As a Harry Potter fan, I’ve been to the Universal parks many times, and as a frum Jew, experiencing it comes with some challenges. However, with some advance planning, anyone can have a magical day at the park.
There is a lot to do at both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios without even going into the Wizarding World, but getting through them is a much larger subject for another day. For now, since 7 is an important number in the Harry Potter universe, here are the top 7 tips for having a magical experience at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter:
1.Stay on site. Universal Studios has four hotels on site and staying at one comes with the added benefit of scoring an Express Pass for you and everyone in your party. While there are a few exceptions, an Express Pass puts you at the front of the line for most rides. They usually cost anywhere from $50 to $100 extra per ticket (depending on the season) so while booking the local Holiday Inn may be cheaper, the perk of getting the Express Pass pays off – especially if you’re travelling during peak season or with little kids. It’s a game changer for your park experience.
2. Eat breakfast in your hotel. Many of the hotels have places to purchase cereal and milk, though you can also pick that up at the local Publix or Winn Dixie. If you are staying on-site at the Loews Portofino Bay, a hotel fashioned after the village of Portofino in Italy, make sure to check out the harbor piazza. You can grab a quick Starbucks, pretend you’re in Italy for a half hour, and then jump on the shuttle to the parks. It definitely sets the mood for the day and will get you off to a good start.
3. Pack your lunch, plan to eat out for dinner. There are an assortment of restaurants in the Orlando area to have a sit-down dinner at the end of a long day which is a much better option than cold cuts in your hotel room. And while there are numerous kosher snacks and ice cream available throughout the park, the kosher real food pickings are slim. Packing a lunch will save you time in the park or you can order from the pre-packaged kosher food caterers (which you can order 72 hours in advance at select restaurants in the park). In The Wizarding World in particular, you’ll mainly find the kinds of food you’d expect in Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley, which sounds amazing for a Harry Potter fan, but isn’t so great for a kosher fan. Butterbeer, the drink of choice among wizards, as of this writing, is definitely not kosher. And with the exception of Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, none of the candies in Honeydukes are kosher either. Sometimes you can convince the guy behind the counter to sell you the Butterbeer mug without the actual Butterbeer and that way at least you can get a souvenir. And maybe make your own drink when you get home. Chalav Yisroel and everything.
4. Buy a park hopper. Both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios have different experiences and you’re going to want both. Plus, the train ride on the Hogwarts Express is only accessible to Park Hoppers (and is a different experience coming and going between the parks). Both parks offer shopping, including a wand experience at Olivanders Wand Shop, but the tone in each is different. Islands of Adventure is home to Hogsmeade, where the snow topped village awaits and Moaning Myrtle haunts the bathroom (definitely check that out). Rides there include The Forbidden Forest, Flight of the Hippogriff, and Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure. All three are not to be missed. The lines themselves are immersive so make sure to look around as you make your way to the front of the queue. The Forbidden Forest is the ride through the castle and as anyone who has waited to get to Hogwarts knows, the chance to walk through the castle and ride a broomstick on the Quidditch pitch is worth the wait. Flight of the Hippogriff is a fun coaster akin to Big Thunder Mountain in Disney. Definitely not high thrills, but a fun ride for younger kids. The new ride, Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure, is probably one of the best rides in the Wizarding World. Don’t let anyone tell you about it before you go on, and definitely choose the driver’s seat on the bike.
From Hogsmeade station, take the Hogwarts express to Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. There is only one Harry Potter ride there: Escape from Gringotts. It’s a ride that’s part simulator, part roller coaster, taking you face to face with some of the best villains in the series. Make sure you stop at the money exchange on your way out and get some wizarding cash! The rest of the area is really for the true fans. It’s as close to Diagon Alley as you will ever get. The storefronts seem to have literally burst out of the books and movies – from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes to the Quality Quidditch Supplies, you can find everything you need for the discerning wizard. Don’t miss peeking down Knockturn Alley and looking around Borgin and Burkes for some relics from both the novels and the movies. And make sure you find the phone booth just outside Diagon Alley where you can call the Ministry of Magic!
5. Daven Mincha at Hogwarts. Every theme park has its meeting point, and Universal is no exception. During the high season it is usually easy to find a mincha minyan right in front of the Hogwarts castle near the Forbidden Journey ride. You can always find that one hocker corralling anyone with a kippah for a minyan.
6. Buy a wand. You can purchase “enchanted” wands that interact with various windows and items throughout the wizarding world. It allows you to cast spells and watch the magic, or that havoc, that ensues. Definitely a must for younger Harry Potter fans and a great way to see all the smaller details of the park that you may have overlooked.
7. Choose your souvenirs wisely. Most items are theme-park priced. Meaning, you’ll need a few galleons in your pocket to get something decent. Hogwarts robes run about $100 and most character wands (not enchanted) cost around $35. The Butterbeer mug, if you can get it, is probably the cheapest item in both parks. But there is definitely something for everyone – from notebooks and stationary, to gag gifts, t-shirts and keychains.
No matter what, for the true Harry Potter fan, just walking through Diagon Alley and running through the wall at Kings Cross Station to get onto the Hogwarts Express is enough to have a complete day – even if you are skipping the Butterbeer. And with so much to do outside the Wizarding World, a day at Universal is one of the top recommendations for a theme park choice in the Orlando area. Good luck and have a magical time!
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