The iconic, smoke-billowing Hogwarts Express steam engine, greets guests entering Hogsmeade, at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort. Courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort
Originally published in January/February 2016
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11 tips for Muggles
Guests step through a gothic archway as they begin their journey toward the Dragon Challenge attraction. Courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort
From one Muggle to another, here’s your authoritative guide to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando (and coming soon to California).
By Ladd Bosworth
My name is Ladd and I’m a muggle.* Much to my disappointment, I didn’t get my Hogwarts letter on my 11th birthday. It wasn’t until much later in life that I stepped into Diagon Alley, bought my wand, and rode the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmead—at least, the muggle version at Universal Orlando.
Like many adults, I was drawn into the world of Harry Potter by cousins, friends, and even my father reading the books. The stories of magic, owls, and Quidditch, accented by the ever-present threat of attack by He-Who–Must-Not-Be-Named, proved to be an irresistible combination for millions of young adults and adults alike. The eight films based on the seven books grossed more than $7 billion in international box office sales, so it’s no surprise that Universal Orlando decided to dedicate a huge section of their theme park to one of the most successful movie franchises of all time.
To make the most of your visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I give you 11 tips for any Muggle visiting Universal Orlando:
- Two parks
The first thing to know is that Universal Orlando is comprised of two parks (Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure), with separate admission tickets. Each of these parks house part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Hogsmead and Hogwarts Castle are located in Islands of Adventure, and Diagon Alley is located in Universal Studios. The two areas are connected by the Hogwarts Express. A park hopper pass is required to visit both parks on the same day or to ride the Hogwarts Express (more on both later).
- Stay on-site
The five on-site hotels offer early access to the Hogsmead side of the park through the Islands of Adventure entrance. I stayed at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, a retro-themed hotel styled to look like its right out of the Fifties or Sixties. It also happens to be the least expensive of the on-site options. In addition to early access, there is a hotel shuttle that takes you to the entrance, so you don’t have to deal with parking, and it is easy to run back to the hotel for a break in the afternoon.
Entering the park early gives you about an hour before the rest of the guests arrive. Make a beeline for the Hogwarts castle and ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey once or twice before the line gets long. Then ride Dragon Challenge twice (each “dragon” is a different experience). By that point the lines will be growing.
- Get the Park Hopper tickets
As I mentioned earlier, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is split between the two parks that make up Universal Orlando. The park hopper ticket is the only way to visit both in the same day, but more importantly, it’s the only ticket that will allow you to ride the Hogwarts Express. While the park hopper tickets cost a little bit more, the train ride (especially the entry to Platform 9¾) is absolutely worth the extra expense. Rather than feeling like a gimmick to get you to buy a more expensive ticket, the Hogwarts Express is a fully immersive experience unto itself. While in line for the train you will pass by a shop to buy snacks and drinks, many of which are specific British treats not available elsewhere. During the journey from Kings Cross to Hogsmead, make certain you look around the cabin and the digital displays covering the windows. Ride the train both directions as the experience is entirely different.
- Plan at least two days
While you can see both parks in one long day, you will be rushed and will miss a lot of the nuances that make this a truly immersive experience. Plus the rest of Universal Orlando has some not-to-be-missed rides as well. Again, this is where the park hopper tickets come in handy. If one area of the park is too crowded, go check out another part of the park. The Universal Orlando app on your smartphone will help guide you on ride wait times. Outside of the Wizarding World rides, the Incredible Hulk, Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket, and Revenge of the Mummy are not to be missed.
- Take an afternoon break
This might sound strange, but I suggest going to the park for the early admission and staying until around 1 p.m. and then going back to the hotel for a relaxing couple of hours by the pool while the park is at peak capacity. Then return to the park around 4 as the crowds die down. Even as an adult, I needed some down time to relax and get off my feet, but this will be especially helpful when traveling with children.
- Replicate Harry’s journey
If you want the most authentic experience possible, skip the early entry on your first day and follow Harry’s journey in the books by starting in the Diagon Alley side of the park (enter through Universal Studios instead of Islands of Adventure). Your adventure begins by trying to locate the entrance to Diagon Alley, just as Harry did on his first visit. I won’t tell you where it is, but I will tell you that I walked right past it on my first visit. Once inside, you’ll need to make a withdrawal from your account at Gringotts Bank, so head there and say hello to the Goblins while you wait for your turn on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. After the ride, explore all of the Diagon Alley shops, including Ollivanders wand shop, Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, and the Magical Menagerie. You can also pick up all of your Quidditch gear at Quality Quidditch Supplies.
A fire-breathing dragon greets guest at the Gringotts Bank entrance in Diagon Alley before they embark on a multi-dimensional 3D thrill ride. Courtesy of Universal Studios Orlando
Once you have all of your school supplies it’s time to head to Kings Cross Station and find Platform 9¾ for the journey to Hogwarts.
There are surprises in every window, every nook, and around every corner. Take a moment to stop, look around, and take it all in. Watch the building windows as many of them will randomly open and show characters from the stories, such as Kreacher the house elf in a window of Grimmauld Place. Have a curiosity toward dark magic? Seek out Knockturn Alley, if you can find it, for death eater masks and other dark arts objects. Don’t forget to snap photos as Diagon Alley and Hogsmead make great backdrops for family photos and Facebook profile photos.
- Buy a wand and cast some spells
Two of my friends who live in Orlando joined me for one of my days in the park. I wasn’t planning to buy a wand but they talked me into it. I saw kids with their wands practicing their spells and thought it was cute, but for $50 I didn’t think I needed one of my own. I was wrong. Buy a wand. Whether you wait in line for a wand from Ollivanders, or buy one from the other shops, definitely get a wand. Without giving too much away, look around for the bronze plaques on the ground for instructions on performing the spells. It was a fun, relaxing way to explore both Diagon Alley and Hogsmead.
No Harry Potter experience would be complete without Butterbeer. This non-alcoholic treat tastes like very rich butterscotch and is available as a soda, frozen slush, or ice cream. Try all three, just maybe not all at once.
- Utilize the singles line
If you are traveling with younger children or grandchildren, this won’t work for you, but the two most popular rides, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, offer a singles line that is significantly shorter than the main lines. You’ll still have a wait, and you’ll get to hang out with your friends in line, but there is a good chance you’ll be split up when you actually get on the ride. That being said, don’t do the singles line on your first ride because you miss a lot of the theatrics and build up to the rides.
- Stay until closing
The realism of both parks is heightened after dark, and the crowds tend to dwindle in the evening. From 6-8 p.m. I was able to ride more rides with less of a wait than any other time during the day. If you are visiting during the summer, you’ll also appreciate the cooler temperatures in the evening. The Dueling Dragons ride is outdoors, so doing that one after dark is very different as well.
When you have had your fill of everything Harry Potter, don’t forget to check out a few of the other rides at Universal. My favorites were Incredible Hulk, Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket, and Revenge of the Mummy.
Ladd Bosworth is the director of web and digital strategy of AAA Colorado.
*Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, in a 2001 Potter prequel book Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them, calls American non-magical folk “No-Maj,” pronounced No-Madge. Apparently, muggles are non-magical Brits. A motion picture adaptation of the book will be released in November.
Harry in Hollywood
Whether you have children, or are a kid at heart (like me), The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was an incredible experience that I am definitely going to repeat on my next visit to Orlando. Universal Studios Hollywood will debut a replica of the Orlando attractions with a planned opening in spring 2016.
To book this or any theme park vacation, speak to your AAA Travel Agent or visit AAA.com/travel for more information.
Best idea yet
Upper Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Mt. Starr King at sunset, Yosemite National Park, Calif. © Joshua Cripps
By Tom Hess
What is America’s best idea? Film producer Ken Burns, whose credits include a public TV series on the Civil War and another on baseball, contends that the National Park Service (NPS) is the nation’s best, most enduring idea, and he produced a widely viewed and awarded film series to make his case.
The NPS turns 100 this year. If you booked lodging in one of the parks two years ago to celebrate the centennial, consider that one of your best ideas ever. If not, you’ll likely find no room in the inn.
“National Park lodges must be booked very, very far in advance,” said Sissy Swearingen with AAA Colorado travel partner Tauck. “People from all over the world come to these facilities, especially for the centennial. Some of these hotels, like Old Faithful Inn, were built a long time ago and don’t accommodate a lot of people.”
If you didn’t book a lodge room way back in 2014, here’s another very good idea. Get your national park lodge room through a tour operator. Tauck, for example, offers tours that include lodging in some of the most storied and coveted national park lodges. And its tours include narration by Ken Burns, the TV producer and parks advocate.
For example, Tauck offers California’s Gold Coast, a 12-day, Burns-narrated tour that includes a night’s stay at Tenaya Lodge within Yosemite National Park. The lodge owes its name to Chief Tenaya of the Southern Sierra Miwok or Ahwahneechee people. (Yosemite is derived from the Ahwahneechee word for grizzly bear). Eleven dates remained available for the tour at press time.
Among the other hotels where Tauck’s Ken Burns trips give you at least one night’s stay:
Old-West Summerdale BBQ at Yosemite National Park’s Tenaya Lodge. Courtesy of Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite
Lake Yellowstone Hotel, completed in 1891 and renovated most recently in 2013, features white columns and yellow exterior. The Sun Room windows offer a view of Yellowstone Lake, where anglers have hooked cutthroat trout for more than a century.
Many Glacier Hotel, built in 1914-1915, offers panoramic views of Grinnell Point and Mt. Henkle in Glacier National Park. Lake McDonald Lodge, built in 1913 as a hunting lodge, is located along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Sit by the massive stone fireplace in the spacious lobby. The cedar-paneled Stockade Lounge offers a fine view of the lake.
Zion Lodge is the only hotel in Zion National Park. Red Rock Grill, Zion Lodge’s restored dining room, boasts spectacular views of the park’s magnificent surroundings.
A final idea? Book now.
Two for one
Master Model Builder at Legoland California Resort works on the New York City Skyline. Courtesy of Legoland California Resort
By Jesse Wilson
Today’s children, as well as young and middle-aged adults, have never known a world without Disneyland. And as just one Millennial among many, I happily joined in the park’s 60th anniversary celebration, which Disney has extended through Labor Day 2016.
My celebration began early, with help from AAA Colorado. The Extra Magic Hour at California Adventure Park allowed me to ride Radiator Springs Racers, the key attraction in Cars Land, three times before the big crowds arrived.
That evening, my wife and I got good seats with a clear view for the World of Color – Celebrate! show, which dazzled us with a fun montage of Disney characters and scenes shown through hydro-technics, fire and laser effects and familiar tunes from movies like Aladdin and Pocahontas, reminding us of the many Disney movies we should watch again.
Next door in Disneyland, Disneyland Forever set some of that music to “street-to-sky” fireworks. We got chills watching perfectly timed fireworks explode over the Sleeping Beauty Castle as the opening notes of Frozen’s “Let It Go” echoed through the crowd.
As a former “Lego-maniac,” my trip to southern California also gave the Lego-building kid inside of me a chance to see a place made completely out of Lego bricks. The Southern California CityPASS included a day at Legoland with my Disneyland tickets, so after Disney, my wife and I drove to San Diego for a night.
Legoland offered more than we expected, with giant Lego bricks everywhere and hundreds of life-size Lego creations, such as pirates, dinosaurs, and towering Bionicle warriors adorning the walkways all through the park.
In the park’s Miniland USA, certified Lego Master Builders constructed 1:20 scale replications of Las Vegas and New York. And if you’re a fan of Star Wars, look for scenes on Tatooine, Hoth, and Endor, plus a huge Lego Deathstar. You can’t touch or play with these models, but they’re perfect for your next selfie.
Legoland’s rides are built for elementary school-aged kids. They’re engaging attractions, allowing riders to control speeds, angles, and interact with environments and other guests. Young children can drive a Lego car by themselves in Fun Town, or shoot water cannons at each other from a Lego ship in Pirate Shores. Future Master Builders can create their own Lego creations, such as boats and race cars, and compete against mom and dad, or other children.
Legoland California Resort continues to bring in more guests every year and is quickly becoming a premier destination for families. They even recently added a Legoland Resort Hotel that has Lego pirate and castle themed rooms. It’s a must-see for kids who love Legos, and still a lot of fun for anyone who’s never snapped two bricks together in their life.