Universal Orlando Resort: First-Timer’s Guide to Harry Potter and Beyond
I recently had the opportunity to visit Universal Orlando Resort as part of a press trip and, believe it or not, it was my first time ever attending their incredible parks, attractions, and nearby hotels. Now it wasn’t exactly my first rodeo when it came to amusement parks: Efficient planning to get the best bang for my buck and some route-mapping to make sure we hit every possible ride, restaurant, and attraction in the time we had available was par for the course. I’m happy to say that Universal Orlando Resort parks have quite a lot going for them, besting their competition by far when it comes to food options and themed restaurants, and going toe-to-toe with the best of the bunch in attractions, ride variety and intensity, and ease of navigation around the park. It was a fantastic experience I’d happily repeat in years to come.
But if you, like me, are gearing up for a first visit to Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and/or Volcano Bay, you’re probably wondering if there are any tips or tricks that you should be aware of. That’s where I come in! I’m here to share this first-timer’s guide with plenty of words of advice, things that worked for me during my weekend visit, and things I wish I’d known ahead of time. Overall, it was an incredibly smooth trip (despite Volcano Bay being closed due to “cold” weather; a high of 70 degrees was probably not ideal for the South Florida water park), so I hope these tips help you to have as enjoyable an experience as I did!
If you don’t have time to read anything else before boarding your plane to Orlando and heading straight to the parks, heed these words of advice:
- DO be sure to get a multi-park pass if you want to experience everything that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has to offer. Even if you just want to ride the Hogwarts Express, if you only have one-park admission, you won’t be able to do so since it acts as a gate between parks. More on this follows below.
- On that note, DO ride the Hogwarts Express both ways; the experience changes depending on which direction you’re headed.
- DO be sure to double-check both which park is open for early admission on any given day and which rides or attractions are open early as well. For example, while Universal Studios Florida may open early, only Diagon Alley attractions and the Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride will be open at that time, meaning everyone who has early admission is headed directly there.
- DO bring or buy a lanyard with a clear card-holder. The park passes are basic paper tickets that are the size of a credit card and are used for entry into the parks and access to rides if you have an express pass.
- DO take advantage of the express pass if it’s within your budget. You may only save a few minutes here or there on some rides, but those time savings add up.
- DO enjoy the in-park themed restaurants, especially those at Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. They’re surprisingly affordable (relatively speaking, especially with the CityWalk eateries a short walk away) and add to the immersive experience in fun ways. (And get an order of pumpkin juice; trust me. The Butterbeer gets all the attention but I loved this sweet treat even more!)
- DO stick around after dark for special events like the Mardi Gras parade or the Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle, or just to ride the rides again for a whole new experience.
Attractions and Special Events
My visit just happened to be during Universal Orlando Resort’s Mardi Gras 2020, celebrating “25 Years of Party.” The celebration included tons of fun, food, music, a fabulous parade, and more activities extending well before and after Fat Tuesday itself; in fact, the party is still going as we speak! That timing was a happy coincidence, but the parks have a bunch of seasonal events that cover most of the calendar year, so when planning your visit, you should take these bonus attractions and activities into account to get the most out of your trip!
Of course, there are other park attractions besides the rides and restaurants that play out year-round. One specific ongoing show I wanted to call some attention to is the Beat Builders, a very clever street show masquerading as a team of construction workers fixing up a facade in Universal Studios Florida. Rarely do I actually stop and watch one of these shows, but this one was a stand-out. Equal parts humor, hypnotic beats, and crowd-pleasing interactions, Beat Builders is definitely one show you’ll want to see while walking the streets near Fast & Furious – Supercharged.
Oh, and speaking of Fast & Furious, if there’s a ride or property that you’re particularly fond of, you’re just about guaranteed to find some related merch in a gift store near the attraction or elsewhere in the park; exiting through the gift shop is actually a convenience here (as is the fact that you can have a courier take your purchases to either a waiting area near the park exists or to your hotel, if you’re staying at a Universal resort!) And even if you’re outside the park, there is plenty to explore (and eat and drink and play and dance to) at the convenient outdoor mall, CityWalk.
Back in the park, if it’s Harry Potter lore you’re there for, be sure to stop and check out the shows. There’s the puppet-driven Tales of Beedle the Bard in Diagon Alley, a unique wand shop experience at both Wizarding World parks, and a Frog Choir show along with the aforementioned Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle in Hogsmeade. The lesson here is that surprises of all kinds await around just about every corner in the parks (like the upcoming Bourne Stuntacular) so keep your eyes (and ears) peeled!
If it’s all things Harry Potter you’re after during your visit, I highly recommend getting not just a multi-park combo pass but an express pass as well. (Full disclosure: We were granted a 3-park pass with unlimited express as members of the press, which is just about the best way to experience the parks without going for the full VIP treatment. Understandably, this may not be in everyone’s budget.) A multi-park pass will allow you to transition between Universal Studios Florida, with its Diagon Alley attraction, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the home of Hogsmeade. The Hogwarts Express, a faithful reproduction of the famous train used by witches and wizards to travel to and from the wizarding school, acts as both a gated shortcut between the two parks and a ride/attraction in and of itself. You’ll definitely want to ride it both ways since the content changes each time. Plus, it beats walking all the way out of one park and into another. As another guest was heard to remark, “You could walk, but why would you want to?!”
But before you even think about heading out of Diagon Alley to witness Hogwarts in all its magical glory, you’ll have about a day’s worth of things to explore. Diagon Alley only boasts one thrill ride (in addition to the tame Hogwarts Express), Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which we’ll talk more about in a bit. So if it’s thrills you want, and you’re only opting to visit one park, you’ll want to head to Hogsmeade instead. However! There’s the second-to-none immersive experience of walking through the Wizarding World’s version of King’s Cross Station (where you can pass through a solid brick barrier to enter Platform 9¾ or dial up the Ministry of Magic from a nearby phone booth), chatting with Stan Shunpike and Dre Head outside the Knight Bus, and getting a peek at 12 Grimmauld Place to see who might be peeking out from inside. And yet that pales in comparison to what awaits you beyond the magical entrance to Diagon Alley itself.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by everything on display here. There are famous shops, restaurants, creatures, and characters in every inch of this attraction, though they’re all lorded over by the escaped Ukranian Ironbelly dragon atop Gringotts. (Keep an ear out for the dragon’s gurgling every 15-20 minutes or so; if you hear it, you have about 5 seconds to get within eyeshot to see it belch a fireball!) Since it’s hard to know where to start here, allow me to make a few easy recommendations: If you’re arriving first thing in the morning, early admission or otherwise, head to the Escape from Gringotts ride (after a quick stop at the lockers) and enjoy the wake-up experience. Then, head to The Leaky Cauldron for an English breakfast and a glass of pumpkin juice. After that, be sure to visit Ollivander’s Wand Shop and experience the show, in which a lucky witch or wizard (or siblings, as was the case in our group) will have a wand selected specifically for them; it’s delightful! I’d recommend doing some wand research ahead of time online to see which ones call to you, be it the look or the lore of the wand. Then, once you’re there, you can sample any of the many, many wands available to see which one fits your hand best. (A note that the shop and the show are available in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, and for good reason: Both attractions sell interactive wands that you can use to activate dozens of super-fun scenes and effects at marked locations in both parks. it’s a blast!)
With wand in hand, pumpkin juice in your belly, and adrenaline in your system, you’re all set to explore all the shops and secrets that Diagon Alley has to offer. Be sure to use your map from your newly purchased interactive wand to check out all the interactive points; not only are they a lot of fun, they add to the immersive and magical feel of being in the Wizarding World. (Also look for the little targets–a black circle with red dots–and keep your wand movements relatively small and smooth to have the best chance at pulling off the magic tricks; a little practice makes perfect!) Most of the interactive points have a little bronze circle on the ground to indicate the target, the spell needed, and the effect produced, but there may be a secret spot or two that are hiding in plain sight; keep an eye out and be sure to ask the friendly staff who are more than happy to help.
While most of the shops and sights are out in the sunlit streets and roadways, you absolutely must step into the shadows of Knockturn Alley. It’s dark, spooky, and a home away from home for the Slytherin in your party. There are 5 interactive points here, but two are easy to miss since they’re further back in an even shadowier part of the alley; be sure to check them out for the full experience. But the crown jewel of Knockturn Alley is the creepy curiosity shop, Borgin and Burkes. The displays are among the best in the park, with the added bonus that you can take many of the macabre items home with you (for a pretty hefty price, of course.) Once you’ve explored every inch of Diagon Alley, be sure to hit up the Hogwarts Express to head to Hogsmeade!
If it’s thrill rides set in the Wizarding World that you’re into, this is the park for you. Nestled in Universal’s Islands of Adventure, this ever-snowy little burgh is home to three such attractions at three levels of intensity: There’s the more family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff coaster (which is perfect for younger witches and wizards, if a bit tough on the knees/legs for the taller members of your party), the immersive if a bit stomach-churning Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and the newest (and most intense, thrillingly so) ride, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. More on all of these below. But even if you’re not into the well-crafted thrill rides, Hogsmeade has plenty to offer elsewhere.
If you started your Wizarding World journey here instead of Diagon Alley, I’d still recommend heading to the wand shop first. There are fun interactive points to be found here, as well, and they’re a little more out in the open than some of the ones in Diagon Alley. This is also a great place to get a butterbeer–standard, hot, or frozen–to enjoy as you walk around and see the sights. And there certainly are plenty to see! Whether you’re waiting for other members of your wizarding team to experience the thrill rides or exiting through the gift shops yourself, be sure to check out Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods to pick up some pilfered paraphernalia; pop into Dervish and Banges to get your Hogwarts gear, Quidditch supplies, necessary magical items, or a cuddly copy of “The Monster Book of Monsters” (careful, it bites); or head over to the Owl Post if you want Hogwarts quills, ink, and stationary, or if you want to add that extra special something to your own correspondence with a unique Hogsmeade postmark!
After all that shopping and riding (and repeating), your crew might need to refuel at one of two themed restaurants in the quaint village. If you just want to grab a quick drink, be it Butterbeer, Pumpkin Juice, or Gillywater (bottled water), or domestic and imported beers like the pub’s exclusive Hog’s Head Brew, or specialty drinks, wine, spirits, and mixed drinks, Hog’s Head is the place for you. But if you want to take the party from the bar to the dining table, head on over to the nearby Three Broomsticks, the iconic eatery from the Harry Potter stories. Here, you can take in the environmental details like cast-iron chandeliers, weathered wood beams, and balconies brimming with curious bric-a-brac (and a second floor which might be playing host to a secret meeting or two). Then you can take a seat and have your fill of tasty British fare including The Great Feast (which lives up to its name), Fish and Chips, Shepherd’s Pie, Beef Pasties, Turkey Legs, and fresh veggies. (One oddity here: The chairs were set very low to the ground, so either we were in a kids section or this is just the way things are in the Three Broomsticks. Weird!) After you’ve seen and done everything there is to see and do in Hogsmeade, be sure to stick around until dusk to witness the spectacular light show projected onto the side of Hogwarts and the surrounding landscape; it’s fantastic!
If you’ve still got energy (or time) after your Wizarding World adventure, there’s still lots more to explore in the rest of the parks, from Simpsons World, to movie franchise-themed areas and rides, to plenty of places for the kids to play and get in on the fun. There’s so much to experience, in fact, that it would be impossible to capture it all here. So instead, I’ve provided a rundown of the rides I was able to check out, some tips for getting the most out of your time in the queue and on the ride itself, and which ones are absolute must-rides. Check it out below!
Before we get to the rest of the parks, let’s break down the Harry Potter ride guide:
- Definitely the most family-friendly ride of the bunch
- Visitors will get to board the iconic train and travel to and from Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade; just remember to make sure you have access to both parks!
- Along the way, you and your fellow riders will get to meet all sorts of characters from the Wizarding World, some of which will guide your journey while others might just try to stop it…
- Be sure to stop and take a picture of your friends and family members as they pass through the magical barrier between the Muggle world and the Wizarding world!
Flight of the Hippogriff
- A step up in intensity, this short roller coaster ride in Hogsmeade is a great starting point for younger viewers looking to get in on the thrills.
- You’ll get to explore a bit more of the Hogwarts grounds and Hagrid’s hut; keep an ear out for Fang and an eye out for any Hippogriffs that might be in the area
- A note for the taller riders out there: I’m 6’3″, and this was a tight fit; my knees and back were not super-happy with the available seating arrangement, so plan accordingly.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- Just across from the Hippogriff ride is this Hogwarts-based attraction; you can’t miss the giant tower looking down on the village from the lakeside landscape
- You’ll venture through the famous School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, visiting Dumbledore’s office, the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, the Gryffindor common room, the Room of Requirement, and more; even if you take the Express route, you can still stop and enjoy most of these waypoints with the rest of the crowd
- The impressive 3D/4D ride is a big step up in intensity and the rocking and rolling ride might be a rough go for those with motion-sickness; yours truly had a tough time enjoying it because I was trying to keep my Butterbeer down
- But if you can stomach it, you’ll enjoy a race across the Quidditch pitch, a close call with a band of roaming Dementors, and a soaring story that rivals a dragon in flight
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
- Diagon Alley’s sole thrill ride is worth the wait (if there is one; get here first thing in the morning and you should easily be among the first to ride)
- This is one of the most immersive attractions in the parks: You walk through Gringotts’ iconic and opulent lobby, moving past all of the hard-working goblins who occasionally look up (and seemingly right at you!) to see who is disturbing their day. Then, you’ll have your picture taken (more for purchasing purposes than security ones) before heading through the bank’s offices (be sure to check out the newspaper headlines and keep an eye and ear out for any familiar faces and voices who might be in the bank with you) and then into a herky-jerky elevator that descends into the depths of the cavernous vaults. That’s when the ride really takes off!
- The bank’s stringent security measures will harry your every move while you navigate the vaults, encountering Harry, Ron, and Hermione along the way, plus another Weasley or two. But the vaults also feature the villainous Voldemort and Bellatrix, plus armored trolls and one ticked-off dragon.
- This ride is absolutely worth experiencing a few times to get the most out of the incredibly immersive design.
Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure
- Easily my favorite ride of all, this new attraction features a highly immersive experience combined with cutting-edge ride mechanics that will have you queuing up again and again
- Everyone’s favorite half-giant groundskeeper Hagrid is your guide, though he and Arthur Weasley may be more preoccupied with magical motorbikes than fantastic beasts early on. However, there are plenty of magical creatures to be seen on this high-speed ride.
- For the first time ever, fly deep into the wilds of the Forbidden Forest, beyond the grounds of Hogwarts castle, twisting past towering trees, magical creatures and wondrous surprises. You may end up trapped by Devil’s Snare, at the point of a centaur’s bow, or even experience one of the most magical creatures in the land…
- Some tips to fully enjoy this one: Take your time in the queue since there is a lot to see and experience, from dragon eggs, to invading plant life, to minerals literally bursting through the walls, and Hagrid’s hut and oversized workshops. If you want to hurry through as quickly as possible, queue up in the single rider line; there’s no express pass here, so that’s the next best thing. Also, the experience differs whether you’re in the sidecar or on the bike itself, so try to ride both. And adding even more fun to the attraction, you’ll definitely want to give this one a ride at night and in the daytime!
And now, to move beyond the Wizarding World, here’s a look at some other must-see rides, in order of intensity:
- This is a darling little ride for visitors of all ages
- It gives a great overview of the surrounding attractions and the park itself
- Seuss fans young and old will find a lot to enjoy here
- This classic ride not only lets you live out the story of Steven Spielberg‘s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, it also features a video intro from the (then very young) filmmaker himself! (And keep an ear out for John William‘s unique score composed specifically for the ride!)
- You’ll get to ride your own flying bicycle (in tandem) over the town’s rooftops before soaring through a space portal to E.T.’s home planet!
- The creatures on display here are fantastic, and as long as everything’s working properly, E.T. himself will thank you personally for your help at the journey’s end
- You’d be forgiven for thinking that this one is more intense than it actually is, but it’s a fairly chill ride
- You move along in a trackless vehicle that can comfortably seat more than 70 people; your first clue that this ride won’t be all that jostling is that there are no belts or restraints, just a comfy bench seat for all riders
- Our driver was Jinks Costanza, a no-nonsense New York transplant, but there are 5 different drivers to experience, so it’s worth riding it a few times to hear all their banter
- Additionally, there’s so much action playing out on either side of the ride vehicle as you go that you’ll need to ride it a few times just to see everything. So whether it’s dino battles, giant spiders dropping down on you, or Kong himself alternately threatening the vehicle or saving the day, there’s a lot to see here.
- This is one of a few attractions that are both franchise-specific and much more appealing for fans of those franchises than those who are not; the same can be said for the rest of the rides in this list
- Fun from beginning to end, whether you’re in the queue or heading out of the building, The Simpsons Ride is packed full of Easter eggs, familiar faces, and funny banter for fans of the long-running animated sitcom
- This ride will jostle you around quite a bit even though you’re basically sitting still the entire time; the motion simulation screen is smooth but the ride vehicle itself can be a bit bumpy
- There is almost too much content on the screen to keep track of as you race across Springfield on an out-of-control journey, so that will keeping you coming back to this one again and again to see if you can spot everything!
- Being perfectly honest, this one’s for the super-fans (and family) of the Fast & Furious franchise
- The queue is fun as you go through Dom’s garage (after checking out the F&F family’s picnic table where they gather for Coronas and BBQ), getting an eyeful of chrome with the superfast cars on display before moving into the ready room.
- The best part of the attraction for me was the ride attendees who converse with franchise characters like Mia, Tej, and Hobbes, all played by their real-world counterparts; but don’t worry, Dom, Lettie, and Roman arrive soon too in order to kick off the party
- The story setup is pretty weird here: We’re members of the F&F family now, and we’re invited to a crazy party, but then we’re being tracked by both the FBI and the villainous Owen Shaw … so the ride vehicle stops by the party temporarily before racing through the city streets as all kinds of physics-defying action happens all around us
- Unfortunately, the ride feels like it goes from 0-100 immediately and is then over before you know it, so again, this one’s for the superfans.
- While there’s a more recent Men in Black movie in the world, this ride goes old-school with it.
- The arcade-style shoot-em-up sees riders journeying through New York City streets as an agent-in-training to take out as many alien threats as possible, competing against your fellow riders in the process.
- However, the creatures can hit back, making your vehicle spin like crazy; that might be a bit much for some riders.
- There are apparently 120-some alien species on display, many created just for the ride itself. And with different endings, fans of the franchise will want to ride this one again and again to not only get the high school but to see everything there is to experience.
- This ride has been around for a while but it’s still one of the best. Be sure to explore the Marvel-themed area around it, which is like walking into the pages of a comic book!
- Fans of the acclaimed 90s animated series will find a lot to love here as it pulls directly from that show’s character designs, comedic tone, and voice acting (which, of course, pulled from the Marvel Comics themselves)
- The 3D motion simulation ride (yeah, you’ll need glasses for this one) bring visitors face to face with the Sinister Syndicate (who have stolen the Statue of Liberty, as you do) while Spider-Man does his best to save the day.
- There are tons of cool effects to be found throughout this ride and it’s an absolute blast to experience for riders of all ages. (And yes, Stan Lee does make a cameo appearance or two!)
- This was honestly way more fun than I was expecting, and I mean that in the best possible way!
- The motion simulation ride recruits visitors as Freedom Fighters to join the Autobots to protect Earth from Megatron and his villainous Decepticons. It’s our job to keep the AllSpark out of his hands by any means possible, and we’ll get to tag along with Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and other Autobot allies to do so. (Keep an eye out for 16 robots in disguise during your journey! Thankfully, the ride’s narrator calls out all of them by name so you can actually tell who’s fighting whom!)
- While the franchise touches were great throughout the ride, I really enjoyed the new character of Evac, a N*E*S*T* vehicle/Transformer who’s job is to help rescue human fighters on the front lines get out of harm’s way. I’d love to see more from this character in the future, but for now, the ride will have to suffice.
- This really is a thrill-a-minute ride with lots of smash-em-up battles and high-flying action. One of the best in the park!
- Who knew that this 16-year-old ride would still be one of the best themed coasters anywhere? Well, the folks at AmusementToday and the Golden Ticket Awards certainly did, having given this attraction a #1 ranking many years in a row, having achieved legendary status.
- That’s a funny way to describe this ride that’s part myth, part movie. The queue welcomes visitors into the making of the fictional sequel to The Mummy and its franchise fare, which is delightful in and of itself, but you soon get the feeling that you’re in an actual archeological dig site as plenty of artifacts and cultural touchstones can be found.
- But the Hollywood magic soon gives way to theme park thrills as riders find themselves in the middle of a dangerous quest for revenge by the title terror; your very souls are held in the balance in a mad dash from Imhotep.
- While the ride itself is thrilling, terrifying (especially in the dark), chock full of special effects and practical elements, and immensely entertaining (if a bit intense for the less thrill-seeking riders, so be warned), the extra bit of fun comes by way of Brendan Fraser and the cast and crew hamming it up before and after the ride. It’s a treat, as is this hidden gem in Universal Studios Florida
There’s so much more to explore at Universal Orlando Resort, but I hope this primer has given you some insight into your upcoming visit, especially if it’s your first time. Let us know how your trip turns out!