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If you’re looking for things to do in Orlando, look no further than Harry Potter World. Officially titled the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this immersive area spans two theme parks: Universal Studios Orlando and Islands of Adventure. But don’t worry, you can easily see everything in one day. Whether you’re a fan of the books, the films, or a new convert to Harry Potter World, you’ll easily find yourself lost in the magic. Be careful though, you might not want to leave.
We went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter on a Sunday in January. When you’re looking for things to do in Orlando, I highly recommend considering the off season. And the colder season. I’m not actually convinced Orlando experiences Winter, but January is probably about as close as it gets. No matter the season, make sure to check out What to Pack: Theme Park Essentials before you head to the parks.
Make sure to purchase tickets in advance to avoid lines at the gate. My favorite source for discount Universal Studios Orlando tickets is Undercover Tourist. Since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter spans two parks, you’ll need a park-to-park ticket if you want to see both Hogsmeade Village and Diagon Alley. Plus, you can’t ride the Hogwarts Express between the two without a park-to-park ticket. If you’re only going for one day, you might also consider adding Universal Express or Express Unlimited. This add-on allows you to skip the line for certain rides either once or an unlimited number of times. Those must be purchased directly from Universal, but you can use them with a ticket purchased from Undercover Tourist.
Single Rider Tip: Both Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey have single rider lines. If you’re okay riding solo, save yourself some money and don’t purchase Universal Express or Express Unlimited.
Regular parking at Universal Orlando Resort costs $20. In some marketing ploy that can only be described as barbaric, Universal forces guests to walk the entire length of Universal CityWalk before you reach either theme park. This is in addition to the distance from the parking garages to CityWalk which is also vast and immense.
We opted for valet parking instead. It costs $40 rather than $20. After dropping off your vehicle, you pass through security then take one flight of stairs, an escalator, or an elevator and enter CityWalk immediately. This significantly reduces the amount of walking from the parking garage to the parks. You’re going to be walking plenty once you get into the parks so don’t worry about those step counts. If you’re only going for one day, I think it’s worth the splurge.
Get there early! Isn’t that part of every plan for things to do in Orlando? On the day we visited Harry Potter World, the parks opened at 9am. We parked the car with valet by 8:30am and walked through Universal CityWalk to the entrance of Universal Studios Orlando. By the time we arrived, there was a small line waiting for the park to open. We walked straight to the back of Universal Studios where we found a facade of Leicester Square. If not for the Knight Bus parked outside, we might have missed Diagon Alley!
Our plan for the day was as follows:
Ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts using Universal Express
Watch the Tales of Beedle the Bard
Watch the wand selection ritual at Ollivanders
Take a snack break
Board the Hogwarts Express at King’s Cross Station and ride to Hogsmeade Village
Ride Flight of the Hippogriff using Universal Express
Ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey using Universal Express
Eat lunch at Three Broomsticks
Watch the Triwizard Spirit Rally
Watch the Frog Choir
Explore Hogsmeade Village
Board the Hogwarts Express at Hogsmeade Station and return to King’s Cross
Explore the Knight Bus and chat with conductor
Explore Diagon Alley
Watch Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees
Eat dinner at the Leaky Cauldron
Highlights from Our Day at Harry Potter World
The Knight Bus
Since the entrance to Diagon Alley is so well hidden, we explored the Knight Bus before making our way inside. The conductor outside loves to chat with muggles. But Declan was very confused by the shrunken head.
Afterwards, we made our way inside Diagon Alley. The first item on list should have been to marvel at the Ukrainian Ironbelly Dragon perched atop Gringotts Bank. It’s an impressive sight! They don’t have anything like that at Universal Studios Hollywood.
Harry Potter and Escape from Gringotts
After the shock wore off, we headed straight for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. We wanted to see how that dragon got up there in the first place! Since it was so early, the standby line was only 10 minutes long. Instead of using Universal Express, I chose to ride standby while Reese and Declan went to explore Diagon Alley. Before entering the queue, make sure to stow your belongings in the nearby lockers. They’re free while you ride.
Since we live in California, we’re very familiar with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal Studios Hollywood. It’s one of my favorite amusement park rides. I once rode it three times in a row using the single rider line while wearing a motion sickness patch from my Ensenada cruise. I love it. I don’t know how but Escape from Gringotts is even better!
After you pass through the lobby of Gringotts, you make your way down to “Security Processing.” This is just a thinly veiled attempt to sell you a souvenir photo. But keep your eyes and ears open for some familiar characters roaming the halls. After a special guest retrieves a key, you board an elevator that takes you down to the vault. Once you arrive, you board a cart that gets caught up in a security breach happening in another vault. The ride is a roller coaster combined with motion simulation and 3D movie effects. You’ll see many of your favorite characters and villains throughout the experience. It’s one wild ride.
Gringotts Tip: Small children and adults who chose not to ride can take the elevator down to the vault before exiting the queue. There’s plenty of magic to enjoy throughout the queue.
Casting Spells Around Diagon Alley
Since the queue for Escape from Gringotts was so short, we finished the ride much earlier than expected. Instead of waiting around for the Tales of Beedle the Bard, we explored Diagon Alley. We also skipped a visit to Ollivanders since we brought along our interactive wand from Universal Studios Hollywood. If you’ve never experienced the wand selection ceremony, I highly recommend you check it out at least once. Plus, if you have a confident young wizard or witch with you, they might be selected to participate.
Whether you attend the ceremony or not, each wand purchased includes a map of locations throughout the park where you can cast spells. Unfortunately, a wand bought in Hollywood does not come with an Orlando map! Instead, we sought out the gold medallions in the pavement that also mark spell locations. The instructions and incantation are depicted on each medallion.
Wand Tip: The Orlando map has many hidden spells. You can only find them under the black lights in Knockturn Alley.
Hogwarts Express from King’s Cross Station to Hogsmeade Village
The other thing missing from Universal Studios Hollywood is a working Hogwarts Express. In Orlando, you must have a park-to-park ticket to access the train. You can also utilize Universal Express to skip the queue.
After casting a few spells and dodging a few water spouts, we left Diagon Alley and went to King’s Cross Station. Once we made our way onto platform 9 and ¾, we saw a familiar friend waiting to make the journey to Hogwarts.
Once on board the train, take a seat in one of the train cabins and settle in for the short ride. Keep an eye on the window and the doors for a few more surprises from your favorite Harry Potter characters.
Lunch at Three Broomsticks
Once we arrived in Hogsmeade Village, we had lunch at Three Broomsticks. Hogsmeade Village in Orlando is pretty much the same as in Hollywood. Three Broomsticks is our favorite in both. Reese and I both love the traditional English food, especially after our trip to London. But my favorite item at Three Broomsticks is frozen butterbeer! Frozen butterbeer is far superior to regular or hot. I’ll challenge anyone who disagrees to a wizard duel.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
After lunch, we set off for Hogwarts. We caught a song from the frog choir before riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. I used the single rider line while Reese waited with Declan. On Forbidden Journey, the single rider line bypasses a significant portion of the queue. If it’s your first time, you might want to go the long way. Plus, the queue is inside and air conditioned, so it will be a nice reprieve on a hot Orlando day. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey seems to be nearly identical between Orlando and Hollywood.
Small Child Tip: Child swap at Universal Studios in Orlando and Hollywood is awesome. On parent can wait in a (usually) air-conditioned room with the kid while the other rides. Afterwards, it’s easy for the adults to switch so both can ride.
Afterwards, we considered taking Declan on Flight of the Hippogriff. He was exactly 36 inches at the time. But after watching it for a few minutes, we decided it might be a little too advanced for a two-year-old. Instead, we watched the Triwizard Spirit Rally.
While exploring Hogsmeade village, we took a wrong turn and crossed the bridge into a strange world: Jurassic Park. We were well ahead of schedule, so we took Declan to ride the Pteranodon flyers. This is a strange set-up. You must get a return ticket that is valid for one adult and one child much like a FastPass. Adults cannot ride without a child to accompany them. While we waited for our ticket time, Declan and Reese explored Camp Jurassic. This was just a ploy to let Declan walk off some energy. Ultimately, we also decided this ride was perhaps not appropriate for a two-year-old. The child and adult ride in separate seats and Reese was worried Declan might freak out (and fall out) on his own. Instead, we went back to Hogsmeade.
Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade Village to King’s Cross Station
We stopped by the facilities before heading to the train station. Just like in Hollywood, Declan loved hearing Moaning Myrtle talk through the walls. The train station for the return journey to King’s Cross was less exciting. But the train ride itself was just as fun as the first. Honestly though, our favorite part of both trips was the fact that the attendants stored our stroller in a separate car and didn’t make us fold it.
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts Again!
By the time we returned to Diagon Alley, it was early afternoon and the crowds had picked up. Since I still had my Universal Express pass for Escape from Gringotts, I decided to ride again. Seriously, it’s my new favorite non-Disney ride. It’s probably my favorite queue. Each time I rode I discovered some new artifact or detail.
Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour
Remember when I said you should look for things to do in Orlando during the colder months? Well, even in January, it was 80 degrees Fahrenheit while we were at Harry Potter World. For our afternoon snack break, we decided to cool off with some ice-cream. (Okay, I would literally eat ice cream in a blizzard but whatever.)
Knockturn Alley was our last stop before leaving the parks. Here we found Borgin and Burkes for all of Reese’s dark wizard needs. While you’re in the alley, don’t forget those secret spell locations! Also, this was a nice place to cool off on a hot-ish day.
Bonus Tip: Don’t Forget the Owl Post in Hogsmeade
If you’re looking for an inexpensive souvenir or just want to spread a little magic, stop by the Owl Post in Hogsmeade. You can send a postcard home to yourself or to someone special. However, you might want to bring along some muggle stamps, so you don’t have to buy a new book.
Final Thoughts on Things to do in Orlando: Harry Potter World
There are a lot more things to see and do at Universal Studios Orlando and Islands of Adventures, but a day in Harry Potter World is an absolute must on my list of things to do in Orlando. I loved it so much, I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to settle for just Hogsmeade in Hollywood. It can easily be seen and enjoyed in one day.
For more highlights from our recent trip to Orlando, check out these posts: