Whenever people asked me what my dream destination was, I would respond “Hogwarts”. When my mom asked “when are you having kids?” I replied “I’m not sure, but I definitely need to go to Wizarding World first because I can’t be pregnant and go on rides, or leave my baby with someone, and I definitely can’t wait until said baby is a grown child and old enough to join”. I really wasn’t joking about this, and I knew when I eventually made the journey I wanted to have the FULL experience, which included staying at the resort, sparing no expense for delicious halal food and shopping for whatever merchandise I wanted. In an effort to be less harmful to the planet (and also because I have a reasonable amount of HP merch as is) I opted out of buying merch.
I know Corona virus is in full swing and Universal is closed right now until 31 March, but you’ll need time to plan and save anyway. So here’s my guide for before and during your trip, including costs. If you want to watch the Vlog to see our experience, scroll to the end of this article or find it here.
Planning Your Visit – Which Ticket Package to Buy
I’m not going to sugar coat this for you, coming from SA with our Randelas to the dollar, park access is pricey no matter which package you go for. The best place to buy your tickets is here on the official Universal website. It also means you skip queues. Either way, NB: additional tax is included upon checkout.
It’s important to know there are two main parks with rides, namely Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure. Universal studios rides have a lot of virtual reality and ride simulation, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they aren’t thrilling. Islands of Adventure has more “traditional” theme park rides like your typical rollercoasters, carousels, water rides etc. Both are fantastic. Diagon Alley and the Escape from Gringotts ride are in Universal Studios, then the Hogwarts Express takes you from Universal Studios to the Islands of Adventure Park, where you’ll find Hogsmeade, the Hogwarts Castle, Flight of the Hippogriff, The Forbidden Journey and Hagrid’s Magical Creature Bike Ride.
If you’re a Potterhead on a tighter budget and want to experience both parks, a cheaper option is to buy the 2 park 2 day ticket ($235 USD per adult excluding tax), which means you can only go into one park per day ie: you cannot ride the Hogwarts Express between the two. The Hogwarts Express is a very special experience that includes a different window show each way, and even a shadow display that includes jumping chocolate frogs and dementors! Alternatively there’s the 1 day, Park-to-Park ticket ($174 USD excluding tax), which allows you to ride the Hogwarts Express and go to both parks but it will limit your time in both parks. The two parks are big and have a lot more to offer than Wizarding World only, so unless you’re really, really pressed for time and only want to see all things Harry Potter and/or you know for a fact that the parks are empty that day, I wouldn’t recommend those two options, as tempting as they may seem.
For that reason we got the Park-To-Park, 2-Park 2-day ticket costing $295 USD each excluding tax. In total, for Abdul Malick and I for two days that was R9000 on tickets alone. I did say I wasn’t going to sugar-coat it and that I wanted the full experience, didn’t I?! So yes, it’s pretty steep for our currency (R200 for Ratanga Junction sounds like peanuts now right?!) but I can truly say it’s an incredible experience worth saving for and I would do it again in a heartbeat! When you travel, some experiences are once-in-a-lifetime. You can always make your money back but you won’t always go back to that destination. So instead, save for what you actually want and don’t settle!
For those of you considering splurging the extra $85 on the Fast Pass which allows you to skip queues, don’t buy this online. Instead, check out the pace at which the park rides and attractions are moving at while you’re there. You may discover it’s not busy on the day you visit and don’t mind the shorter wait times.
Where to Stay
You may have seen on my stories we stayed at the incredible Universal’s Aventura Hotel for three nights. Total transparency: our stay was sponsored but this was my very first choice and where I would have stayed either way after doing my research. Like I said; I wanted the full experience and of course, sheer convenience.
Here are some of the things I loved about our stay at Aventura hotel:
- One hour early park access to Universal Studios Wizarding World (and Volcano Bay if you’re doing the water park too). All Universal resort hotels offer this perk and it is amazing being some of the first few people in Diagon Alley before the huge crowds arrive.
- Complimentary City Walk Access to select venues (night clubs and also priority seating at certain restaurants).
- There’s a free shuttle to and from the parks and it’s very quick and frequent since the hotel is on the Universal resort.
- The rooms are beautiful, spacious enough and very modern with stunning views. I could see the Hogwarts castle from my room! We had two ultra-comfy double beds in our room, so it sleeps four and is perfect for a family of four or as a group of friends.
- The hotel is very tech-savvy; your room is fully-automated with an iPad that controls everything from the lighting system to your smart TV (which has Netflix and general internet access). You can even order food from there. Did we mention there’s an actual robot that can bring amenities up to you?!
- Downstairs you have a room offering virtual reality games (check out Abdul Malick enjoying himself at the end of the vlog) and a fully-equipped gym.
- There’s a Starbucks and merchandise shop in the lobby. You can get your Hogwarts robe and wand right here so you’re kitted out for the day!
- If you do buy merchandise in the park, they will send it directly to the hotel so you don’t have to carry it with you, free of charge.
- There were two really awesome halal friendly meal options at the hotel’s Urban Pantry (I’ll elaborate on that and share pictures further on).
- There’s a gorgeous pool and jacuzzi area with a life guard on duty.
- All the way upstairs you have the beautiful Bar 17 Bistro rooftop bar with 360 degree views. Here we had a really great view of the water park, Volcano Bay.
Planning Your Days in the Park
We went mid-feb (NOT on Valentine’s day because it’s more likely to be full), and the weather was wonderful, and the parks weren’t that full. The longest we waited for a ride was about 45 minutes and everything else was less than 15 minutes across both parks. It’s best to go in the week when everyone else is at work/school. You should also download the Universal Studios app. It has a live feed of wait times for rides in both parks and there is free, amazing all day wifi throughout both parks. For this time of year, and our ticket package, our park day plans seriously worked so well. This is what our schedule looked like:
- Since we had early park access from the hotel, we took the shuttle at 7:45am and were in Universal Studios park by 8AM (leave way earlier if it’s a busy time of year). Skip breakfast!
- 8AM – 8:15AM, have a brief marvel at Diagon Alley, take pictures before the crowds arrive.
- 8:15 – 8:30AM, go on the Escape from Gringotts ride.
- 8:30 – 9AM – go on the Mummy ride and the Transformers ride. These rides open during early access and usually accumulate long lines. Get them done ASAP!
- 9AM (park opens to the public) from then onwards, start with the rides you want to try most. In our case, we went on the massive Rip Ride Rockit rollercoaster next.
- Until about 11AM, allow the app to guide you according to rides vs wait times.
- 11AM – go have brunch. During this time ride lines will be at their longest, so you should eat instead during this period. Later, when everyone else is having lunch from about 12:30 until 2pm, lines are significantly shorter. You’ll have time to let your food digest if you need and shorter queues. Bring snacks with you from home if you think you’ll be starved before 11AM.
- After lunch onwards – let the app wait times guide you to the rides you want to go on.
- 4PM – Head back to Diagon Alley and cool off/chill/explore with a butter beer.
- 4:30PM – Take the Hogwarts Express to Islands of Adventure and go to Hogsmeade.
- Once in Hogsmeade, head straight to the queue for Hagrid’s Magical Creature ride. This ride is less than a year old and it’s absolutely incredible. People have been known to wait four hours and longer for it at times and still say it’s so worth it. We only had a one hour wait; bear in mind others would have gone earlier in the day, kids are tired by late afternoon etc. Trust me, you want to do this ride and you want to get it done ASAP!
- Afterward head to the Forbidden Journey Ride in the Hogwarts castle.
- End off the night watching the fireworks display at the castle
- Go to Islands of Adventure. Let the app guide you around according to ride wait times for the entire morning.
- 11:00 AM – Have brunch.
- 12: PM – Go on the Jurassic Park and Dudley Do-Right water rides, then on the Incredible Hulk rollercoaster to help you dry off!
- Let the app guide you around according to ride wait times for the entire morning. On our second day, for the first half of the day, Hagrid’s ride was closed for maintenance. Later that afternoon, it opened with a four hour wait! We were so happy we did it on day 1.
- At about 4:30pm, take the Hogwarts Express back to Universal Studios and go on any rides you either want to repeat or didn’t get to do the previous day. In our case, we did the Simpsons VR ride, and one last round of Rip Ride Rock It before the park closed. If you get to a ride at closing time, no matter how long the queue wait is and even if the park is technically closed, they’ll still let you ride it!
Where to Eat Halal Food
On average, meals on the resort cost between $14-$20 dollars per person, and hotels don’t include breakfast. That being said, we did brunch and then dinner every day to save both time and money. We only ate on the resort and never left to explore greater Orlando.
- NBC Grill & Bar – just outside the park gates in Universal City Walk (not a far walk at all and yes, you can go in and out of the park). Firstly, their staff is amazing and well aware that only their burger meat is halal. We requested they grill our patties in foil so it’s not on the actual grill where everything else goes. We sat close to the grills and the chef came out to us and spoke us through the steps they would take to insure no cross contamination. We had mac ‘n cheese as a side instead of fries (fries are fried in beer batter).
- Mythos in Islands of Adventure – again, only the burger meat is halal. Again, amazing service from their staff who are fully aware of the situation, cooking your things separately and doing the utmost to ensure that there is no cross contamination. They let us know that their fries are made in the same oil as bacon and served us with boiled potatoes instead.
- Universal’s Aventura Hotel Urban Pantry – Our hotel had two great halal friendly options that we tried. The first was wok stirfry. They basically have a sushi station that serves zero pork but has got some unhalal chicken and beef and then theres the shrimp and tofu. You select whatever vegetable ingredients you want and we obviously had the shrimp. They toss is together for you and it’s totally quick and delicious. Then of course you can have sushi, although we never tried it. They also have a station that sells the world famous vegan Beyond Burger, which was so nice we ate it twice.
- You can take your own food into the park provided it’s nothing that can leak or needs to be heated. You’re basically fine with with sandwiches and wraps and snacks. This is definitely a more affordable option too and I would recommend it if you are not staying on the resort.
What to take with you into the park:
- If you’re staying at a Universal resort, everyone needs to take their name key card for early access.
- A power bank and charger cable (especially if you’re using an e-ticket).
- An anorak/light rain jacket for the water rides and/or the Florida rain (they have a tropical climate).
- Wear comfortable walking shoes – we did around 15 000 steps per day!
- If you have kids up to around 6 years old I’d recommend a stroller, it can be super tiring for them.
- Snacks – ride waits can be long
- A backpack to carry all your essentials
- Cash, because if you’re coming from abroad your bank charges for swiping will be high.
- A water bottle – there are dispensers everywhere and it can save you some money!
And that’s about it! I know there’s a lot going on in the world right now, and for a lot of us it may seem like we don’t know when it’s going to end. This guide is a timeless one, so whenever the tide does turn in your favour and you’re able to make this magical journey, I hope you find this article useful.
Stay safe for now, and know you and your families are always in my prayers!