I’ve always lived within an hour drive of mountains with their curvy roads and sweeping vista overlooks. Our outdoor adventures tend to include elevation climbs, trails through woods, rock outcroppings and running water flowing over rounded stones. When we have the opportunity to travel to a beach I look forward to spending an evening in the sand believing we’ll be satisfied with a quick dip in the ocean. I become salt-water drunk after those first few minutes on the shore.... [Read More]Read more
The main draw for us to visit Universal Orlando was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The Harry Potter books captured my imagination in college and now I have my own muggles who wield wands and casts spells like their favorite Hogwarts characters.
Universal Orlando consists of two parks: Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. In order to tour both parks, visitors need to purchase park-to-park tickets granting access to both parks. I’m going to discuss the parks separately, but highly recommend spending more for the park-to-park ticket. This post will feature Islands of Adventure.
We bought our tickets during a promotional get a third day free when you purchase a two-day park-to-park ticket. We arrived in Orlando mid-afternoon on a Monday, checked into Cabana Bay Beach Resort, one of the hotels on Universal Orlando Resort property, and headed into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade. This is where Hogwarts is located and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, one of the premier rides at Universal Orlando. Hogsmeade contains two other rides: Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge. You can also take the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade Station to King’s Cross Station in Universal Studios. Riding Hogwarts Express requires you to have a park-to-park ticket.
The Forbidden Journey queue line takes you through Hogwarts on the way to the loading zone for the ride. Harry Potter fans won’t be disappointed. There are talking and moving paintings on the walls, Dumbledore’s office featuring the Headmaster himself, as well as a classroom meeting with Harry, Ron and Hermione.
Several rides at Universal Orlando don’t allow bags of any sort on them. Most of those rides offer free lockers for visitors to stow their items while riding. The lockers require a fingerprint for locking/unlocking and are easy to access and operate. The locker areas are busy and confined spaces. Move to the back of the locker rows where you won’t have to wait as long to “rent” a locker. The lockers aren’t large. They won’t fit a loaded large backpack or camera bag. Both Craig and I carry small backpacks at theme parks. They were the perfect size for walking all day and storing in the lockers. If a ride warns you to stow loose items, trust the park. There are quite a few rides that whip visitors around.
Visitors can also tour the castle via the queue line and take time to enjoy the details in Hogwarts. The second time the boys rode the ride, I walked through with my camera. It’s difficult to take photos in the castle because it’s dark, but well worth a leisurely stroll for fans of the books and movies. When the rest of the family boarded the ride the second time, I was allowed to wait for them to finish, and we all exited together.
Forbidden Journey takes you flying through the air on a broomstick with Harry. There is a fire-breathing dragon, Dementors, and steep dives. It’s intensely amazing and unique. It’s also not for the easily frightened. I was concerned our daughter wouldn’t fair well on the ride, but she insisted. You sit in a row with other visitors, feat dangling, but there is a divider between people. Our daughter was sandwiched between Craig and I, but couldn’t see us because of the harness. A couple of times I reached over to touch her knee, but that was the most consoling I could offer. She was fine on even the most intense rides. I believe a lot of that had to do with the excitement her big brothers brought to the trip.
I don’t know that I would take a child younger than five to Universal Orlando. The rides are mostly 3D/4D simulators and could be overwhelming for young children. There are also height requirements, 48 inches is a good baseline for most rides. In my opinion, Universal Orlando is best suited for children seven years and older, especially if they aren’t thrill-seekers.
Dragon Challenge is a roller coaster which is essentially two different rides in one. There are two dragons to choose from, Hungarian Horntail and Chinese Fireball. Craig rode the first time with the boys on the Chinese Fireball and then refused to go again. He does well on roller coasters and said Dragon Challenge was too much. He’s not as young as he thinks. I don’t do roller coasters with inversions so shouldn’t judge Craig who is more adventurous at theme parks. The boys eventually rode Dragon Challenge four times during our visit. It’s one of their all-time favorite theme park rides.
Flight of Hippogriff is a short, more family-friendly coaster. It has some dives and steep banks, but is good for those who want the thrill of a coaster without feeling like they’re in danger, like me. This ride gives you a view of Buckbeak and Hagrid’s Hut as well as a pumpkin patch.
Hogsmeade’s offers several shops Harry Potter fans would expect to see there. It has Ollivanders wand shop which is also located in Universal Studios Diagon Alley. It’s rightful place of existence from the books. Hogsmeade’s Ollivanders is smaller than what you find at Diagon Alley. Each does a wand selection show. Guests are invited in and someone is chosen by Ollivander to be chosen by a wand. We intended to do Ollivanders in Diagon Alley to be true to the books but were at Hogsmeade during an early opening and waited in line for a short 10 minutes to visit Ollivander.
Those 15 minutes will remain as some of my favorite moments. We were in a group of mostly adults and teenagers. Our two oldest boys, who look about the age of a first year student at Hogwarts and were sporting Harry Potter t-shirts, were selected by Ollivander to be chosen by wands. Each of them used a wand that backfired initially, one banging draws and cupboards and the other wilting a plant. When Ollivander switched their wands, a wind swept through, music played and a light shown on the boys. The wands had chosen. Their faces were priceless. I was also surprised that their younger siblings weren’t jealous and were just as excited. I had spent time prepping all of them of the unlikelihood of being chosen, so the ceremony was a nice treat. Parents beware: The wands are not gifts from the park. They have to be purchased for $47. The boys chose not to spend their money on the wands. Like most things in the Wizarding World, Ollivanders felt like we had stepped into a page straight from J. K. Rowling’s imagination.
We bought Wizarding World postcards and pricey themed stamps from Ollivanders. Just outside the shop is a place to have a Hogsmeade cancellation stamp put on the postcards and a mailbox to send them from.
The Hogwarts Express can have wait times up to 90 minutes during the day. While you ride the train, a video plays out your window and pay attention to what’s happening in the hallway outside your door. The rides and stations are different at Hogsmeade and King’s Crossing. Both should be experienced. The train conductor greets visitors throughout the day in Hogsmeade.
Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley were the busiest parts of Universal Orlando. People are shoulder-to-shoulder during peak hours. Both are best experienced first thing in the morning or the last couple hours of the day. Potter fans will enjoy walking through the shops and spotting details from the books.
Our youngest son bought Ginny Weasley’s wand. He carried the wand around one entire day, which was a bit of a pain, but there are several spots in both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley where wands can be used to cast spells. There are maps showing where to cast spells, and the sidewalks and streets feature brass plates marking locations. Some of the wand motions are tricky. It’s helpful to find the sensor and direct your movements toward it.
There’s more to Islands of Adventure than Hogsmeade. Our longest wait in the park was for Poseidon’s Fury in The Lost Continent area, which is a guided tour of “ruins” filled with special effects. This is intense with fire, complete darkness at times and different water effects. We enjoyed the show. The actor was believable and the staging was different than anything we’ve watched. It was a nice break from jarring rides.
Seuss Landing is geared toward younger kids. Our boys enjoyed spotting different Seuss characters and phrases but just endured the rides for the sake of their sister. We did find a store selling books, and the boys eagerly sat down to read. They admitted missing books while we toured theme parks.
Marvel Super Hero Island is home to The Incredible Hulk Coaster. Once again, there were multiple inversions, so I have no experience with this ride. I know it looks intense, and my boys begged to ride it again and again because they’re obviously not related to me. I also didn’t ride Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, but Craig said it was mild and a tad underwhelming. Storm Force Accelatron is your standard spinning fair ride. The line was non-existent, so we rode it several times.
I heard rave reviews of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, but it isn’t even in our top-five list of favorite rides from Universal Orlando. The queue isn’t as well-done as some of the others in the park. The ride is a 4-D simulator that takes you on an adventure with Spider-Man. I’m sure if I had bigger Spider-Man fans, the ride would have been more exciting.
Toon Lagoon is home to water rides, and comic characters our kids couldn’t identify. You will get wet here. We were soaked from head to toe. We saw several people wearing ponchos on the rides. The purpose of rides with water is to soak guests. It’s what makes them entertaining. Don’t wear the ponchos. We enjoyed watching each other be soaked and snapping photos of us drenched afterward. Enjoy the moment. It didn’t take us long to dry in the heat, but we remained wrinkly for the evening.
We didn’t explore Jurassic Park thoroughly due to lightning in the area. We did ride Jurassic Park River Adventure with its growling dinosaurs and extremely steep water drop. We rode this right after Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges had soaked us. This was a good choice because we just ended up a little more wet.
I recommend staying on property. The bus system was fairly quick. We did wait 20 minutes one night for a bus back to the hotel. The early morning hour at Hogsmeade alone is worth staying on property. We enjoyed Cabana Bay which has a retro feel. Each of us was given a personalized room card which also worked for security gates into the room areas. I loved the vintage details down to the VO5 shampoo and conditioner in the bathroom and the retro cars near the entrance. If you have room in the budget, purchasing the Universal Express Pass to skip the regular lines would be helpful. We didn’t wait any excruciatingly unreasonable length of time for rides, but having the Express Pass would have saved time studying the app for current wait times to decide our next move. We did purchase Photo Connect which gave us access to all ride photos taken and the few photographers stationed around the park. Photos are important to me and having those ride photos is a wonderful addition to what I photographed.
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