It wasn’t difficult to find the Wizarding World of Harry Potter during my visit to Universal Studios in Orlando. All I had to do was follow the throngs of people—school age and older—in full Hogwarts school robes and wizard’s hats. Even as I dawdled in areas devoted to classic comic characters, super heroes, and favorite movies and TV shows, the wizards kept leading me on.
Orlando has changed a lot since I first visited in 1972 when Disney World’s Magic Kingdom had just opened. A friend and I took off there for spring break, finding a city that was just starting to cope with massive tourism growth. I’ve been back over the years to Sea World and other Disney parks, but this was my first trip to Universal, and sorry, Walt . . . I might have enjoyed Universal more than Disney.
There are five distinct resort experiences at Universal. I stayed at the South Seas-styled Royal Pacific but you might choose Italian-inspired luxury at Portofino Bay or rock ‘n’ roll fantasy at Hard Rock Hotel, where, like the Eagles Hotel California on which it’s based, you can “check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” The newest hotel, Sapphire Falls, has a Caribbean theme, and there’s a retro 60’s vibe at Cabana Bay Beach Resort, with its highway-motel color scheme and unique amenities, like its own bowling alley.
The hotels are connected by complimentary water taxi to CityWalk, Universal’s downtown area, which is packed with dozens of dining and entertainment options. CityWalk opens onto the two theme parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Both have a lot going on: you’ll find Spiderman and Dr. Seuss, Jurassic Park and a wild new King Kong ride, Minions and Homer Simpson—a drink at Moe’s Tavern anyone? But on my visit, the busiest parts of both parks were those devoted to Harry Potter. Hogwart’s Express train (complete with steam engine sounds and Scottish highlands views) connects the village of Hogsmeade, in Islands of Adventure, with downtown London’s “hidden” Diagon Alley, in Universal Studios.
Hogsmeade lives in a perpetual winter, with snow-topped roofs and hot butterbeer sold on the streets. All the details of both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley are directly from one of J.K. Rowling’s books—right down to the Rusty Cauldron, owl posts, flying hippogriffs, shops, and what you could buy in the shops—all of which was eagerly being taken in by the young witches and wizards who filled the streets. And yes, you could buy your own robe and wand, which actually worked its magic in certain designated areas. Aguamenti!
Since the two areas are in separate parks (and frankly, I cannot imagine doing one without the other), you need a Park-to-Park admission to enjoy both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. But the price is worth it because there is so much else to see in both parks—once you tear yourself away from all-things Potter!