping the atmosphere performers to unknown characters. The Knight Bus conductor and the porter at Hogsmeade Station were both charming, and we enjoyed the Hogwarts Choir and the other school performers. Trying to have someone portray one of the trademark characters would have undoubtedly fallen short, so I’m glad that they didn’t go there. Between the performers, and the large number of people wearing their own Hogwarts gear, it really created the feeling that you were there, without making the focus on Harry. Besides, we all know Harry doesn’t like to be a celebrity anyway.
Engineers: The real wizards
As a mechanical engineer by day, I love an innovative ride. The ride system for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is one of the coolest, most unique things I have ever experienced. As someone who has always wanted to be able to fly, it was ideal! (If you’re someone prone to motion sickness you probably won’t agree with me on this one.) I am very impressed at the ability to blend physical sets, robotics, a traveling ride vehicle, and video all into a single smooth experience. Eventually I found myself looking all over to see as much of the ride function as I possibly could. That took some work, because they’ve done a great job at making it so you aren’t easily distracted by the operation happening around you.
Escape from Gringotts is also excellent, although not as high-flying as Forbidden Journey. But I did enjoy the extra layer from using 3D, and the story-line is very clever. It’s really fun to feel like you are inserted into the story that you know, and the technical aspects were very well done. The ride queues for both of the main attractions were amazing, and it’s totally worth asking to do the “tour” so you can walk in and snap a few pictures before you abandon your phone or camera (and everything else you’re carrying) in the locker so you can ride.
Even the streets are full of special effects. While we didn’t purchase wands of our own, we enjoyed watching others cast their spells around the villages. Some of them were quite clever, although some seemed very tricky. I got a huge kick out of the talking mirror in one of the shops, which totally surprised me! She has excellent taste though; she said she liked my shoes. The whole Wizarding World was really well executed. Cheers to the engineering wizards who made the magic happen!
The Wizarding World is cozy. We’re talking Adventureland-in-Disneyland-after-Fantasmic level cozy. Narrow walkways, tightly packed stores, and people casting spells or taking photos everywhere. Happily, we were navigating child- (and stroller-) free. That left us free to wander and weave without constantly worrying that my kids had tried to sneak into Hogwarts without me. The scale absolutely contributes to the theme, just don’t expect the foot traffic to be moving along quickly.
The shops were all wonderful, although I wished that there were more of them. I often approached an interesting window display only to discover that the door next to it was locked. We thought the sweet shop was particularly great, and the ice cream was delicious with both typical and unique flavors. Given the close quarters, our favorite spot to actually enjoy a treat was the staircase up against Gringotts Bank. It kept us out of the way with an excellent view of the star of Diagon Alley: the dragon.
Ah, the dragon. She is both amazing and the cause of roughly 87% of the traffic jams in Diagon Alley. When the dragon starts to growl the entire street freezes as people whip out phones and cameras on the spot. But growling does not always equal flames, so we looked for spots to watch where we weren’t also road hazards. My favorite spot was the stairs (with ice cream) but we also watched from next to the shops that weren’t actually shops for a better view.
Unlike Disney, there were very few Universal photographers – catching a photo of the dragon in flame is probably up to you. But it can be done! If you’re closer to the entrance of Diagon Alley when the dragon starts to show signs of fire, here’s a trick: look for the starter flame to light a couple seconds before the big blast. This is particularly easy to spot at night, and you’ll know that the dragon means business when you can see the little flame. It’s especially helpful if you’re using an app like Boomerang to take a “wizarding” moving photo! Voila!
My favorite photos were all taken at night in the Wizarding World. The lighting is quite lovely, and the pale dragon looks particularly good against a dark sky. The shops lining the streets had lit displays several stories up as well, which really added to the atmosphere. Some of the spells being cast looked like a lot more fun at night too!
Farewell Wizarding World of Harry Potter
We spent three days at Universal, which was more than enough. Even riding all of the major attractions we still had plenty of time to visit Harry repeatedly. The music, sights, smells, and attractions were the perfect combination to make it feel real. I found myself wishing that lines for the major attractions were longer, so I could enjoy the queues. That really says something to me about the level of theme and detail! Bravo to Universal for a job well done! We will see you again when our little ones are ready to don their own wizarding robes.
Until then … Mischief Managed!