We didn’t pick up any of J. K. Rowling’s books until the first movie was made. Subsequently, we devoured them. Finally, we shared them with our girl, first reading to her and then taking turns as she learned to read. Though Rowling isn’t a master writer or story teller, her characters are consistently unique and marvelous, and the intricacies of the wizarding world she created are inarguably impressive.
Our sister came west for a few days and was eager to experience The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. Being the proper hostess (and little sister), we agreed readily. There is something quite delightful about being an adult in years counted and allowing oneself to retreat to the age when wonder and awe are constant companions.
A large, seemingly stone archway lures all comers. An iron sign hangs from the arch announcing one’s arrival to Hogsmeade. A silhouette of the village rooftops and chimneys mirrors the town in the background. A cut out boar looks as though it’s ready to hunt.
Once the arch has been walked under, stop (without stopping the flow of traffic) and simply inhale the view. The quirky, adorable shops of Hogsmeade stretch out in front of you, with exaggeratedly tall chimneys and snow on the roof—while Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry looms in the background. It’s hard not to rush forward just to get there, but do take your time.
Space is needed. Space is needed to be able to simply stand and look. The amount of detail poured into the buildings and the window dressings are remarkable. And really fun.
We visited on a weekday and that was the best decision we made all day. Lines for the rides were non-existent and the crowds were manageable. We wouldn’t have enjoyed this experience a fraction as much as we did if we’d had to deal with massive summer or weekend crowds.
Our first stop was the only line we encountered; entering Ollivanders to buy a wand. Perhaps twenty people are welcomed into a small room with high walls filled with nothing but boxes of wands. After the initial ooh and aah, we were somewhat disappointed. Was this all? The young staff member addresses the crowd and before long, a hidden door in the wall opens and we are invited on through (and we feel ashamed for our rush to judgment).
We walk into Ollivanders and are greeted by one of his workers. He chooses someone from the crowd and helps them choose a wand. Our gentleman was committed to his character and, happily, the wrong wand made magic go awry, producing a few yelps and startled jumps, quickly followed by self-conscious laughter. It’s all in good fun, because we were all doing it.
The wands are $44, so for a handful of dollars more, we’d suggest splurging for the interactive wands. We chose to share and picked out Tonk’s wand, which our sister thought would look nice amongst her lovely things at home without looking blatantly like a wand from Harry Potter World (probably not). The wand comes in a nice box and with a map. Follow the map along the the main street and down Diagon Alley. Find (looking down) detailed metal medallions embedded in the ground (usually around a store front window) indicating the spot for magic. Follow the instructions for proper wand action, mutter the spell, and violà, a flower blooms, the lights go on, water falls, or a toy trains moves around the track. It does take a bit of practice and (hint) the verbal aspect is not compulsory for spell effectiveness. Staff are usually readily available for helping “find” the magic spot to create said magic, but it doesn’t diminish the fun. The creativity is remarkable and we were not the only adults whispering “revelio” and swishing our wand.
We didn’t eat at Harry Potter World as we’d heard we should be careful in light of the ride Harry Potter and the Hidden Journey. This is located inside Hogwarts. Simply winding through on one’s way to the ride is a marvel, the advances in technology allowing us to see Daniel, Rupert, and Emma chatting on a balcony in the Defense of the Dark Arts classroom and Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore addressing us from his office. Walk through a gallery of talking paintings, see the Sorting Hat, and listen to Gryffindor’s Fat Lady. Again, the detail is wondrous. The actual ride, once you get there, is one of the best experiences we’ve had at a theme park.
We would never have guessed, but the 4-seat bench that we were locked into (bars coming down over our shoulders and across our waist) is actually “attached to a multi-articulated arm that is similar to an auto assembly plant robot,” writes Brady McDonald for the L. A. Times. Swooshing and twisting via this arm, the rider flies past projection screens and animatronic characters like the Basilisk snake, Dementors, Aragog, a fire-breathing horntail dragon, and an “angry” Whomping Willow tree. Along the way, Harry (Radcliffe) flies ahead of us as we stomach-clutch swoop down through the castle, across the lake, and into the middle of a Quidditch match.
As spectacular as the ride was, we admit we did walk away feeling a tad queasy. Maybe wearing glasses (or progressive glasses) had something to do with it, but it wasn’t enough to stop us from riding twice. We screamed and screamed/laughed through the first ride and took in more detail during the second ride. A marvelous creation.
The set design and decoration details throughout the park are awesome…
Once our stomach settled, we splurged for a frozen butterbeer, which was very sweet, but surprisingly delicious. Thank goodness because it cost $4. That’s actually cheap when other merchandise is considered. Our sister was eyeing several items from clothes to Honeyduke’s lemon drops, but the prices are eye-popping. A t-shirt can cost $29. Lemon drops, almost $14. An authentic Hogwarts House scarf runs $37, while Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans will set you back $11. Even without purchasing, though, the bounty is worth admiring, along with the details within the shops (don’t forget to keep looking up).
The shops are very small to reflect the coziness of the movie and the attempt is successful, but this is another reason to visit during off-days or off-season. We’d also suggest starting early. Having to push through a crowd or unable see anything while packed in a store would lessen the enjoyment level significantly.
We took a break after our first Hidden Journey ride and took the tram tour through the Universal backdrop. This brought back a lot of memories as one of our first jobs in Los Angeles was Craftservice for commercial productions. A lot of 12 to 24 hour days we spent on that back lot. The tour used to be kind of corny, but they’ve added more special effects. In our day, only the flooding street and the “attack” by Jaws were in play, but now the tram drives into a stage and King Kong wrestles with dinosaurs from Jurassic park, from one side of the tram to the other and in another stage we’re flying along an LA highway caught between a Fast & Furious fight. The wonders of technology contrasted with driving by the Bates Motel where Norman walks out of the office and heads toward the tram—knife in hand. It’s silly, yes, and it’s great fun.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Universal Studios, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608
Park hours vary, but it opens as early as 8 a.m. (with early entry an hour earlier) and closing as late as 10 p.m. The day we went, the park closed at 6 p.m. so we were not able to see Hogwarts lit up at night, which we’ve been told is truly worth pushing through the day’s weariness to witness.
One-day tickets range from $105 to $116. Buy your tickets online here and receive early admission (one hour earlier).
General parking: $20. Front gate parking (less walking): $40.
To find out more, to purchase tickets, and to plan your day, visit UniversalStudiosHollywood.com.