Wizarding World of Harry Potter takes on a reluctant fan

Katia Hetter, CNNUpdated 22nd August 2018
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Orlando (CNN) — Never mind that my traditional English breakfast at Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade tasted more like a typical chain hotel meal.
Or that the lines for the Flight of the Hippogriff ride went around the proverbial block.
Or the Butterbeer tasted way too sugary sweet for my taste buds.
Once we crossed between the non-magical world of the Muggles into Hogsmeade into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure, my Ravenclaw kid was transfixed. And maybe I was, too.

Not a theme park aficionado

But first, a confession.
I'm not much for theme parks. I don't like standing in long lines in humid weather, and I don't enjoy figuring out which tickets to buy and which hotels have the best park access and benefits (to avoid standing in those lines).
I'm not totally unmoved by Mickey Mouse ears and theme park snacks. I have fond memories of going to Disneyland at least once a year as a child and using my coupon book tickets to go on my favorite "It's a Small World" and "Space Mountain" rides.
But that was back in the day before theme parks got so big and comic book movies took over and virtual reality replaced charming and (now) outdated story lines. And the humidity so common in Orlando was nonexistent in Anaheim, California.
Before you get ready to scold me, know that my child has not been travel deprived. She's done Disneyland and the troika of Epcot, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World.
But my kid hasn't fallen hard for any of them and hasn't asked to go back, so I'm in no hurry to spend thousands of dollars to take her.

Flying to pick out their wands

Ollivanders wand shop
Ollivanders wand shop
Courtesy Universal Studios
I did think that Harry Potter might be different for us.
My kid and her bestie are huge Harry Potter fans, along with millions of others who have been reading "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and the other books J.K. Rowling started writing more 20 years ago, followed by all the movie adaptations. (The original British edition was called "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.")
Her American publisher, Scholastic, has released a 20th anniversary edition with new covers by Brian Selznick to celebrate.
I read the originals as a young adult on the New York City subway when they first came out, convinced by a friend who worked at the Manhattan children's bookstore, Books of Wonder.
I also know plenty of DINKS (double income couples with no children) who ride their broomsticks to Florida to pick out wands and wave them all around the Wizarding World.
Fine, I really did want to go. At least I'd have the kid with me for cover.
I ordered her Ravenclaw gear online to save a few pennies, tacked on a work trip and booked an onsite Universal hotel to get early entry into one park.
Then we flew down to Orlando to meet my cousin and check it out together.

Entering this new world

Courtesy Universal Studios
Surrounded by other Potterheads dressed in their house robes and scarves, we first crossed under a metal arch welcoming us to Hogsmeade, which is known in the literature as the only non-Muggle settlement in the United Kingdom. (Muggles are non-magical people.)
(We later slid between the brick walls by the Leaky Cauldron into Diagon Alley and seemingly walked through a solid column to get to Platform 9 ¾ at King's Cross station to ride the Hogwarts Express, both at Universal Studios Florida.)
Griffindoor and Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin -- all four houses of the legendary Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry were represented in the crowds streaming into the Orlando parks.
(I know there are other themed areas at Universal Orlando, but we were on a mission.)

Visiting two parks in one day

Diagon Alley
Diagon Alley
Courtesy Universal Studios
Each side -- Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade -- has its rides, shops, dining establishments and performances and attractions. And yes, it costs more to cross between the Wizarding World at Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure on the same day, by design.
We spotted famous shops like Ollivanders (for the perfect wand) and Honeydukes (for Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans) and performances at Triwizard Spirit Rally, all part of the magical world of Harry Potter created by the Universal Creative team in partnership with J.K. Rowling.
There are only four rides in all of the Wizarding World. Hogmeade has Flight of the Hippogriffs, Harry Pottter and the Forbidden Journey and the Hogwarts Express on the Hogmeade side. At Diagon Alley, fans only get to ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express, which has a different storyline than the Hogsmeade side.
A new coaster ride, which is replacing the shuttered Dragon Challenge, will open sometime in 2019.

Where we spotted the magic

Diagon Alley dragon
Diagon Alley dragon
And while the Universal Creative team did an impressive job of making Harry Potter's story come to life through those rides, it wasn't the rides that created the magic.
The magic was in the dragon that roared atop Gringotts bank and the goblin who took our dollars and handed over Gringotts bank notes in exchange.
It was the tip of hat of the train conductor standing in front of a replica of the Hogwarts Express when she entered Hogmeade and the young man at the register who took our money at the Leaky Cauldron and said yes, the keys next to him were real, for guests of the inn. (Sorry, it was all booked up.)
Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes
Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes
It's the candy store employee's suggestion that we quickly eat the legs of the Chocolate Frogs we purchased at Honeydukes so the frogs didn't hop away.
It was the sales clerk's tip at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes that a parent who buys an Extendable Ear for their child can never be spied upon using said ear.
And there was magic in those $52 interactive wands sold at the two Ollivanders wand shops (one in Diagon Alley and one in Hogsmeade).
Long lines started early for the wandkeeper's shop to pick out a wand, and we heard that employees tended to look for children about ready to enter Hogwarts (around 10 or 11 years old) to give some special attention.

Hogwarts students helping each other

While Harry, Hermione and Ron aren't roaming the parks ready to take pictures, Hermione's helpers abounded in the guests visiting the park: Little wizards and big wizards alike, can be seen teaching each other to make the measuring tape move or the water fountain pour water. (You're more likely to see the Harry and other characters during the rides and at special attractions, like the Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle show.)
A more advanced Hogwarts student would point out unmarked spots around Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, where students with wands could do magic.
There were also the superfans, including an adult couple we saw who brought a stuffed Dobby along for the ride (and shared a meal with him) and those decked out from head to toe in the clothing of their houses. Some are so in character that other visitors assume they worked there.

If you go to Universal Orlando

Flight of the Hippogriff ride
Flight of the Hippogriff ride
Courtesy Universal Studios
There are many ways to explore the Wizarding World.
Universal offers a private VIP experience. A guide will take you on a totally customized tour of the parks, allowing you to ride the rides as many times as you want without standing in line. You and your guests can eat at a VIP restaurant for meals.
It's not for the frugal: Daily prices start at $3,099 plus tax (not kidding) for up to five guests for an eight-hour tour. Additional guests cost $350 per person, with a limit of 12 people total. That's $5,549 plus tax. (Gulp.)
A semi-private day tour, where the guide sets the schedule but takes up to two groups of six people each (12 total) to the front of the line, starts at $189 per person plus tax. The tour lasts for seven hours.
Neither tour includes the cost of admission.

There's a cheaper way to go

For my fellow line haters who don't have thousands to spare, here's more advice from Harry Potter superfans who have visited the park many more times than I have.
Book an onsite hotel. Hotels attached to Universal grant different benefits to their guests. All onsite hotel guests get early park entry (Universal picks different parks at different times of year) and three "Premier" hotels include Unlimited Express Passes, which reduce your time in line. (The passes are also for sale with admission tickets or as a separate purchase.)
Hufflepuff Sasha Pineda of Brooklyn, New York, says it's worth it.
She and her brother love to stay at the Hard Rock Hotel, with its early park entry privileges, Universal Express Unlimited passes to shorten park lines and the hotel pool. (Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Loews Pacific Resort Hotel also offer the unlimited passes.)
"Take advantage of early hours when staying on-site and work your way around the park in the opposite way of the crowds," she says.
Some parents, like Karen O'Leary of Decatur, Georgia, check in for a one-night stay before the parks open, have the hotels hold her family's luggage on check-in and check-out day, and get early entry for two days. Now that's an amazing strategy.
There's magic in the lines. No, really, it's true, says Gryffindor Kelsey Teaf of Tampa, Florida. "The attention to detail is astounding, and something that really resonates with diehard fans," says Teaf. "Something great about both parks is that even lines and waiting areas are interactive and filled with fun details from the series, so you are always entertained."
Go during the week. "Although work schedules can be tough, try to go on a rainy day or a weekday during the school year," says Teaf. (Confession time: I took my kid out of school to go to Universal Orlando on a weekday, and Teaf was right. Friday was much less crowded than the next day, a busy Saturday.)
People watching is so fun. Carkitt Market in Diagon Alley is Philip and Nicole Baker's favorite place to grab a butterbeer (for her), a real beer (for him) at The Hopping Pot, check out a show -- "Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees" and "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" -- and people watch.
"Enjoy what happens when people don't pay attention by the mermaid fountain!" says Nicole Baker, sounding more Slytherin than the Gryffindor she is. She also recommends asking the Gringotts goblins if they are related to Dobby.
For Philip Baker, a Slytherin and fellow people watcher, his favorite moment was "seeing my wife's face on entering Hogsmeade for the first time ever -- the sheer joy of seeing something brought to life that she had been reading and watching since she was young."
If you have mobility issues. "If you have trouble getting around, just tell the staff that you need the elevators (at the Hogwarts Express stations) and they will always allow you to use it," says Ravenclaw Riley Gottschalk of Fort Myers, Florida.
Gottschalk often visits the parks with her sister, who uses a scooter. Guest services is also ready to help out visitors who need extra assistance, a park official told CNN Travel, and there's no need to call in advance.
"Don't let limited mobility keep you from having fun!"
Plan ahead but don't rush. Whatever you do, plan ahead and check out the Orlando Informer's Harry Potter section and other sources to organize your trip, say the superfans.
But don't run through the park trying to see everything in one day.
"My wife and I have spent over 40 days at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure over the past two years and we still see new things every time we do," says Philip Baker.
"Breathe in the atmosphere. Universal Creative did an unbelievable job recreating the Wizarding World, and it's nice to just stop, sit and take it all in."