Diagon Alley is a reality, baby, but the truth is there is SO*MUCH*MORE at this freaky little set of parks mixing legit thrills with the greatest immersive land (sup Hermione) that exists on the planet. From Butterbeers outside Hogwarts and Duff’s at Moe’s Tavern to yung Steven Spielberg and Marvel rides and everything in between, here’s a big hunkin’ primer to the Florida parks from someone who has spent way too much time there eating ice cream and calling it breakfast:
Universal Orlando Resort consists of two parks — Universal Studios Florida, where many of the movie-inspired attractions live, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, which hosts Dr. Seuss, Marvel and Jurassic Park themed lands.
In an act of corporate brilliance, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is split *between* both parks; the Diagon Alley half, which has a Gringotts ride, lives at Universal Studios, while the Hogsmeade half and its Hogwarts ride (and children’s Hippogriff coaster) are at Islands of Adventure. The flawlessly-executed Hogwarts Express train — which requires admission to both parks to board — conveniently connects the two directly, and offers different experiences both ways.
Both theme parks, as well as a dining-and-shopping district called Universal CityWalk, are located directly across from each other and are walkable. Universal’s six hotels are scattered further throughout and require a bus ride, boat ride or sometimes significant walk to reach the complex. Universal also offers Volcano Bay, a “water theme park” with impressive slides and a 200-foot-tall volcano, as well as immersive months-long events for Mardi Gras, Halloween and Christmas.
In search of a deeper overview? Check out my Travel + Leisure article, which provides a more bird’s-eye view of the resort.
Opt for a boat over a bus. Hotel bus transportation may arrive more quickly, but it drops guests at the far end of CityWalk, forcing them to walk through an airline terminal-esque collection of security checkpoints and moving walkways, not to mention the entirety of the mall-like district. (Walking is also an option, but be warned: from some hotels, the path can take up to 25 minutes.)
Wear contacts instead of glasses. Many attractions are 3D and require the use of physical eyewear.
Prepare to fit your belongings inside a locker. For many banner attractions, including the Harry Potter rides, bags and purses will need to be stowed in lockers. They are complimentary while you ride, and each is10 x 10 x 16 — about the size of a large backpack and a purse — but you can always get multiple if need be. (Overpackers can check Orlando Informer‘s detailed guide for further information.) The rules are even stricter on Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and The Incredible Hulk Coaster, as absolutely no phones, keys or items in one’s pocket can be brought in each roller coaster’s line.
Plan to get coffee inside the parks. Most hotels don’t have Starbucks, so if you prefer something specific you’re better off waiting for the massive Starbucks located in CityWalk or the ‘Bucks inside each theme park.
Get ready! For! Some! Actioooooon! Even if you’re not familiar with Transformers films, why the dude from Ex Machina is hosting the Gringotts ride or who Brendan Fraser even is (omg we’re so old), you can still enjoy the cinematically inclined attractions. When you arrive back at the end of a scarier ride, the staff claps for you — a small detail that’s truly so touching!!! — but with plenty involving screens and effects, motion-sensitive guests may want to pound Dramamine or tuck a ginger ale into their backpack for the day.
Hate waiting in lines? There’s a way out of it. Certain hotels offer “Express Passes” to skip-the-line on many busy rides, but the perk is also available for purchase, both by park (separate or both) and by frequency (unlimited or one-time skips). Universal also offers a good amount of single rider lines, which can save you tons of time — here’s a list, but if you don’t see a single rider sign, be sure to ask, as some on that list are unannounced.
Here are my favorites at each park:
Universal Studios Florida:
E.T. Adventure — “Biking” from Earth to E.T.’s colorful home planet makes for a perfectly charming mix of vintage dark ride magic by way of cheezy audio-animatronic mannequins, indoor water (!) and personalized retro effects that hold up to this day. (Bonus points for the introduction from a babyfaced Steven Spielberg.) A personal favorite — it’s the best ride in the park and you’ll never convince me otherwise — it’s irrefutably a small miracle this ride remains open, so don’t miss it. Pro tip: request to sit in the front row for the best experience.
Revenge of the Mummy — This indoor roller coaster is faster and way more fun than you’d expect from a franchise that’s nearly two decades old, and shines with unexpected turns along the way — literally. The queue may be as dark as a coffin, but it’s delightfully balanced by the incomprehensible amount of pyro used within the ride.
TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D — Similar in style to the SpiderMan ride at Islands of Adventure, this Optimus Prime-led multisensory journey is a high-octane trip that thrillseekers will majorly dig.
Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon — My fellow critics were, ahem, not so receptive to the late night talk show host’s ride, but with most other Universal attractions involving scary entities (robot, ghost spirit, Voldemort) popping out and threatening your life, a whimsical ride to the moon and back is welcome respite from the barrage of threats, as empty as they might be.
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit — As the park’s main thrill ride it packs a rough punch, but can help ease aspiring coaster-goers with its nifty song selection, giving them at least a bit of control over the craziness about to ensue.
Universal’s Islands of Adventure:
The Incredible Hulk Coaster — Hoo baby, now we’re cookin’. This newly enhanced behemoth with its speed tunnel launch, seven inversions and scenic waterfront loops is not only the resort’s best coaster but the exact reason Universal is worth a trip separate from Walt Disney World, boasting a type of thrill ride that could never exist at the mouse house.
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man — Mechanically speaking, the similarities between this 3D joyride and TRANSFORMERS are minute, but the storyline, effects and lack of ginormous machine men attacking you with faces made of spinning gears at every intersection have this one edging out its competition.
Caro-Seuss-el — This kooky pastel merry-go-round and its delightfully unhinged counterpart, The High In The Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride, are intended for kids but have so much inherent whimsy that you can’t help but want to go on yourself.
Pteranadon Flyers — I’d love to recommend this one, but they only let you board with a child in tow, making it the only ride that I, thus far, cannot experience. Am I embittered about it? Oh, you betchya. Have I considered procreating simply so I could fit my adult butt in one of those bucket seats? I’m not ashamed to say yes. If you happen to be tasked with feeding more mouths than your own, enjoy its high-soaring fun for me, as you absolutely deserve it.
A note on water rides — be warned, as you will get wet. So wet, in fact, that you may need to use one of the park’s body-sized dryers, which is a real thing they offer and charge $5 for. The Jurassic Park River Adventure is a misnomer — it’s a classic shoot-the-chute ride with a substantially scary drop— while Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls plays like a comic version of Splash Mountain, where unfamiliarity with the flume ride’s source material is just as confusing. Want to go bone-soaked? Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges, a standard river raft ride with super cutesy theming, will get the job done.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter:
Whether you’ve read every book, have only caught a couple of movies or are full-tilt committed to wearing a Hogwarts robe in Florida’s swampy climate, Hogsmeade Village and Diagon Alley will blow you away.
Both park experiences are, for lack of a better term, pure fucking magic, but if you only have the time or funds to one, pick based on which park’s other attractions you prefer. You’ll get your Potter fill either way — both have Ollivander’s wand shop, delightful souvenirs and gobfuls of sweets — it’s just the rest of the day that’s up in the air.)
Real magic spells, Moaning Myrtle’s whines and Butterbeer served three ways? It’s an aspirational muggle’s heaven on earth:
Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida
Between its nondescript entrance, a dragon breathing fire and Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, all Diagon Alley and its twisty-turny walkways will instantly transport you to the novel’s otherworldy London.
Ride: Harry Potter and The Escape From Gringotts, a 3D ride and indoor coaster hybrid that sees guests traveling through the famed wizarding bank’s tunneled vaults, deep down the elevator shafts and even coming face-to-face with Volder—well, you know who I mean — in one of the greatest theme park attractions ever made.
Dine: at The Leaky Cauldron, whose authentic British food offers the very best bites in the park. (The Fish & Chips are my favorite!)
Snack: Head to Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor, which is so incredible that I usually eat here for breakfast (11am babyyyyy) because I simply cannot help myself. They have butterbeer soft-serve and kooky fro-yo flavors but the hard-pack ice cream (sticky toffee pudding! earl grey and lavender!) is so divine that it’s one of my all-time favorite ice cream spots. Be warned though: you can get two scoops for one price, but you can’t sample anything.
Tip: Don’t miss the hidden shop within Knockturn Alley (!), which sells a plethora of bizarre goods.
Hogsmeade Village and Hogwarts Castle at Universal’s Islands of Adventure
This end of the Harry Potter fiesta features Hogsmeade Village, with its snow-topped chimneys and delightful shops, and the famed private school of wizarding and witchcraft known as Hogwarts. (Are the two actually this close in the books? Nahhhh, but we’ll allow it.)
This half of Wizarding World has an extra attraction — Flight of The Hippogriff, which is for children and if you wait longer than 10 minutes for it, you will be sorely disappointed — with a third on the way, a new, more thrilling coaster coming 2019. Even ’til then, there’s p-l-e-n-t-y to see:
Ride: the impeccable Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey, whose queue through Hogwarts has it all — Dumbledore’s office, a Defense of the Dark Arts classroom and, yes, queue me in for an Oprah voice: talking portrait walls!! By the time you reach come face-to-face with Whomping Willow, eek past Dementors and get used to the ride’s innovative feeling of broomstick-flying, you’ll be wondering when you can hop back on and do it all again.
Dine: at The Three Broomsticks which, just like The Leaky Cauldron, is your best bet for food in the entirety of the park. (Once more with feeling: get the dang Fish & Chips!)
Snack: on a Cauldron Cake from Honeydukes. The “fire” icing-topped sticky-gooey chocolate cake, which comes in a silicone cauldron you can keep, is my kryptonite.
Tip: If you only want a tiny treat, the bulk candy at Honeydukes is the best way to get a sugar rush on the cheap.
Additional Muggle Tips:
Ride the Harry Potter rides before eating lunch, especially the attraction inside Hogwarts Castle, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is known to make people a bit queasy.
Hogwarts Express offers different experiences both ways, but I think taking it from Universal Studios Florida (Diagon Alley) towards Universal’s Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade) is best. (Remember: park-to-park admission is required to board the train.)
It can be faster to walk between parks than taking the Hogwarts Express, though. If you’re closer to either front gate — or there’s a significant wait for the train, which happens often — you’re likely better off exiting, walking over and re-entering.
You don’t need to ride to experience Harry Potter’s main attractions. Simply ask the cast member in front if you can walk through, and they’ll grant you access to see the Gringotts bank floor as well as the Hogwarts Castle interiors.
If you’re all about souvenirs, know that the candy shop inside Diagon Alley (Universal Studios) and Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure) sell slightly different things.
My favorite place to dine is at Wizarding World of Harry Potter — the food is just superior! — but you can’t eat Bangers & Mash all day, so I’ll (begrudgingly) recommend a few others.
There’s enough flexibility at Universal Orlando Resort to dine-as-you-go, with the exception of dinners, which you may want to make reservations for. Here’s a hit list of noteworthy spots:
Universal Studios Florida:
The Simpsons’ themed dining, which comes by way of a multi-purpose cafeteria, isn’t cooking up anything healthy (Clogger Burger, anyone?) but worthy of a visit for its comic magic. Where else in the world, after all, can you order a Flaming Moe’s while sitting at Moe’s?!
Otherwise, if you’re in search of something a little less hectic, opt for Mel’s Drive-In for killer ‘50s decor and all the diner standards.
Universal Islands of Adventure
Mythos is a sit-down restaurant in Islands of Adventure that won “best theme park restaurant” for years and years but it’s just a solid Mediterranean restaurant with stunning waterfront views.
Don’t miss the cotton candy cloud sold in Seuss Landing, either!
CityWalk is essentially a mall packed with dinner options, including the pure Floridian tourist traps — Margaritaville, Bubba Gump, etc. — of vacation yesteryear, but NBC Sports Grill + Brew, Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food and CowFish are preferred. (Make a reservation because when it’s busy, it’s busy!)
Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, with its steampunk-meets-Wonka vibe, is crazy-popular and with good reason. The piled-high shakes and chocolate bread (!) give kids an excuse to essentially eat dessert for dinner, while adults will quickly discover its vast dinner options, including the hearty salads, are some of Universal’s best. (They don’t take reservations here, so prepare to wait.)