An incredibly large part of my childhood was spent thinking about Harry Potter. I was first introduced in 1999, when my fourth grade teacher read “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” aloud to us in class. She created distinct voices for each character as she went; to say it was magical would be an (applicable) understatement. It was a dream to take an entire Harry Potter vacation someday.
After that, I spent my summers counting down the days until the next book would be released. I saved up endless dollar coins with Sacagawea’s face on them to pay for them. Then, I’d hide under the blankets long after my mom thought I was asleep, transporting myself to Hogwarts. Though magic was subject at the forefront of each book, lessons on friendship, family and loyalty sucked me in.
I’d head to the midnight premieres of the last few movies rocking a USC scarf—Gryffindor colors, after all. Once the impressive 15 combined novels and films were all released, there was a sad moment: no more new Harry Potter. But Universal Studios changed that by opening two incredible theme parks dedicated to the lands, wizards and stories I’d loved for so long.
I’ll leave it up to Eileen to detail the magic of the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, as well as the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in London, while I reveal just why you should visit Universal’s sister park in California.
Harry Potter World: California vs Florida
These are the two big ones when it comes to Harry Potter-themed experiences. You can certainly follow the footsteps of JK Rowling in awesome places like Scotland (see the trip below!) – but let’s be honest, the theme parks does it best. Universal Orlando opened it’s doors to it’s first Hogwarts rides and attractions in 2010. Expansion happened in 2014 to include Hogwarts Express between Hogmade and Diagon Alley. Universal Parks in Japan opened their version of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter the same summer in 2014. Some changes have happened to a few elements, such as the replacement of the Hippogriff coaster for the new Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in Orlando in the summer of 2019.
More recently, California’s Universal Studios opened the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2016 after the success of Orlando’s incredible parks. It’s smaller, but has the signature ‘Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’ ride. If choosing between the two parks, definitely do Orlando for it’s staying presence and larger selection of attractions. But if California is in your backyard (or you’re there to see more of the state) check that out first.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Orlando, Florida
I couldn’t believe how real it felt. You turn a corner at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida and it’s suddenly like London. They’ve created a little street lined with quaint London apartment fronts, flanked by the night-bus used in some of the Harry Potter films. There’s even a replica of the King’s Cross train station. But what’s most clever lies behind a seemingly nondescript entrance way, hidden behind brick. It’s the perfect intro to any Harry Potter vacation beginning in Orlando.
Diagon Alley, where Harry Potter is first introduced to the wizard world, opens up out of nowhere. They have done a magical job with every single detail, from each sweet shop to the wand store. It’s set-up for those to wander through and make purchases base don the franchise, from butterbeer softserve ice cream to adult harry potter robe apparel. However, you can still poke around shops just for the thrill, as everything is themed and pays homage to the beloved legend of HP.
Also at Diagon alley is the Escape from Gringotts ride – one of our favorites in the whole park. Both this ride at the one at Hogwarts castle are set up as 3-d immersive experiences, from the moment you set foot in line. Fly through the air, seemingly in the underground vault, alongside Harry and his friends as they grab his fortune and flee.
The newest addition to the Harry Potter vacation experience at Universal is the Hogwarts Express ride and shuttle. You can now seamlessly move between both Harry Potter worlds without having to leave the magic. You can also go either way and enjoy a different experience on each route. They project screen with lovely English-feeling scenery before a HP-themed story unfolds to disrupt the peace. We suggest doing Diagon Alley first, then heading for the big finale at Hogwarts Castle.
Once you arrive in Hogmade and Hogwarts itself, it’s non-stop fun. There’s just as many adults enjoying it all alongside the kiddos. Staff are dresses as witches and wizards, ready to interact and be just as pumped about HP as you. Hosmeade offers some more food options for a break, like the Three Broomsticks. Then you can go inside the castle for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – the other wild ride that is more about the characters and classic Harry Potter memories from Hogwarts. There was a large roller coaster, but it’s been replaced with a more family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff – still worth riding of course.
Do Hogsmeade and Hogwarts last, as you’ll want to be there at dusk, especially around the holidays. They do a giant projection show on the side of the castle that’s unmissable. It brought tears to this Harry Potter fan’s eyes; they’ve done a wonderful job staying true to the traditions of witchcraft and wizardry.
Although we went in the off-season, the Harry Potter attractions had the biggest draw and the largest crowds. It’s well-worth investing in the Universal Express Pass, so you can skip all the lines. Then you won’t have to miss the rest of the theme parks or maybe even enjoy the rides a few times over.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, California-Style: Los Angeles
While the Wizarding World land in California is smaller than its Florida counterpart, it contains many of the same components. Like Orlando, I love that the Harry Potter California experience transforms a normally hot and humid space into a British winter wonderland!
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is still housed within the famed Hogwarts Castle, with the same impressive walk-through queue that showcases everything from the Mirror or Erised and the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom to the sorting hat. The ride, too, is the same. In addition, directly across from the castle, guests can enjoy the family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff mini coaster. Though it’s a little higher and a little faster than Orlando’s version, it is also rather short.
And while we have the stunning snow-covered rooftops of Hogsmeade and various shops in which to find incredible Potter-related products, our West Coast park lacks a few of the things that shine in Orlando. Without Diagon Alley, the Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride or a working Hogwarts Express, some of the magic is lacking in Hollywood.
But despite everything we don’t have, I continue to be impressed by the things that we do. The Olivander’s show is a thrill to experience as is the shop itself. Selecting a magical version of Hermione’s wand, I love practicing some good old-fashioned sensor-based tricks at the storefront windows. Eating at the Three Broomsticks is also a great experience, with delicious, fresh and quality food like herbed chicken, spare ribs or fish and chips. Those potted creams can’t quite compare to other theme park desserts. And then, of course, there’s the butterbeer. While the cold and frozen options abound, my absolute favorite is visiting during wintertime to sip that deliciously creamy hot butterbeer.
Then there are the shows. Unlike in Florida, the California developers anticipated the inclusion of the Frog Choir and the Triwizard Spirit Rally so a stage was built between Hogsmeade and the castle. It’s also the perfect spot from which to watch the one-of-a-kind projection shows on the castle.
On top of food and entertainment, the shopping is always a big part of a trip to the Wizarding World. While Honeydukes presents some of the best gifts for friends, with endless sweet options from the books and movies themselves, there are other spots that offer up everything imaginable. From working quills and wizard robes to Quidditch equipment, drinking glasses, clothing and other knick-knacks, you can spend a lot of time in the shops. Hollywood is also home to two stores unique to the West Coast: Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment and Gladrags Wizardwear.
But what really stands out is the attention to detail throughout. From the owls sitting in the rafters of the owlry (not to mention the fake owl poop on the ground below!) to the sounds of Moaning Myrtle in the women’s bathroom, it’s truly a gift to visit Universal and become absorbed by the magic of the wizarding world.
Warner Bros. Studio Tour: London, England
If you’d done either park in Florida or California, you might have some idea of what Harry Potter could be in the UK. But, the two experiences of theme park and studio tour are very different things. Different does NOT mean dull and does not mean it’s not worth a trip across the pond in itself!
The Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter focuses most on the making of the films. Although called a tour, there’s really just an intro to the studio sets, then you have free reign to walk about and explore everything on your own. The studio is a bit outside of London, so you’ll need to hire a car or take the easy public transport to the complex. Keep this in mind, as it’ll be an entire day adventure with the journey and the tour together.
Once you arrive, you’re led into a hold room where they explain the legendary Harry Potter stories and franchise to the crowd. We won’t spoil the surprise, but the magic instantly hits as soon as you walk through the main doors to all things HP.
Warner Brothers has kept so may relics and artifacts from each of the eight Harry Potter films. From the massive Great Hall set to the tiny animatronic faeries, you can take an up close look at how they created this works of art on the big screen. It’s all in a large soundstage space, with sections for curiosities such as costumes, set pieces, magical creatures and much more.
There’s also an outdoor space for a few things like the exterior of Harry’s Privet Drive home, which leads into some of the finer details of movie making, like the art department and special effects. It’s heaven for any movie buff, as I’ve never seen so many props and items from one single franchise in one place anywhere else.
There’s a few more surprises at the end, then the door opens to a massive souvenir shop where you can purchase anything related to Harry Potter and his squad. Although there’s spots all over London that pay homage to Harry Potter where certain scenes were filmed, the studio tour is not to be missed by any fan who is in the city for a visit.
A few other HP hotspots for a Harry Potter vacation
I have to add, all of the UK really is a playground for Harry Potter fans in general. If you’ve made it to London for the studio tour, it’s well worth taking a day trip to Oxford University. Or, take the train up for a weekend in Scotland to see the sites and JK Rowling’s old stomping grounds.
Those specifically into the books and the background will want to visit Edinburgh. It’s the capital city of Scotland and where JK Rowling wrote much of the series. You have to dig a bit deeper to find the best Harry Potter relics in Scotland there, because they don’t hype it up as much as the theme parks and other spots around the UK. But head to Greyfriar’s Kirk to see a few familiar names on the gravestones – including Tom Riddle. We were lucky enough to have a lovely local gentlemen see us searching and he pointed out all the best ones for us.
You can have a pick-me-up coffee at the café where Rowling used to scribble down the stories, called The Elephant House. Don’t forget to look down when strolling along the Royal Mile too – there’s a gold cast of JK Rowling’s hands in stone on the main street of Edinburgh in commemoration.
I had no idea this was where so much of Harry Potter’s academic life was filmed and inspired from! The campus of Oxford University is one of the most regal sites to see in all of England, with ornate buildings that simply shine bright with history and grandeur. Much of the campus is closed to the public in respect to the actual students who go there (can you image?!)
If you pay a buck or two, you can walk into some buildings that were used in the movies for lots of famous scenes. For instance, the actual divinity school was used as the infirmary in Harry Potter, especially in the scenes after the Quidditch accident in the Chamber of Secrets. But the big grand finale is Oxford’s the Hall.
As it’s used by students for mealtimes and special events, you need to go to visit right after lunch and before dinner, around 2PM. They let a small amount of people inside for a fee to take a peek and the inspiration for Hogwart’s Great Hall in Christ Church. Light spills through by strong beams bouncing off dark woods and ancient painted portraits. Each long table has a sophisticated place setting and goblets for the lucky co-eds who dine here every day. In fact, if you’ve previously seen the move set of the Great Hall in London, you can compare the two and see how amazingly similar magic is to real life.
Just Want the Harry Potter Swag?
A quick note – sometimes we can’t make it all the way to the theme parks or the studio tours. It happens! In fact, I was in Orlando three times before I was able to get to Universal Studios and the theme park. Luckily, the Orlando airport actually has it’s own massive souvenir shop, complete with staff that will ham it up with you about the ‘wands’ choosing you!
And in London, if you go to the Kings Cross Station, you can find the actual 9 and ¾ platform from the books and movies. Have a photo taken with your favorite house scarf and the small setup outside the main platform, then peruse the souvenir store next to it for the same swag they have at the studio tour (and in the US).
If all else fails, you can pick up your own keepsakes right from the Universal Studios site, as they have adult Harry Potter robe apparel as well as everything else you could think of. Plenty of costumes and keepsakes are available on Amazon too, although not officially licensed by the franchise.
To recap, here’s everywhere you need to go for to complete your global Harry Potter vacation!
- The new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood, California
- The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade in Universal Studios Orlando, Florida
- The Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter in London, UK
- Edinburgh, Scotland’s Harry Potter inspiration and JK Rowling
- Oxford, England’s Harry Potter film sets at Oxford University
- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play in the West End, London (have not seen yet!)
So, are you a Harry Potter fan?! Have you read all the Harry Potter books? Seen all the movies? Would you take a Harry Potter vacation? What do you think?