An Early Christmas Present
When I first heard the announcement that there would be a Wizarding World Of Harry Potter in Orlando, I’d never have dreamed that I’d be invited on a trip there eleven years later. You see, I was the kind of fan who’d write a letter to J.K Rowling and use laser focus to read the final book in nine hours. I can only dream of those levels of concentration now!
I’d always wanted to do a big trip featuring the Orlando theme parks, but I’d probably over-complicated things in my brain. Surely it would cost a bomb or need to be part of a huge cross-country road trip to justify things? If you’re not lucky enough to do this as a child, then it can quite often be added to the list of ‘Destinations I’d Quite Like To Visit Eventually.’
Last month I was over the moon to be invited to experience the festive celebrations with Universal and Norwegian, along with seven other bloggers and journalists. I hadn’t been to any sort of theme park in a while, so it’s quite something when you’re confronted with the seemingly never-ending loops of the Rock It Rollercoaster (deep down, I loved it though). I quickly realised that theme parks take on a whole new meaning across the pond and you have to get used to impromptu performances and being photobombed by characters.
I don’t want to spoil things too much, so I’ll cover some logistics if you’re a complete newbie like me plus a few tips on planning your day for maximum Hogwarts-related fun. Be prepared to feel like a kid again!
I was a guest of Universal Studios and Norwegian with flights, accommodation, food and park entrance covered.
Dress – Nasty Gal, Trainers – c/o Russell & Bromley
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Logistics, Logistics, Logistics
How to get there – Remember when I mentioned that I was daunted about the costs? Well, Norwegian offers direct flights to Orlando, so an Economy return can be as little as £275. Just remember that the LowFare category includes the flights only.
Any extras like meals and baggage will need to be purchased separately, so it’s worth weighing individual costs up against upgrading to Lowfare+. Consider if you’re the kind of person who prefers to sleep on the return flight and therefore won’t need a meal. I’ve now realised that this is the key to a decent night’s sleep, as I always doze off during the movies.
We were treated to the Norwegian Premium experience, with lounge access, extra legroom and a pretty decent luggage allowance (more details here). I broke up the 10 hour flight with work, Ocean’s 8 and my first Fresh Off The Boat viewing.
Where to stay – We stayed at the newly built Aventura Hotel, which is a ten minute walk or short water taxi ride away from the parks. Again it’s worth weighing up the different packages, as you can buy your accommodation and park tickets in a bundle. There’s double beds in all the rooms, so handy if you’re doing a trip with friends or family.
The best time to visit – Temperatures can be over 40 degrees in the height of Summer, so a pre-Christmas jaunt is great if you’re craving a bit of sun. You also get extra entertainment for your money from mid-November to early January as there’s daily Holiday parades, performances and a pretty spectacular display outside Hogwarts Castle.
January-February are also apparently great in terms of weather and crowds (plus it’s still hotter than the U.K). It’s all about having a strategy for maximum time on the rides. Look into off-peak dates when there’s less children around and assume that weekends will be the busiest time.
So how was my experience after eleven years of waiting? I loved it! It had been a good while since my trip to the Warner Brothers Studio tour and it was great to finally see places like Gringotts and Ollivanders come to life. Every detail, from the travel posters (MinaLima designed all of the graphics throughout the films and stores) to the Butterbeer will make you want to reminisce and watch all of the films again.
In my jetlagged state it took me a bit of time to realise that The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter isn’t a separate park in itself, but split across two different areas. If you’re not familiar, Orlando Resort consists of three different parks.
Universal Studios is themed around production studios and colourful replicas of cities like New York, Islands of Adventure is based on myths and legends (think Jurassic Park) and Volcano Bay is where all the water rides live.
The park itself has been open since 1990 and looking at a list of past rides is like taking a trip down Netflix memory lane (the current Simpsons ride replaced Back To The Future). We had a VIP tour in order to cover the rides strategically, but I’d definitely recommend downloading the app to check queueing times and understand the layout.
The scale isn’t as overwhelming as I first thought and it’s possible to cover the highlights of both parks in a day (though keep your shoes comfy, as we were easily averaging 20,000 steps).
If you’re a diehard Harry Potter fan, then you’ll need to have tickets for Universal Studios and Islands Of Adventure so that you can ride the Hogwarts Express between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Also, plan your time strategically. Diagon Alley can get pretty busy especially since most people are trying to snap the fire-breathing dragon (!), but there are plenty of quieter corners for photos.
Staying in one of the park hotels means that you can get into Diagon Alley at 8am, so snap away to your heart’s content (for the content).
In The Area
If you’re in Orlando for a few days, then you may want to mix in some shopping with your screaming. I popped to the International Premium Outlet nearby, which is great if you love discounted gym gear (I found some Nike shorts for 9 quid).
You’ll find the typical High Street stores at the Mall Of Millenia but note that this is nothing like a U.K shopping centre and extremely spread out. Don’t expect to walk from Sephora to Target easily and factor in Uber or Lyft rides (each journey cost me around $7-10 from the hotel).
I always aim to visit independent shops when I travel but unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit the Winter Park area (as recommended by Mat). Next time I definitely want to check out The Heavy, The Coop, Foxtail Coffee, New General and the flagship Rifle Paper Co. store.
Have you done all of the Orlando theme parks? Make sure you watch my vlog to see what Christmas-time at the parks is really like and my Instagram Story for a rare karaoke rendition of ‘Blister In The Sun.’