Earlier this month, Chris and I went on a vacation. It’s actually the first vacation we have had since we went to the Great American Beer Fest in 2011. So, it was incredibly overdue. But the thing about me and Chris is that we prefer to save money instead of spend (hence why like 85% of date nights take place at home) and we had gotten into a pretty good groove of not spending any money for a long while. But I think we had also slowly turned into husks of our former selves. You can only sit at home, rewatching all of The Fast and the Furious movies so many times before you need to go somewhere.
That’s when Chris decided we would be going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. We had talked about it a little, kind of in the way you talk when you mention to someone that it would be cool to do a thing, but you have no intention of putting in the work to actually make a plan. (I’ve mentioned my tendency to do this before.) But after he checked his airline mile balance, it was kind of like we couldn’t afford not to go.
So, the plan was set in motion. Airline tickets were procured. Hotel reservations were made. Theme park tickets were purchased. My parents agreed to watch the dog. And with that, we made our way to Orlando, Florida, during the first week of 2016. One of the (many) perks of my job is that I get a month-long Christmas break. So, Chris just had to schedule a week of vacation, and we were good to go.
Our vacation was scheduled for 4 total days. We left early Tuesday morning, and returned on Friday night. Our hotel had a couple bars and restaurants, and we had passes to the Universal Studios City Walk (a strip of nightclubs and restaurants–that we didn’t actually use.) Our hotel and theme park tickets were a packaged deal, which meant we didn’t need to rent a car either. The hotel was super close to the park, and there was a shuttle that took us from the hotel to the park both days we went. And there was a shuttle that took us to and from the airport. Basically, it was like the vacation version of daycare because we didn’t have to think about anything.
So, if you’re planning to make a similar vacation a reality, here are 5 things to know before you go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
You are going to spend so much money.
I’m not naïve, and I knew that everything would be super expensive once we got there, but damn. I don’t think I was ready for how expensive. When you plan your trip, remember that you will be eating out for 3 meals a day. And that if you’re walking around a theme park all day, you’re probably going to be more hungry than you would be otherwise. I thought momentarily about bringing some food to keep in the hotel room, but I didn’t want to have to deal with more luggage. Which was okay, because it was a vacation, and a big part of a vacation, at least in my mind, is getting to eat out for every meal. We had a great meal at The Cowfish after our first day in the park. And now I want to exclusively have burger-sushi fusion meals.
We stayed at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which was really nice and cute in a very retro sort of way. The hotel had a “diner” which was basically a huge food court. The food was decent, and marked up way higher than it should’ve been. But the thing that really got me was the fountain drinks. The cups you purchase at the food court have RFID tags on the bottom of them, and there is a platform underneath the fountains that reads the tag to activate the actual fountain. After two hours, your cup is no longer valid, so you can’t get any more refills. Sure, I probably wouldn’t have kept getting refills after two hours, but best believe I would’ve kept the same cup for the whole trip to get my midday Diet Coke fix. (When I was an undergrad, I kept the same fountain drink cup from the OU student union in my backpack for a whole semester, just so I could get refills whenever I wanted. I’m cagey and thief-like when it comes to soda, I guess.) I realize these RFID tags are there because of people like me, but that’s also probably why I’m so irritated by it.
But we also spent a whole lot of money in the parks. We really wanted some souvenirs to remember our trip by, so we got a Hogwarts Express Christmas tree ornament, a cauldron-shaped mug we now use as a salt well, some enamel pins (I’ve got a Knockturn Alley pin on my jacket as we speak), and then Chris bought a wand and I got a real wool Ravenclaw cardigan. All of those items were totally worth it.
And remember, Diagon Alley is in Universal Studios, and Hogsmeade is in Islands of Adventure, so if you want to go full Potter, you need to make sure you purchase tickets to both parks. But if you do purchase tickets to both parks, you can ride the Hogwarts Express between the two, and it’s really a fun ride.
And just try not to think about how much more food and drink is inside the Harry Potter portions of the park. I’m pretty sure The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is what’s keeping Universal Studios relevant, so they gotta make their money where they can.
The rest of Universal Studios is kind of a ghost town by comparison, so take advantage of that.
Sorry for being a downer, but to me, the best ride of our whole trip was The Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster. I’m a sucker for an indoor roller coaster, and this one was everything I could’ve wanted and more. The “story” behind the ride (all Universal Studio rides have these elaborate story setups that you hear while in the line) is that it’s a behind the scenes look of The Mummy–the movie with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. So you walk through the line (there was no line while we were there, so it was a quick 5-minute jaunt through the winding maze of ropes and halls) and you see set pieces and faux relics from the film. When you sit down on the roller coaster, the Mummy has risen because he has cursed the film crew or whatever, and he chases you through the coaster. Then, when it looks like it ends, you see an animatronic mummy at a fake control center for the ride, and you continue on for a few more minutes. It was really an awesome roller coaster.
That having been said, Chris really liked the Dragon Challenge coaster. But he was pretty excited to get some sweet Jurassic Park pictures.
And when you just want to chill in a more adult area of the park where there aren’t tons of kids crying because their parents won’t spend $4 million on something that will probably break on the plane ride home, it’s really nice to go to The Simpsons area, and have your self a Krusty burger and a Duff beer.
You don’t own shoes that are comfortable enough to go to Universal Studios and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
I have a weird obsession with sensible shoes that is definitely an affliction given to me by my mother. Growing up, we were not allowed to leave the house unless we had on good shoes for walking. It didn’t matter if we were just going to the grocery store or to the park. Oh, and God forbid teenage Marisa try to look cute when she went to the mall. Mom would shut that right down. Because the mall means walking, and if you’re going to walk, according to my mother, you need to be wearing shoes that were designed for athletic activity.
(I’m not saying she’s wrong. We would all probably be a lot happier if we only wore sneakers. But I would just like to state for the record that I have a shoe anxiety now, and it’s probably her fault.)
For Christmas, I received a pair of Onitsuka Tigers, which are the perfect type of sneakers to wear if you want some non-Chuck Taylor sneakers to wear with skinny jeans. Before we left, I put some insoles in them, as is my way because I have some hella gnarly, jacked up hooves. And the day started out just fine. But, by the end of the first day, I kind of wanted to cut off my feet. This was no fault of the shoe. I had no blisters or any pain caused by the shoes. I did, however, have immense foot fatigue. After the second day at the park, Chris looked at the pedometer feature on his phone, and in the course of two days, we walked over 22 miles. So, just be ready for that.
It’s worth it to go for the full Harry Potter experience.
On our first day, we ate breakfast at The Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley and had lunch at The Hog’s Head in Hogsmeade. While the food was not spectacular (it’s traditional British fare but made on a large scale like all chain restaurants or cafeteria food) it was really fun to sit in restaurants that look just like the places from the books and movies. And you know, if there were an on-site Harry Potter-themed hotel, we probably would’ve stayed there too.
We made sure to sample as many things as possible while we were there. We tried ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor. I had both regular and frozen butter beer–I didn’t try the hot butter beer because it’s so sweet and it just sounded really disgusting to me. We tried all three of the wizard beers, the Wizard’s Brew, the Dragon Scale, and the Hog’s Head Brew. And, because our hotel was affiliated with the park, one night Chris ran down to the gift shop and bought a Chocolate Frog and some Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans that we ate up in the room while watching Pacific Rim.
Schedule your trip during the offseason if you can.
I’ve heard a few horror stories of going to Universal Studios during the busy season. Not only is Florida intolerable in the summer, but the lines in the park are ridiculous. One friend stated that when they went in August, they had to purchase Express Passes for everyone in their party (the passes that let you skip the line at all the rides that aren’t associated with the WWoHP) because the line wait was at least 3 hours for every ride. I could probably write a 10-page paper on why passes like that are un-American, so I knew there was no way I would ever purchase those. (We’ll see if I feel that way after I have kids.) I am the type of person who will wait in line and like it, dammit, because that’s part of the experience and good things come to those who wait and all that crap.
That having been said, we only waited about an hour for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, and about 45 minutes for The Dragon Challenge. Every other ride either did not have a line, or had a line short enough that I don’t even remember having to wait. And all this is due to us going in the offseason.
Not only that, but the weather was nearly perfect. Sure, it sprinkled a bit, but nothing too serious. And the temperature stayed between 55 and 70 degrees each day, so we were able to comfortably wear jeans and long sleeves the whole time. Oh, and we definitely got a kick out of listening to native Floridians who worked at the park complain about how cold it was, especially since it was in the twenties in Oklahoma while we were gone.
So, if you’re of the TL;DR mindset, here’s some quick stats for you about our trip:
Best ride: The Revenge of the Mummy, The Dragon Challenge
Worst ride: E.T. Adventure (this probably hasn’t been updated since 1992 and is definitely for kids and their parents)
Best drink: Frozen Butterbeer, Hog’s Head Brew
Worst drink: The Hog’s Tea (Like an LIT, but I don’t normally drink those anyway, so I didn’t like it.)
Best meal: The Cowfish
Worst meal: Cletus’s Chicken Shack (The Buzz Cola was good though)
Favorite purchase: Ravenclaw cardigan, enamel pins
Worst purchase: Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans (We ate all the good ones, and threw away the gross vomit and earthworm flavors which were about half the bag.)
Best part of Cabana Bay: The Swizzle Lounge (lobby bar)
Worst part of Cabana Bay: RFID tags on fountain drink cups