If you're going to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando, the best thing to do is try to arrive at the park as early in the day as possible -- especially if you're going to be visiting during a peak time such as winter break, spring break, or summer vacation. Check the park website to find out when opening time is. The day I took my family was the Tuesday right after Christmas, and the park gates opened at 8 am. When we arrived at 10, it was already jammed full. Try to get there when the gates open - here's why:
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is inside Universal's Islands of Adventure park, but is also a separate part of the main park. When we arrived at 10:00 am, we were able to walk around the entire Islands of Adventure park -- except for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Instead, we were handed a return ticket, and told we could get into the Harry Potter area at 4:30 pm. That's right, the park was so crowded that they were forced to turn people away, and ask them to return six hours later.
Have a backup plan in case this happens to you. We were able to spend a good deal of time in other parts of the park (I really liked Marvel Island and Jurassic Park), and then made our way back to the gates of Hogwarts at 430 sharp.
What's In There, Anyway?
The twenty-acre Wizarding World of Harry Potter features several shops, but the real crowd-pleasers are the three main attractions: Flight of the Hippogriff, Dragon Challenge, and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The first, Flight of the Hippogriff, is a family-friendly roller-coaster, in which guests are invited to learn from Hagrid how to fly a hippogriff. Visitors who went to Universal about ten years ago will recognize parts of this -- it used to be a ride called the Flying Unicorn. The second ride, the Dragon Challenge, is a double roller coaster whose theme is duelling dragons -- riders get to choose either the Hungarian Horntail or Chinese Fireball, and the ride along dual tracks got big thumbs-up from my kids.
The park's crowning achievement, however, is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This ride starts off with a lengthy tour of Hogwarts Castle, and it's amazing -- from the greenhouse to the moving portrait gallery to the office of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, it's all incredibly detailed, down to the smallest items. Projected images of the actors interact with guests, and the technology is well-done rather than cheesy. After touring the castle, guests are seated on a bench, which is enchanted by Miss Hermione Granger, and led on a rapid-fire chase following Harry through the Hogwarts grounds. You'll get to interrupt a Quidditch match, meet a dragon, escape some Dementors, and just miss being clobbered by the Whomping Willow. It's a fantastic ride, and in my opinion, worth the wait.
Traffic tip: If you don't have bags, such as purses, you can move through the lines a lot faster - use the lockers near the Hogwarts Express to stash your stuff. Also, single riders get moved to the front.
Shopping and Souvenirs
Like any theme park, Universal makes a significant amount of money off souvenirs. Hogsmeade village has several shops in which you can buy things -- and the shops are small, which makes visiting them a less than stellar experience on peak traffic days. Fortunately, the lines move reasonably quickly - we waited about twenty minutes to get into Honeydukes Candy Store, which is connected to Zonko's Joke Shop. The candy shop was reasonably priced -- no more than you'd pay in any other specialty candy store -- and your kids can take home a really big chocolate frog or some Bertie Botts Beans.
Ollivander's Wand Shop was another story - the wait was nearly two hours, and after not getting in until 430, I didn't intend to stand in a line that long just to buy a wand. Here's the secret -- the wand shop puts on a small demonstration for each group of shoppers, in which a child is selected, based on his or her birthday, to be "chosen" for a wand, so there's a small show that causes the shopping time to be extended. If your child is older, or just wants a wand, skip Ollivander's and go up to the wand cart near the castle - the line there was only about 5 minutes long.
There's also a souvenir/gift shop at the exit to Forbidden Journey, but it was so crowded we literally could not see the cash register. If you really want a Harry Potter souvenir but don't want to get crushed by the crowds, stop at the main Universal Gift Shop on your way out of the park -- they carry the same stuff, and there are far fewer people.
Finally, there's the Owl Post, which is an actual post office that will send postcards and letters for you, stamped with a Hogsmeade postmark.
Eating, Dining, and More
The only places to eat in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are the Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron. The Three Broomsticks features a selection of menu items from the Potterverse, including pumpkin juice and butterbeer. Since we had already eaten, all we ordered was butterbeer -- and it was fantastic. At only $3.25 a cup, it seemed almost underpriced for the park, until we saw that butterbeer in an Official Hogwarts Souvenir Mug was ten bucks. We skipped the mug and just went with disposable cups. The couple next to us said the pumpkin juice was good too, but we didn't get a chance to try it.
One of the things that really struck me about the experience was the enthusiasm of the costumed actors. At one point, the students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang came out and put on a performance, and we also saw the Hogwarts Frog Chorus come out and do a streetside show. Every shop is staffed with Hogwarts students, all of whom clearly enjoy their jobs (and I'm convinced the kid working the door at Honeydukes got the job because of his remarkably Weasley-like appearance). Despite the overcrowding that came with it being a holiday week, the staff was nothing but courteous and polite and friendly. The real charm of the park is in the tiny details of Hogsmeade village.
Oh, and on a random side note, I found out later that actor Tom Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy in the films, was at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter the same day I was, and I'm sad I didn't get to see him, because he's just adorable.
On the whole, I'd give the park itself a 4.5 out of 5 stars --- despite the fact that the experience wasn't as enjoyable as it would be on a slower day, we still had a wonderful time.