We are super not theme park people. Neither my husband nor I have ever been to Disney anything, nor have any desire to go with our children…for a number of reasons (being feminists, coming from a Jewish family, coming from a communist family, coming from a poor family…there are probably a few more). But Harry Potter is near and dear to me and so many of our friends loved their Harry Potter world experience without reservation (and we could do the hotel, hotel food, flights, and admission with reward points), so we decided to give it a shot.
We have literally never heard a bad thing about it, except for the lines. We thought we had nailed it by going in the off season. Unfortunately, as clueless homeschoolers who pay no attention to the school calendar, we didn’t realize it was spring break until too late. Even with the extra bustle, it was just about one of the most fun things I’ve ever done with my family.
There are some excellent posts out there that helped us prepare for our early April excursion to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (here, here, and here). I won’t reinvent the wheel. Here are the extra tidbits we learned and things we loved, plus the WHY of why some of those travel tips we got mattered, or didn’t.
- Stay in the park. Because we were booking a rewards trip with credit card points, we did not have this option. But next time we will choose a hotel in the park, regardless. While the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress is one of the nicest hotels in Orlando, it’s 20 minutes away. We spent a lot of time driving, dropping off, picking up, and paid a lot for parking. The hotel shuttle times were infrequent and inconvenient so that part of our plan was a bust. We did not end up wanting to explore Orlando in our down time, so next time we’ll also forego the rental car, which staying in the park would allow us to do. The money would be a wash.
- The non-transferability of tickets is for realz. To save money, we only bought a ticket for my husband and 6 year old. We thought the one and a half year old’s needs would dominate the experience and it was a birthday trip for our big kid. I was going to hang out at the hotel pool with the baby. But if your spouse gets sick and you show up to see if you can use your spouse’s ticket, there won’t be much they can do, though they will try. We knew tickets weren’t transferable, but everything online was about people trying to sell them. We thought, with the same name and to accompany a child who can’t go alone, they might be able to do it. Guest Services was amazing and in the end they helped me buy a highly discounted one day ticket, but their computer system literally will not let them make changes like that. The physical space is designed to accommodate everyone–they really want it to be easy and fun–so next time we’ll get tickets for everyone and take the baby.
- Get a multi-day pass. This trip will be expensive no matter what. If you want it to be memorable with kids, getting a multi-day pass is key. Three days was perfect (we deal hunted and got the 3rd day free and the whole thing discounted). The first day you are learning the ropes. You will make mistakes, miss things, and figure out what you really want from the experience. Because you have a third day, the second day will probably be the best. It’s low pressure, you can take your time just going with the flow. This was our magic memory day, and it would have been enough, but we couldn’t have done it without a buffer day on either side. The third day was for doing whatever was left.
- Go morning AND night. Everything we read said to go first thing in the morning. This is kind of true for like 30-60 minutes at the very beginning. But if you are chasing small kids who aren’t going to do the scary rides anyway, the lines are hard to predict and sometimes ebb and flow in odd ways, so it may not matter as much. There are a lot of people all the time, just be ready. The waiting times app was super helpful. What’s guaranteed is that being there midday blows. It’s hot, your kids are tired, and it’s the busiest time. I think people don’t suggest evening with kids because they think it’s a non-starter. But if they’ll nap and you can let the schedule shift, it’s worth it to go in the evening. Everything there is more magical in the late afternoon light–the smoke from the Hogwart’s Express, the view of the castle, the shows in Diagon Alley. Our best day was the day we were all there together from 4-8:30pm. Those are the memories that tingle (seriously, the place tingles).
- Enjoy the lack of drunks…and drink the beer. Universal has this figured out. Yes, they serve alcohol, but don’t be afraid to hang out with kids until closing. Their one person-one drink policy likely helps. And they take it seriously. Like, when your husband is standing beside you holding a squirming toddler they will not let you walk off with a beer for each of you. But if you look like you might cry they will get someone to carry your drinks for you. Which leads us to…Drink the house draughts. There are different house brews at the Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron. They are really good. Please do not order Newcastle.
- Expect and enjoy awesome service in the park. We interacted with many Universal staff people every visit and we never had anything but stellar experiences. They take their time with you, and somehow it never seems onerous if you are waiting while they take their time with someone else. When your kid buys a wand they will, with a straight face, ask them how old they are to be sure they aren’t using an anti-aging spell. At the Knight Bus the driver will chat for several minutes and take pictures with you. At Guest Services (which is Universal Studios, not HP specific) during our admissions debacle, the sweet and fabulous young woman talked with my son about Harry Potter, pretended to be levitated by his well executed Wingardium Leviosa spell, made him a birthday name tag and gave us 4 passes to bypass lines because it had been such a hard morning. When part of the back patio of the Leaky Cauldron was closed off (by gentle people, no gates or barriers) for a special party, we chatted with the staff as we tried to keep our over-sugared kids out of the area. They nonchalantly told us it was the CEO of Universal Studios Japan. We apologized for our kids being super wild, they said “no worries, they are having fun and that’s the point.” Everyone we asked for help was cheerful and all about making the experience awesome for the kids. No one will ruin this for you. There were even pee-free toilet seats every time we needed to go. I am hard to impress, and I was impressed.
- Don’t take little kids on the rides. Despite what park staff may tell you, none of these rides are really for young kids. Especially if your kid is on a diet of limited screen time and doesn’t play video games on a big screen tv. It will be sensory overload. Two different staff people told us the Gringotts ride would be fine for our just-turned 6 year old because there was only 1 drop and it wasn’t that fast. These things are very subjective. Our kid is adventuresome and not afraid, but it was too much. He didn’t get upset or freak out, but he didn’t have fun. The rides are awesome, use the kid swap rooms and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.
- Budget time and energy for getting in and out. It takes a good 20-30 minutes just to go through security and get to Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade. It will seem twice as long when your big kid is exhausted and wants to be carried.
- Don’t be afraid to take a stroller. They’ll help you with it on the train and it may save your life. Carrying anything more than nothing requires using the lockers for the rides anyway, so you might as well take what you need.
- Take snacks and water. As long as you don’t have coolers or big cold bags it’s fine. There are often long lines for food and it’s pricey (but pretty good in Harry Potter world). You can Uber to the grocery store when you arrive in Orlando and still save money.
- Give your child a budget. Our son took his own saved up allowance and birthday money to spend. We gave him $10 a day to spend at the park. He managed it all himself and we were hassled to buy things exactly zero times. We set that expectation months in advance so he’d have time to save, but kept the per diem as a surprise. It worked like a charm.
- Go between spring break and summer vacation, or just after schools start in the fall. There are hurricanes in the fall, it’s busy at Christmas, the southern hemisphere comes in January, Daytona events mob the park in February and March, spring breaks are all over the place around Easter…but there’s a sweet spot in late April/early May before summer, and again just after school starts in September (but obviously don’t go Memorial or Labor Day weekends). Try to go during the week, this is so much better than school!
We had a million small things not go right on our trip, but none of them were the park. It was so, so good. You will not be disappointed.