You only have ONE DAY. Make it count!
Last spring, my family went to Florida’s Universal Studios to check out Harry Potter World. Because of our various work schedules, we only had ONE DAY at the parks. I’m going to cover how we traveled, where we stayed, which tickets we bought, how to have a strong start to your day, what the rides are like and which are worth the wait, how to manage your time in the parks, and what to do with any extra time you may have (believe it or not, you’ll have extra time!).
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Travel to Orlando and Where We Stayed
I flew in Friday night after work. It made for a late night (after midnight), but what was most important was that we were ready to go bright and early Saturday morning, so we decided the late night was worth it. We stayed at the fun and retro Cabana Bay, one of Universal’s hotels. Some of the perks include a massive food court, two huge pools with a lazy river, the Atomic Tonic bar, and plenty of outdoor, “beachfront” relaxation space. If you have more time to spend, Volcano Bay, the water park, is a short walk from Cabana Bay. This requires its own separate ticket, though. When I travel, there are only a few things I care about when it comes to hotels, Is it quiet? Is it comfortable? Is it convenient? Cabana Bay is a “yes” to all three. The best perk Cabana Bay offers is that by staying at this hotel, you get access to the parks an hour early, courtesy of a complimentary shuttle!
Tickets and Extra Add-Ons
We purchased a one-day “Park-to-Park” ticket. It allowed us to get into both Island of Adventure and Universal Studios. Unfortunately, if you want to explore both sides of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade – you have to purchase a ticket to BOTH parks. The good news is this also opens up the Hogwarts Express, which is the train you ride from one park to the other. We also each bought a 2-Park Universal Express Pass. It allowed us to skip the lines the major attractions once per ride. Because we only had one day this seemed like a no-brainer purchase. Unfortunately, in hindsight, we could have skipped on those. They were $80 each, in addition to the price of our park tickets and as you’ll see later on, we rarely used them! The only time I could see this being useful (maybe) would be if you didn’t stay at a Universal hotel and therefore didn’t get the early access to the park.
How to Have a Strong Start
By staying at one of Universal’s hotels, we got into the park an hour early. The parks open at 9am, but we got to enter the park at 8am. Complimentary shuttles start leaving Cabana Bay at 7:30am, so we made a plan to meet in the lobby at 7am. We grabbed some breakfast at the Starbucks that is located in the lobby, then head out to get in line for the shuttles around 7:20am. I assumed there was already going to be a line at 7:20, but there wasn’t! We waited for a couple minutes until the shuttle buses showed up (full sized charter buses – Universal knows how to move huge crowds of people!). We quickly loaded the first bus and arrived at CityWalk. We walked through CityWalk to Islands of Adventure. We arrived at the gates to Islands of Adventure about 20 minutes before opening. It was perfect! Enough time to make a game plan and use the restroom. When the gates open, you have to walk through Islands of Adventure to the back where Hogsmeade is, one of the Harry Potter worlds. We decided to start there so we could B-line it to the Hogwarts castle to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
At Hogsmeade, the rides are Forbidden Journey (in the castle), Flight of the Hippogriff, and the Hogwarts Express: Hogsmeade Station. The Hogwarts Express takes you to Kings Cross Station, where you can experience the other half of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. At Diagon Alley, the one ride is Escape from Gringotts. I know that before I visited the theme park, I spent hours researching these rides. I have pretty severe motion sickness and so I wanted to know what I was getting into. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find many descriptions of the rides and that caused me some anxiety. I didn’t like not knowing what I was getting myself into! Here’s my best recap of the rides. I hope this helps you!
- Forbidden Journey is the biggest ride in Hogsmeade. It’s located inside the Hogwarts castle, which is pretty cool. However, this ride is a pretty intense 4D experience. It simulates you flying on a broomstick with HUGE screens. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to handle this ride. I had to close my eyes for 95% of it because when I opened them, I immediately went spinning. The good news is, the ride doesn’t actually move that much, so closing your eyes should eliminate vertigo. Still, I needed a little bit of time to recover afterward. The coolest part of the ride, for me, was the line walking onto the ride. They recreate scenes from inside Hogwarts and it’s a cool, immersive experience.
- Flight of the Hippogriff is a small roller coaster. I loved this one! No loops, just some fast turn and up and downs. We rode it a few times back to back because there was no line. Big fan!
- You can take the Hogwart’s Express from park to park. This train has little cabins that turn into small movie theatres! They play scenes from the movies on the train windows and cabin doors (like when Ron’s chocolate frog escapes). It’s a pretty fun way to pass the few minutes it takes to get from station to station. The videos are different depending on which way you are riding the train, too. Motion sickness level 0.
- Escape from Gringotts is another 4D simulation ride. You even wear 3D glasses while riding it. This ride moves quite a bit more than Forbidden Journey. You’re kind of on a big arm that rotates and tilts. What’s better about this ride, for those with motion sickness, is that the 3D scenes on the huge screens tend to happen when you’re staying still! That made all the difference for me. I liked being able to sit still, experience the 3D effects, then start moving again in a 2D, Disneyland-style Indiana Jones ride. I had to close my eyes for some, but I’d say I was able to enjoy 65% of the ride. In a ride that has simulation and 3D effects, that’s pretty good.
Managing your Time in the Parks
In short, rides first, sightsee and eat second. There’s only three real rides, plus the Hogwarts Express. Like I said earlier, we started on the Islands of Adventure side, in Hogsmeade. In the novels, Hogsmeade is the only all-wizard city in Britain and it’s where Harry and his friends go to hang out outside of Hogwarts.
When the gates to Islands of Adventure opened, we ran straight to Forbidden Journey. What’s interesting is you cannot use your Express Pass during the early hour of admission. Mainly because there’s no need, so they don’t set it up. There was no wait and my brother and I walked straight onto the ride. So… why did we purchase the Express Pass? The only benefit it would have had for us would have been if we wanted to go back later in the day and ride the rides again. We did use our Express Pass in the afternoon, but it wasn’t in either of the Harry Potter parks.
After exiting Forbidden Journey at around 8:30am or so, we walked right across the path to do the Flight of the Hippogriff. There was no line, so we rode it two or three times! That covered the rides for Hogsmeade, so we went straight to the Hogwarts Express and road that to Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. We figured we could sightsee and shop after the rides.
In Diagon Alley, my brother went on Escape from Gringotts on his own first to scope it out for me. While we waited, we went to Ollivander’s Wand Shop and watched the little show they put on there. They choose one person to “test wands on” and it turned out to be my mom! It was so fun to watch her in the show. By the time we were done at Ollivander’s, my brother was done on the ride. It was probably around 9:30am or so, so the park had just opened to the public. With my brother’s encouragement, we went on the ride together and only waited for about 25 minutes.
After Escape from Gringotts, we’d done all the rides in both Harry Potter parks, and it was only just after 10am! Now is when the sightseeing began. We wandered in and out of the shops, went back to look at the wands again, went into the joke shop… all over! The world that’s created is pretty incredible. I was reminded that rides aren’t everything. Just the experience of BEING in the park was pretty magical.
Don’t miss the dragon that spits fire (like, real fire) every so often. When you hear the growl, get your camera ready!
After thoroughly exploring Diagon Alley at a very leisurely pace, we got back on the Hogwarts Express and went to Hogsmeade for some lunch at around noon. The videos played on the train are different each way, so be sure to ride it to and from both parks at least once. In Hogsmeade, we ate at The Three Broomsticks. They have a wide variety of basic food and sandwiches. It’s a quick service meal place, so we were able to get back out to the park in no time. The Three Broomsticks was actually pretty cool inside! I had the chicken sandwich and it was shockingly delicious.
After we ate lunch, we slowly explored Hogsmeade. Again, we went into all the shops and stores (Honeydukes was my favorite and I bought a bag full of candy!).
We took photos of the castle and had some frozen butterbeer. I’ve heard this is the best form to get it in and I would have to agree. It’s like a caramel slushie – so freaking good. There was quite a line to get butterbeer, but it was ok. We had plenty to occupy our eyes with while we waited.
Done with Harry Potter… Now What?
We didn’t expect to finish both parks in a day and actually found ourselves wondering what to do next around 1:00pm! We walked around the rest of Islands of Adventure to check out the other areas. While making our way to the front, we stopped to ride the Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls (and used our Express pass!), Jurassic Park River Adventure, the Cat in the Hat ride, and the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride. I’d actually really recommend the trolley ride in Seuss Landing, because the views are pretty amazing. We also took another snack break and got some HUGE fudge pieces from the candy shop in Seuss Landing.
Once at the front of the park, we took the shuttle back to our hotel. We felt like we covered Islands of Adventure pretty well! No one in my family is a big roller coaster person, so we easily skipped the larger rides. It was probably around 3:30pm when we got back to our hotel. We rested and changed clothes (you get pretty wet on Ripsaw Falls and Jurassic Park!), then head back out around 5:30pm. We ate dinner at Red Brick Oven Pizza in CityWalk before heading into Universal Studios. The pizza was great – easy and quick.
Once in Universal Studios, we walked through some of the shops. I quickly discovered the Sanrio store and spent my souvenir money there! In Universal, I don’t think we actually rode any of the rides. We just walked through the different lands and enjoyed the views! Springfield: Home of the Simpsons was very impressive. They even sell the HUGE Homer Simpson Lard Lad donut. No… I didn’ try one, sadly.
After a leisurely evening of sightseeing, shopping, and eating, we picked up the pace once the sun went down. At night, don’t miss the Mardi Gras parade at Universal Studios! The floats and performers are pretty impressive. It was a ton of fun and I got some awesome photos. After the parade, follow the crowd of people out of Universal, through Islands of Adventure, and back to Hogsmeade to see the nighttime lights show at the Hogwarts castle. We stood on the bridge by the Butterbeer cart and had a perfect view! After the show, turn to your family and friends, high-five them, and make your way back to the shuttles for some well-deserved SLEEP.
Or, you could hit one final place – Toothsome Chocolate Emporium. By now, you’ve seen the huge Toothsome Chocolate Emporium factory looming across the river several times. It was probably close to 10:30pm and my brother and I decided to stop for one final sweet treat. You can choose to sit down for dinner, or order from their quick service dessert counter. It was PACKED in there, but I was super impressed with how fast the dessert counter was able to crank out everyone’s orders! The space for taking photos was very limited, unfortunately, but take my word for it – this dessert put me in a coma of sugary delight.
What. A. Day. It’s definitely not an itinerary for the weak! However, if you had little kids and needed to take more frequent breaks, you could still easily cover both sides of Harry Potter in one day. If you’ve been to Florida’s Univeral Studio’s, how was your experience? What would you add or recommend?
If you found this itinerary helpful and used it in your planning at all, PLEASE let me know! Comment below or DM me at @DiscoveringATX on Instagram.