Our Time at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Diagon Alley in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, Orlando.

By Laura Jemetta

Are you heading to Orlando? Excited to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Then you don’t want to miss this series – read about our Wizarding World itinerary, our planning strategy and tips and tricks for budgeting at the parks.

We spent three days at Universal Studios Orlando, which meant that we essentially spent three days at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The Wizarding World is one of my favourite places in the world after those three days, and I learnt that like Disney World, a little bit of planning goes a long way on a trip to Universal.

Universal Explained

For those who don’t know, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a land inside Universal Studios Orlando. Universal Studios is split into two parks, (not including the water park), and the Wizarding World itself is split into two as well, with one half in each of the parks: Hogsmeade is in Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and Diagon Alley is in Universal Studios proper.

Okay, there’s good news and bad news about this set-up. The bad news is that if you want to visit both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, you will need to buy a separate tickets to each of the two parks. I know that sounds kind of sucky, right? If you don’t want to get just half an experience, you’re forced to pay twice, essentially. But the good new I have for you is this: the two separate parts of the Wizarding World are connected by the Hogwarts Express, so you can easily travel between them if you have your two tickets.

So, do you recommend getting a ticket to both parks? I guess there’s no simple answer to that question, but if you want to get the full Wizarding World experience, and you can afford it, yes. Seeing Diagon Alley without Hogsmeade will mean that you won’t get to ride the Forbidden Journey, or see the Hogwarts Castle. And only going to Hogsmeade means you won’t get to experience the unique magic of Diagon Alley, or go to the Leaky Cauldron. Also, you will not be able to ride the Hogwarts Express without a ticket to both parks, so if you don’t want to miss out on that experience, then buying a park-hopper ticket (allowing you entry into both parks), would be something to consider.


Getting Your Planning Started

You have a few decisions to make once you know you’re going to Universal Studios:

  • How many days you want to spend at the Parks
  • How many of the Parks you want to visit
  • Whether you want to add Express Passes onto your tickets

We booked our tickets when we were still back home in Australia, and that worked out great for us. Like I said, we decided on three days at Universal because we wanted to have ample time to see both sides of the Wizarding World, as well as to explore the rest of the parks. That ended up being a perfect amount of time for us to ride every ride we wanted to, multiple times!

Should I buy Express Passes? In a word? No. I really believe that you don’t need to pay for Express Passes to skip the queues, because there is a way to do it for free! Check out my post about Universal’s Best Kept Secret to read all about the Single Rider Line – the free way to skip the queues at Universal Studios. In short, if you don’t mind not sitting directly next to your friend or family member on the rides themselves, then you can queue in the much shorter Single Rider line, for free. On our first day at Universal, we inquired about Express Passes, but just couldn’t justify the extra cost (approximately $100 USD). When we realised that most of the rides we were most excited about had a single rider line anyway. we were so glad we didn’t pay that extra money. It was like getting those Express Passes for free – and you can too by using the Single Rider line instead!

Our Itinerary:

We started out at Universal Studios proper on Day one at the parks. We were so excited to be there, so our plan was pretty simple: make a beeline for the Wizarding World. We took one of the earliest shuttles available from our hotel, and were at the park early.

TIP: It’s a longer walk than you think from the buses, and through the City Walk to the park entry, so add on a bit of extra time (roughly 15-20 minutes) to your travel time if you’re trying to be at the parks at a certain time.

Once we’d queued up and had our tickets scanned, we headed straight for ‘London’, where the entry to Diagon Alley is. We took a wrong turn, and ended up walking the longest way there, but we finally made it across the bridge and into London.

A cool detail about the Wizarding World is that, like in the books, the entry to Diagon Alley is non-descript. It’s as if you could walk right past it if you didn’t know what you were looking for (which is kind of the point for us Muggles, right?)

Like in the Philosophers Stone, the entry to Diagon Alley is behind a brick wall, and once you make it through, you’re greeted with the Diagon Alley from both your imagination, and the films. Pair that with the stirring Harry Potter score wafting through the air, and you have a real tear-jerker moment. (For me anyway!)

As you enter, the first thing you notice will probably be the giant dragon on top of Gringotts – especially if you catch it breathing fire! You’ll recognise familiar sights everywhere – from the shops from the books to the cobblestones – everything feels like coming home. Once we had arrived and taken it all in, we headed straight for Escape from Gringotts – all the tips I’d read prior to arriving said to get straight in line for rides because wait times can get astronomical as the day goes on.

Escape to Gringotts takes place inside the aforementioned dragon-topped Gringotts Bank. To queue for the ride, you actually wind through Gringotts, including a walk through the hall with the goblin bank tellers. Even at that early time of the morning, the wait was pretty substantial, but I think Gringotts is my favourite Wizarding World ride, and the waiting is worth it (even if you’re not using the Single Rider Line!)

After the ride, we spent quite a bit of time wandering in and out of the shops in Diagon Alley – (just a warning, some of the ‘shops’ in Diagon Alley are just shop-fronts). But you can actually walk inside so many of the shops you’ve read about, like:

  • Madam Malkan’s
  • Magical Menagerie
  • Ollivander’s
  • Florean Fortescues
  • The Leaky Cauldron! – My favourite

To me, the shops in Diagon Alley are more than just shops – even if you’re not going to buy anything, (which you don’t need to in order to enjoy the Wizarding World), I highly recommend taking a leisurely walk through the shops – it’s magical. Try to pick up on all the little details from the books and films – and there are a lot of them – that show just how much thought went into the design of the park.

By the time we’d been in and out of the shops, we decided it was time to do something at the top of the list for the Wizarding World – (for me at least!) – try Butterbeer. This was honestly one of my favourite things about the Wizarding World – it’s one of the tastiest and most tangible things that was brought to life from the books, and I loved it. We decided to get our first Butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron, which I thought was a pretty damn cool place.

TIP: There is almost always going to be a queue for the Leaky Cauldron, even really early in the day, because they serve breakfast! But it’s worth the wait at least once for the decor and atmosphere alone. It’s one of the coolest places in the Wizarding World, serving traditional English fare, or you can just order a Butterbeer like we did on our first day.

Next, we decided to move on to Hogsmeade, so we went to board the Hogwarts Express. The whole queue for the train is so well done – it’s designed to be like a real London train station, (Kings Cross, to be exact). ‘Station Attendants’ scan your park ticket again (to make sure you have a park-hopper ticket), so you will need to have that at the ready. Then you wind your way through the station, through an English convenience stand, (where you can purchase real British lollies and snacks), and then through the wall to Platform 9 and 3/4.

TIP: There is a really cool detail as you go through to Platform 9 and 3/4, and it’s a great photo opportunity. If you’re travelling with someone, get them to stand back back around the corner as you walk through the arch, because mirrors create an illusion that makes it appear that you are actually disappear through a brick wall. Take a look at the photos below to see what I mean!

Platform 9 and 3/4's at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios, Orlando

Next, it was time to board the Hogwarts Express. Now, we found that there was always quite a hefty wait for the train, but it’s worth it! Not only is the Hogwarts Express a convenient way to get between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, (and a great chance to sit down for a while!), it’s also an immersive Harry Potter experience in itself.

The Hogwarts Express at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando

Once you get to the front of the queue, you board the train, you get to sit in a real train compartment and enjoy the ride from Universal Studios Florida to Islands of Adventure. It’s a short ride, but there are special effects that make it feel like a real train journey, (I’ll leave those as a surprise for you to experience yourself!)

TIP: Make sure you ride the Hogwarts Express at least twice – once from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade, and once back the other way. You get a different train experience in each direction!

Hogsmeade is pretty magical – the first thing I noticed was the ‘snow’ topped buildings, which is quite the juxtaposition when you’re sweltering in the Floridian heat! Again, the sweeping music as you enter really pulls at your heartstrings, and Hogsmeade feel a bit like home.

Honeydukes lolly shop in Hogsmeade. Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Universal Studios, Orlando.

So, Diagon Alley is probably my favourite part of the Wizarding World, but Hogsmeade has Honeydukes, which is my favourite shop to visit. Candy-coloured and candy-filled, it is the lolly shop of dreams. I got a little carried away with the chocolate frogs and Bertie Botts, but it was just so cool to be able to purchase those sweets from the books!

Undoubtedly the best part of Hogsmeade though, is the Forbidden Journey, which was Kate’s favourite ride. It always has an astronomical queue, but it’s one of the best rides in the whole park.

TIP: Of course, I’m going to remind you to take the Single Rider Line whenever you can for the Forbidden Journey, but make sure that you use the regular line at least once, because you will get to wind your way through Hogwarts if you do. See the Herbology Greenhouses, the Gryffindor Common Room, Dumbledores office, and more while you wait in line. It’s something you have to experience at least once!

After the Forbidden Journey, we explored Hogsmeade which, along with Honeydukes, features The Three Broomsticks, the Flight of the Hippogriff, and plenty of Butterbeer stands. To be honest, there is more to see and do in Diagon Alley, but Hogsmeade can sometimes be a nice break from the business of Diagon Alley. We found it was generally a little quieter in Hogsmeade, (except for around Hogwarts and the Forbidden Journey!)

We spent the next two days at Universal Studios doing two things:

Number 12 Grimmauld Place at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Orlando
  1. Going back and forth between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade: We explored everything – and I mean everything – that the Wizarding World has to offer. We had a lovely meal at the Leaky Cauldron. We had a butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks. We wandered in and out of every shop, perusing everything and carefully deciding on the souvenirs we wanted to buy. We watched the shows in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. We got an ice-cream from Florean Fortescue’s (butterbeer for me!) We hung out in London too – we got pictures in front of Number 12 Grimmauld Place, and got connected to the Ministry of Magic in the London phone booth! And we rode the rides. Over and over again. The Wizarding World rides are some of the best I’ve ever been on, and I didn’t get sick of them, even when we were going on them repeatedly. We did everything there is to do in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and I still want to go back someday soon. If that doesn’t indicate how great a place it is for a Harry Potter lover like me, I don’t know what will.
  2. We explored the rest of Universal Studios: This is important – we’d paid for tickets to Universal Studios as a whole, so of course we were going to get the most for our money and explore the rest of the parks. Three days there allowed us to see all of the Wizarding World, and see the rest of Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Universal has a lot of offer – from themed worlds from some of your favourite films, to some of the best and most thrilling rides you’ll find. I highly recommend the Hulk roller coaster, the Rip Ride and Rock It roller coaster, and the Mummy Ride to name a few.

There you have it – the third, (and most comprehensive!), part of my Universal Series.

Please let me know in the comments below what your thoughts are about my Universal Studios Series – did you get any good tips or inspiration? I certainly hope so!

Thanks for reading, whether you’re an old or new reader! We appreciate your support so much!

How to Save Money at Universal Studios

Hogwarts!

By Laura Jemetta

Okay, here’s Part 2 of my Universal Studios Series! How did you like Part 1? Let me know below if you plan to use any of my tips when you go to Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Today’s post is all about saving money at Universal Studios – you know we’re all about budgeting here at Xen, and you know that theme parks are damn expensive. So I’ve put together a list of specific ways that you can spend money at Universal Studios Orlando.

Don’t Pay for Water:

You can stay hydrated for free at Universal Studios, simply by asking for a cup of water. Drinking plenty of water is the best way to protect against heat stroke, and you don’t have to pay for bottled water to to do. Alternatively, you could take a reusable water bottle with you, and refill it at the parks as you need.

Skip the Express Pass:

Okay, you’re probably sick of me going on about the Single Rider Line. You can read about it in depth in my post about it here, but just know that you can get most of what the Express Pass offers you – for free – just by using the Single Rider Line.

Snack Throughout the Day:

We took this approach when we were at the parks: instead of paying for two to three full, sit down meals each day, we would fill up on a big hotel breakfast, and then snack for the rest of the day. We packed muesli bars to take with us, and then bought popcorn here, or an ice-cream there when we were hungry. There are so many snacks at the park to choose from, and if you combine these with fruit or a sandwich from home, it makes for an all-round cheaper day at the parks.

Think Carefully about Your Souvenirs:

Some of my favourite things I bought at the Wizarding World are pins – one of the most inexpensive things you can buy at theme parks. There is so much on offer at the shops in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, but take the time to think about what you’re really going to use and enjoy once you’re at home. I know the wands are tempting, but will you actually have a use for it in your real life? Probably not. I went a little bit mad with the souvenirs from the Wizarding World, but I have to be honest and let you know that I haven’t yet worn the pair of Gryffindor socks I bought.

Remember that you don’t NEED to buy things: 

You don’t actually need to buy anything to enjoy the Wizarding World of Harry Potter; it’s a place all about experiences – the experience of riding the Hogwarts Express or of riding through Gringotts in an escaped carriage or of sipping a frosty butterbeer while sitting in a shady corner of Hogsmeade. (I realise the Butterbeer one will require you to spend money, but everyone should have the Butterbeer experience at least once!) Think about only buying the things that will sustain the memory of those experiences for you, (or maybe nothing at all?); things that will take you back to the time and place and give you the same feeling of magic. One way to do this without spending money is to take some photos of yourself in the park, and then display them when you get home – then you can look at them every day and be reminded of those memories.

The Ultimate List of Tips for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Honeydukes, the lolly shop at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Lolly-Shop of dreams – Honeydukes

By Laura Jemetta

You probably know by now that I’m a massive Harry Potter fan. One day I might do a post about why, and what Harry Potter means to me, but for now, just know that it’s been a staple in my life for over 16 years. That’s a lot of life (for a 24 year old). With that in mind, you can see how the Wizarding World of Harry Potter would be one of my favourite places in the world.

That’s why this post is the first in a series about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter! (And more broadly Universal Studios)

Like you might have read in my posts about Disney World, the key to a visit to any theme park is planning. Don’t worry though! I did all the preparation for my trip in 2017, so you don’t have to – just grab a snack, sit back and read on.

  1. Take a small bag or backpack: This is my most important tip for visiting Universal Studios, and it’s crucial because in order to go on 90% of the rides at the parks, you are required to store your belongings in a locker. As in, you cannot take anything onto the rides with you: not your bag, not your phone, not your sunglasses. Nothing. It’s a rule that’s in place for safety reasons, and so Universal provides free lockers for you to use while you’re on the rides. They’re quite small though, so it’s important not to come to the parks with a backpack or handbag that’s not going to fit in the lockers.
  2. Book your tickets in advance: We booked our tickets online when we were still at home in Australia, and it worked out really well for us. It meant that we didn’t have to wait in the queue to buy tickets at the gate – which was really long – and we could just line up for a short time to have our pre-purchased tickets scanned.
  3. Choose your Hotel wisely: There are heaps of hotels you can stay at in Orlando, but my number one tip for accommodation is to choose a hotel that offers a free shuttle service to the parks. This will save you a lot of money, time and effort every day in figuring out how to get to the parks. Another thing to research is whether staying at a Universal Hotel will be beneficial or not. They are lovely hotels, (so I’ve heard), they are either situated within walking distance to the parks, or they offer a free shuttle, and there are often other benefits like extended opening hours. But they seem to be quite a bit pricier than other options in Orlando, so it’s worth weighing up your options before making a decision.
  4. Sunscreen. Sunscreen. Sunscreen: Put it on in the morning. Put it on at the parks. Get as much shade as you can during the day. You won’t regret it when you don’t end up terribly sunburned at the end of the day.
  5. Don’t buy Express Passes! It’s just not worth the price. I’ve written about my love for the Single Rider Line here and here, but in short, it’s a free way to skip ahead of the massive queues for the rides at Universal, (including the Forbidden Journey and Escape from Gringotts!) -Universal will try and sell you Express Passes, which are upwards of $100 USD, but if you take anything away from this post, it’s that the Single Rider Line is a free way to get the same thing! Take a look at my post explaining the Single Rider Line, and see how easy it is to save yourself the expense!
  6. Stop to Notice all the Details: There are so many little details that make the Wizarding World what it is, so try and slow down to notice them. If you’re rushing about, you’ll miss so many magical details, so take it slowly, take notice, and stay in the magic.
  7. Catch the Wand-Choosing Ceremony at Ollivanders: This is one of those cool details – you can line up for a wand ceremony at Ollivanders. It takes place in the back room of the wand shop, (which you can only go into for the ceremony), and you will witness someone from your group (normally a kid), get their wand. Special effects make it appear that the wand really does ‘choose the wizard’, and it’s a fun little feature of Diagon Alley that I think everyone should see at least once!
  8. Skip the Flight of the Hippogriff: (Unless you’re travelling with kids, or you prefer tame rides). Probably an unpopular opinion, but I was thoroughly disappointed with the Flight of the Hippogriff. There is no single rider line, so the queue was massive, and I swear the ride itself is about 30 seconds. It was the only ride in the whole of Universal Studios that I didn’t think was worth the wait. Like I said above though, it is a nice, gentle rollercoaster for children, or for those who don’t really like thrill rides, so it might be a ride you’d like to try depending on your circumstances
  9. Don’t forget to step outside of the Wizarding World: As much as I love the Wizarding World, Universal is not a cheap place to visit. Make sure to get the most out of your money by exploring the rest of Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, as well as Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. There is a lot to see and do in the parks, including themed worlds from some of your favourite films, and some really great rollercoasters. You won’t regret stepping out of the Harry Potter magic for a while and seeing what the rest of Universal has to offer.
  10. Try the Butterbeer: If there’s one thing you do in the Wizarding World, it has to be trying the Butterbeer. Is it expensive? I think so. But it’s so worth it. It’s literally the perfect drink to have in the heat of the day at the parks, and to me, it puts you right in the world of Harry Potter; that’s why I love it. Give it a go, just once, and be transported straight to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley.

There you have it: leave me a comment if you made it to the end of this long post! Let me know if you’ve found any of these tips useful!

As always, don’t forget to like and follow the blog – we’re really grateful for your support!

My First Extended Trip | March 2019

By Kate Arnold

Peru United States of America Solo Travel Trip

In early March next year I’ll be embarking on my first extended trip. I still don’t have all he details worked out yet but the main plan is to go to Peru where I will be teaching English for three months and then hopping over the States to revisit New York and LA. I’ll be gone from the beginning of March until mid August.

The Plan So Far

March

I’ll arrive in Lima (after a 30 hour journey!) and stay in a hostel for two days, which I’ll probably spend getting over jet lag but hopefully I can spend a bit of time exploring Lima as well. Then I’ll fly to Zorritos where I’ll meet the Teach Peru team that I’m staying with. The next four weeks I’ll undertake an intensive course of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).  Zorritos is a costal town in the Tumbes region, sometimes called the Land of Eternal Summer, with beaches and hot springs. During the course I will turn 25 and hope that I can celebrate on a beach with some new friends.

April

The TEFL course will finish around the second week of April but because schools don’t take on new teachers until the beginning of every month I need to wait until the start of May to begin teaching. I’ve decided to use these two weeks in April to go to Cusco and take a trip to Machu Picchu.

May, June, July

Teaching! I’m not sure where in Peru I’ll be teaching yet, I’ll find out where teachers are needed when I get there. I’ll be teaching for around 30 hours per week, which won’t leave me with a lot of time to explore during the week but I’m planning on spending the weekends getting in as much experiences as I can. I can’t plan much of this because I don’t know where I’ll be located but I’m happy to go with the flow for this part of the trip. I want to experience living in Peru like a local. 

August

When I’m finished teaching I’m going to get on a flight to New York where I’ll spend about a week. I’ve previously spent 10 days in New York City and I got to do almost everything on my list. This time I really want to see Hamilton, Frozen and Mean Girls on Broadway (and a few others if I can afford it). Check out my article about how I saved money on Broadway tickets last time I went to New York. This time I’d like to go to the Empire State Building and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, which I ran out of time to do last year and I’m dying to go back to my favourite bookstore in the world, The Strand. From New York I’m going back to Los Angeles, where I’m hoping to go back to Universal Studios for a day or two. I love rollercoasters and I’m dying to go back to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. If you’re going to Universal Studios make sure to read Laura’s article about using the Single Rider Line and how it will save you tonnes of time, without paying for express passes. It would be a fun way to end a great trip.  

The nerves are definitely starting to set in. I’ve never been away from my family for this long. I’ve travelled alone before (and loved it) but only for a maximum of four weeks. Living abroad and teaching English abroad have both been massive goals of mine and I’m so excited to experience these things. Have you been to Peru, taught a language abroad or done extended travel? Let me know all your tips and tricks in the comments.

Universal’s Best Kept Secret: The Single Rider Line

By Laura Jemetta

Universal's Best Kept Secret_ The Single Rider Line.jpg

That’s right, many rides at Universal Orlando have a Single Rider Line, which is a free way to skip ahead of the general line for some of Universal’s most popular attractions.

Really?

Yes, the Single Rider line allows you to access a special queue especially for single riders, significantly shortening your wait times.

So, what does this mean?

Generally, guests opt to be seated with their friends and family on the rides themselves, which can result in a spare single seat in a row or carriage. As a single rider, you opt fill that spare seat where needed. The wait times in the Single Rider line are significantly shorter, for what I consider to be the small trade-off of not sitting beside your friend or family member for the duration of the ride.

But don’t despair!

You still queue up with your loved ones, and only say goodbye to them for the two or three minutes of the ride. In fact, the many times I used the Single Rider line at Universal, Kate and I ended up seated next to each other on the ride anyway!

Think of it this way: you won’t be chatting to your friend on the ride anyway, so why not save yourself the two hour wait in line for Gringotts?

MY TOP-TIP

For both Gringotts and The Forbidden Journey in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, take the general line for your first time riding, no matter how long the wait. Both have a spectacular walk-through queue that you have to see at least once.

Tell me in the comments below: have you taken advantage of the Single Rider Line at Universal Studios? What did you think of it?