Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade opened at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park in 2010. My family and I made the journey a few months later. Visiting the Wizarding World was incredible! I felt as if the Harry Potter movies and books had sprung to life, and so, when Universal opened a second Wizarding World in 2014 (Wizarding World - Diagon Alley) in its adjacent theme park (Universal Studios Florida), I immediately added it to my bucket list.

Planning our trip

My mom and I decided to visit just before Christmas. I had heard that Universal doesn't do much decorating in the Wizarding Worlds for the holidays, but I wanted to see whatever was there for myself. I picked what I hoped would be the least crowded days in December for our visit, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday the week after the week after Thanksgiving, December 8-10, 2015. Since this was considered low season, rock-bottom rates were available at Universal's onsite hotels. I chose the Cabana Bay Beach Resort.

Tip: For information on how I got lower rates than those available at Universal's and Loews Hotels' official website, see "How Jen at saved lots of money on her Universal Orlando vacation!" below.

Arrival in Orlando

After we arrived at Orlando International Airport, we made our way to the MEARS counter to check in for our shuttle to the hotel. (For information on the shuttle experience, see "How Jen at saved lots of money on her Universal Orlando vacation!" below.) About an hour later, we were standing in the expansive lobby of Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort. The lobby was decked out with silver garland and Christmas trees (in keeping with the hotel's 50's and 60's retro theme) that reminded my mom of the silver Christmas tree her dad brought home one year when she was a kid.

Lobby of Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort

We checked in at the front desk and then visited the Universal theme park ticket kiosk in the hotel lobby to pick up our park tickets.

Tip: For information on how I got our tickets at a lower price than that on Universal's official website, see "How Jen at saved lots of money on her Universal Orlando vacation!" below.

We dropped off our luggage and freshened up in our small, but cute and immaculate, standard room, and then we headed to the resort's bus stop for a complimentary ride to the parks.

The Wizarding World - Diagon Alley

About two hours after our arrival in Orlando, my mom and I walked through the gates of Universal Studios Florida, heading to The Wizarding World - Diagon Alley. Somehow, we neglected to get a park map at the entry turnstile but, after a little wandering, we found "Kings Cross Station." It wasn't hard to spot the nearby hidden entrance to Diagon Alley because more-experienced park guests were intermittently filing through it. Ducking around a few walls, we found the parted bricks (complete with a brick-moving sound effect) that framed Diagon Alley.

Entrance to Diagon Alley

Our initial view was magnificent, with Gringotts bank at the end of the alley, a dragon perched atop it.

Gringotts Bank in Diagon Alley

It wasn't long before the dragon began to growl, then he let out a loud roar and breathed out real fire. Awesome! (The dragon breathes fire about every fifteen minutes. He growls a few seconds before the flames erupt, giving people a chance to look up or aim their cameras.)

Fire-breathing dragon in Diagon Alley

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

Mom and I walked up the alley, heading toward Gringotts. The wait time at the only ride in Diagon Alley, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, turned out to be a very-magical 15 minutes! Mom and I joined the queue, which wound through the impressive, but much smaller than I'd imagined, lobby of Gringotts bank, where animatronic goblins were at work. The goblins occasionally looked up from their work and appeared to stare us down.

In the next area, our photo was taken (to sell to us after the ride at a minimum price of nearly $20). Then we headed down a corridor lined with doors. Very rarely, goblins could be seen in silhouette through the frosted glass. There were also goblin portraits hanging on the walls, but disappointingly, unlike many of the portraits in the Wizarding World, the images on these portraits did not move.

Next, we experienced a preshow that seemed to use the same technology that makes Dumbledore, Harry, Ron, and Hermione appear in 3D on the live sets in the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey queue. Here, the effect made the actors appear merely in 2D. This seems strange considering that this queue area was built years after that of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. I would think that the technology would be as good if not better, but the final effect here was decidedly less realistic.

After a fun bouncy ride in a Gringotts lift (elevator), we headed up a winding staircase to the loading platform. I excitedly boarded a mine car (ride vehicle). After riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey back in 2010, I had high hopes for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Unfortunately, I ended up disappointed. The ride starts off with a promising, exciting dash along roller coaster tracks, but then the vehicles enter what is essentially a large 3D movie theater (3D glasses are provided for riders). The ride vehicles then travel from movie theater to movie theater until the end when another exciting dash on roller coaster tracks brings them back to the loading platform.

To be fair, my review is clouded by the fact that I get motion sick on motion-simulation rides, and so I must close my eyes whenever the movie involves movement. In Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts there was plenty of onscreen action that did not involve movement of the ride vehicle, and so I was able to watch most of the movie. Still, I don't travel to theme parks to watch movies. I want a REAL experience, like the Indiana Jones rides at Disneyland in California and Tokyo DisneySea in Japan. My mom, who does not have any issues with motion sickness and was thus able to experience the entire Gringotts ride dubbed it, "Very good, but not as excellent as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey."

Tip: If wait times for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts are long and your party is willing to be completely split up, you can take advantage of a (usually) much shorter wait time on the single rider line, however, you will miss the Gringotts bank interior, the photo, the preshow, and the lift.

Tip: Backpacks, purses, and loose items are not allowed on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (or Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Islands of Adventure), however "fanny packs" (waist packs) were allowed during our visits. If you bring a backpack, purse, or loose items, you must store them in one of the complimentary lockers near the queue. Note that if you leave items in the lockers for extended periods you will be charged.

The Shops of Diagon Alley

After our ride, we explored the shops of Diagon Alley and dark, creepy Knockturn Alley. My favorite was Gringotts Money Exchange, where guests can exchange U.S. dollars (minimum $10) for Wizarding-World-themed paper money that can be used at Universal Orlando Resort. Even though we had no interest in exchanging money, visiting the shop was a highlight due to the animatronic goblin on duty who will attempt to answer any question. In keeping with the theme of this website (, I asked him what was on his bucket list. His response was perfectly in character, "Working."

I found a few fun surprises inside other shops of Diagon Alley. There is a talking mirror inside Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions. And, if you listen closely, you can hear a chirping bird inside the cabinet at Borgin and Burkes in Knockturn Alley (Harry Potter fans will know why). Unfortunately, the exterior shop windows of Diagon Alley weren't quite as inventive as the ones in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade.

The Shows of Diagon Alley

Diagon Alley hosts live puppet shows (The Tales of Beedle the Bard) and singers (Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees) on its stage area. The times for the shows are not publicized, but cast members in the area were able to tell me the day's schedule. During our visit we caught one of the puppet shows ("The Fountain of Fair Fortune"). There are a few different puppet shows, and so you might wish to check out multiple performances. We also walked by during a Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees performance. Unfortunately, the acoustics in the area made it difficult to understand the performers dialogue, and there was very little seating in the area, and so most people stood by the stage to watch the shows.

Interactive Wands

A new addition (to both Wizarding Worlds) are the Interactive Wands ($47.95 each) that allow guests to trigger effects in some of the shop windows. Areas for "spell casting" are noted by plaques on the ground and on a map provided with purchase of an Interactive Wand.

Plaque on the ground indicates a "spell casting" location. The arrow shows the wand movement required to trigger the effect.

The wands looked fun but, for me, they were not worth the price tag. It was easy enough to see the special effects when they were triggered by the young (and sometimes older) witches and wizards who had purchased the special wands. Note that Universal is careful not to allow the wands to be a source of disappointment. If, after a few tries, a wand owner fails to trigger the effect, a cast member promptly presents themselves to offer coaching. The effects seemed to be a bit difficult to trigger; even the adults often needed a few tries or some coaching.

Butterbeer ice cream!

Our next stop was Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour for something I'd been excited to try: Butterbeer soft-serve ice cream. On our 2010 visit to the Wizarding World, we enjoyed Frozen Butterbeer (a caramel-butterscotch flavored Slurpie). Butterbeer ice cream is a new addition to the Wizarding World. After one taste of the creamy caramel yumminess that is Butterbeer ice cream, my mom and I were hooked. During our three days at Universal Orlando Resort, we spent over $30 on Butterbeer ice cream between us (easy to do at $4.99 a cup).

Butterbeer ice cream from Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour

London Photo Ops

Having temporarily had our fill of Diagon Alley, we made our way out the brick entrance, back to the movie-set-like streets of London. A triple-decker purple Knight Bus was there, along with a charismatic driver and the talking shrunken head like the one seen in the movies. The driver was quick to engage us and happily posed for photos as he chatted with the shrunken head. Afterward, we sat at the nearby fountain and watched the driver interact with other guests. The driver was excellent at ad-libbing in character, at one point he asked a woman wearing stylishly-torn jeans if she had recently met up with a dragon!

Knight Bus driver photo op

Afterward, I peered inside the bus and was enchanted to see that the interior was fully decorated, with beds for the passengers. Park guests are prevented (by a cage) from entering the bus, but there is a cool photo op area at the back of the bus.

Knight Bus photo op

Another great photo location is the townhome at number 12 Grimmauld Place where, if you time it just right, you can catch Kreacher peering out of the second-story window.

12 Grimmauld Place photo op with Kreacher

We found yet another great photo location at the authentic British phone booth. And when we dialed MAGIC on the telephone inside (the phone number is printed on the center of the dial), we reached the Ministry of Magic! (Not a live operator, just a recording.)

Riding Hogwarts Express

Finally, we made our way to Kings Cross Station to ride Hogwarts Express. (Note that guests must have a Park-to-Park ticket to ride the Hogwarts Express.) The queue area feels very much like a real London train station. It even sports a snack stand selling imported British chips and candy bars along with ordinary theme-park snack items and drinks. The queue also offers the chance to see fellow park guests walk through a brick wall, or at least appear to do so, thanks to a mirror and lighting effect (the Pepper's ghost illusion). Mom and I took turns taking photos and video of one another "passing through the wall."

Passing through a brick wall at Kings Cross Station

At the end of the queue was perhaps one of the coolest things at the Wizarding World: a real live Hogwarts Express train ready for boarding.

Mom posing with Hogwarts Express at Kings Cross Station

Inside the train, each compartment seats eight, and the cast members seem to try to ensure that each is fairly full when assigning guests to their compartments. During the ride, not only is there an ever-changing view out the train window (courtesy of a movie screen), "fellow passengers," including characters from the movies, can be seen through the compartment's frosted interior windows. The Hogwarts Express ride isn't physically thrilling, but I felt as if I was traveling along with Harry, Ron, and Hermione through the world that J.K. Rowling created. So cool! My only complaint is that the voice actor who was cast to play Hermione doesn't sound anything like Emma Watson; she doesn't even have a British accent.

(Note that the Hogwarts Express train ride is different in each direction. And if you watch carefully, you might spot Voldemort outside Malfoy Manor on the trip from Hogsmeade to Kings Cross.)

The Wizarding World - Hogsmeade

We exited Hogwarts Express just outside Hogsmeade.

Hogsmeade Station exterior

My heart leapt as I walked under the Hogsmeade entry archway. I only wish that Universal hadn't put a smoking section right outside the entrance to Hogsmeade, sullying what is otherwise a magical experience.

Hogsmeade main entrance

Unlike in Diagon Alley, in Hogsmeade I spotted a few very-subtle Christmas decorations on some of the shops and carts. I'm not sure why Universal doesn't do more in the way of holiday decorating in the Wizarding World; they certainly go all out in Seuss Landing.

Owl Post was one of the few Wizarding World shops decorated for Christmas

The sky was beginning to darken into night as we headed toward Hogwarts Castle where we were greeted with a wonderful surprise, the wait time for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was just 10 minutes! Mom and I made our way through the fully-immersive queue, imagining that we really had arrived at Hogwarts Castle. At the end of the queue, we boarded our "enchanted bench" and rode what is one of my favorite theme park rides in the world (despite the fact that there are periods of the ride that involve motion simulation, during which I must close my eyes to avoid motion sickness). (For more about the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, see my review of The Wizarding World - Hogsmeade.)

After an awesome ride, we left Hogwarts castle and discovered that night had fallen on Hogsmeade. We stopped at Three Broomsticks for dinner and shared a delicious half-chicken with corn and seasoned potatoes. It was a perfect way to end to the first day of our second trip to the Wizarding World.

The Rest of Our Stay at Universal Orlando Resort

Mom and I spent the next two days returning to both Wizarding Worlds and venturing into the rest of the two Universal theme parks.

Universal Studios Florida

Outside of the Wizarding World, my favorite attractions at Universal Studios Florida were E.T. Adventure (A non-motion-simulation ride (Yeah!) reminiscent of Disney's Peter Pan's Flight ride) and Animal Actors on Location (A live show where animal actors show off their abilities. Although I really enjoyed this show, it felt like the same show I saw many, many years ago when I was a kid. I wish they'd update it.) We also enjoyed a brief behind-the-scenes experience at Men in Black Alien Attack. (If you'd like to have your own Men in Black Alien Attack behind-the-scenes experience, when you get off the ride, ask the cast member on the unloading platform if the "Immigration Tour" is available. If so, you will be escorted down to a movie-set like room (seen from the queue) where you will be allowed to walk around and examine the set up-close and take photos. Note that there is no charge for this experience, but it is not available on busy days.)

Behind-the-scenes experience at Men in Black Alien Attack

Christmas at Islands of Adventure

At Islands of Adventure, the non-Wizarding-World highlight for us was Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular, a live musical show with the excellent songs from Universal's 2000 live-action movie, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Unfortunately, this show is only offered at Christmas time. Afterward, we met the Grinch in person at the All The Books You Can Read shop in Seuss Landing. He was completely in character and fun to interact with. Unfortunately, he is only there during the Christmas season.

Grinchmas Who-liday Spectacular show

Mom and I with the Grinch!

We did this on December 8-10, 2015, in Orlando, Florida, U.S.A.

Jen (California, USA)

How Jen at saved lots of money on her Universal Orlando vacation!

1. We traveled during low season, when hotel rates (and airfare) are cheaper.

2. We stayed onsite at Universal's least expensive hotel, Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Rather than reserve our stay at Universal's or Loews Hotels' official website, I found lower rates at after applying a Cheap Tickets promo code that I found by doing a quick internet search.

3. We purchased our 3-day Universal Park-to-Park tickets in advance online at The cost was about $20 per ticket less that the cost on Universal's official website. (Universal's Park-to-Park tickets allow guests to visit both Islands of Adventure and Universal Orlando on the same day, similar to Disney's Park Hopper tickets. Note that a Park-to-Park ticket is required in order to ride Hogwarts Express (see above).) After I purchased our tickets, I received a confirmation number via email. When I arrived at Universal Orlando Resort, I was able to quickly and easily print out our park tickets using the ticket kiosk in the lobby of Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Note that there are also such kiosks at the main entrances to the Universal theme parks.

I saw the same discount theme park ticket prices at In order to use Plum Benefits or Working Advantage, you must be employed by a company that offers access to the site. Many large businesses (eg. hospitals) and unions (eg. SAG-AFTRA) offer access to one or both of these sites.

4. Unfortunately, unlike the Orlando Disney hotels, which offer complimentary Disney hotel transportation to and from Orlando International Airport (via Disney's Magical Express), the Universal hotels do not offer complimentary airport transportation. We used the MEARS shuttle to travel round-trip from Orlando International Airport to Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort. This was the least expensive option I could find, but our experience was pleasant. I pre-purchased the MEARS tickets online and arrived with my email confirmation page printout. After checking in at the MEARS self-service kiosk (a live representative was also available, but we didn't require her assistance), we waited 35 minutes for the shuttle van to pick us up and the ride to our hotel took 35 minutes (there were two people dropped off at other hotels before we were dropped off at ours). The return trip was even better. The shuttle arrived about 5 minutes early and we were the last people picked up, and so we went directly to the airport. It took about 25 minutes for the shuttle to get us from our hotel to Orlando International Airport. The vans were clean and the drivers were pleasant and professional.

5. We stayed at Universal's least-expensive onsite hotel for less than the cost of most nearby off-site hotels. Universal's onsite hotels offer complimentary bus transportation to and from the Universal theme parks. Complimentary water taxis to the Universal theme parks are available at the more expensive resorts (Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, Lowes Royal Pacific Resort, and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort). On the days that we visited, the buses seemed to run about every 10 minutes, and they operated from 7am to 2am. At off-site hotels, the theme park shuttle hours are very limited and you might end up having to take a cab if you miss them.

You might also enjoy:

Jen's full review of The Wizarding World - Hogsmeade
Also check out Jen's suggestions for your Harry Potter Bucket List.