A beginner’s guide to Universal Orlando with kids

By: Cynthia J. Drake
September, 2022

“Alohomora” is the unlocking charm in J.K. Rowling’s immersive Harry Potter series, and after many years of anticipation, my family was ready to unlock some magic at Universal Orlando.

Though I came of age roughly at the same time as the Harry Potter characters with Rowling’s series debut in 1997, I waited to read the books until years later when my children (now ages 12 and 7) were old enough to appreciate them so we could take the literary adventure together.

To date, I have now read through all 4,100 pages of these books aloud—twice—to my kids, followed by movie marathons fueled by popcorn and long post-film debates about wand lore and whether the movie adaptations did justice to the books.

Visitors to Universal Orlando can hop on the Hogwarts Express. Contributed by Cynthia J. Drake

I knew that I wanted to take the kids to Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter as a way to celebrate the culmination of our commitment to the series, and this summer (when my oldest was still 11, Potter’s age when he first entered Hogwarts), we did just that. Here’s what we learned so that you can make the most of your trip there.

First, a primer

To give you a quick rundown, Universal Orlando is home to three separate parks: Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay (a waterpark that we didn’t visit on our trip, but is rumored to be very fun). Universal and IOA both have a piece of the Harry Potter story and are connected by Hogwarts Express train (or faster, on foot). 

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Universal is designed as Diagon Alley, complete with the seedy Knockturn Alley and Gringotts Wizarding Bank, which is guarded by a fire-breathing dragon statue. IOA, on the other hand, is styled as the quaint wizarding town of Hogsmeade, with a model of Hogwarts on the horizon. Just taking the time to explore the side streets and drink in the scenery, which feels plucked right from Rowling’s pages, finding all the little visual winks for those in the know is an attraction in its own right.

Quaint Hogsmeade is among the attractions at Universal Orlando. Contributed by Cynthia J. Drake

Each park is worthy of a full day of adventure, not to mention the other non-HP attractions that complete the experience in each park, including Jurassic Park, Men in Black, the Simpsons, and many others. You can purchase a one-day, one-park ticket or a multipark pass that allows you to hop back and forth, in addition to giving you access to the train ride (this is only possible with a multipark pass).

An innocent mistake

Harry Potter makes a lot of mistakes, so I will start with acknowledging a mistake that I made. We were about halfway through Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in Islands of Adventure (a hair-whipping, crazy fast, and laugh-out-loud coaster) when I looked over at my 7-year-old and saw the look of terror in his eyes from atop his motorbike seat, while I reached for his hand from the little sidecar where he requested that I sit. 

In the excitement to “rope drop” (in amusement park-speak, that means getting in line right at the park’s opening with a few hundred other rabid fans) and actually get on this super popular ride without an hours-long wait this summer, I hadn’t considered that my son might have been bluffing a little about wanting to go on “all the big rides” and was in fact terrified when actually experiencing them.

Harry Potter fans will love a visit to Universal Orlando. Contributed by Cynthia J. Drake

In fact, for most of our afternoon at IOA, I realized that with the exception of a few rides, this park really is best enjoyed by older kids and adults who love thrill rides. We still made the most of our time (and drank copious amounts of butterbeer), but if you are traveling with younger and/or timid children, know going in that even some of the non-coaster rides such as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (a flight through some of Harry and friends’ most harrowing adventures) might be too intense. 

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Luckily, like those other Orlando theme parks you might be familiar with just down the street, you can “child swap” at Universal, meaning a parent can stay behind with your timid kid while the other parent rides with other members of your party; then you can switch with the other parent without having to wait in line again. This is a great time-saver and ensures that no one will feel left out (because you absolutely MUST ride Hagrid’s and the Forbidden Journey rides if at all possible. They are epic!)

Insider tip: If your child isn’t tall enough to ride a ride, ask for a Height Certificate. Your kids can return in the years to come after they’ve grown and go right to the front of the line.

Finding our speed

The following day, we spent most of our time at Universal Orlando, which we happily found was a gentler alternative. The emphasis here is on stunt shows and 3D rides—just what we were looking for. In particular, don’t miss the Bourne Stuntacular, a totally unique special effects and stunt show based on the Bourne movies—a thrill even if you aren’t a fan of the franchise.

The signature Harry Potter ride at Universal is Escape from Gringotts, which mixes an indoor coaster experience with 3D. Though there is a quick drop at the beginning of the ride, a Universal employee recommended that we sit as close to the front as possible for less motion—and the rest of the ride turned out to be a great success.

We absolutely loved exploring Diagon Alley, equipped with our interactive wands that made various window displays move or speak (I purchased a set on eBay for the kids before heading to the parks, since I knew we could save half or more on the cost). My youngest son purchased a Pygmy Puff from Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, which came with a bonus in-shop performance heralding the adoption.

In the humid Orlando summer months, butterbeer (nonalcoholic) is so refreshing. It comes cold, frozen, hot, and in ice cream and pudding forms, and we discovered that frozen was our favorite (on a cooler day, I’d definitely go for a cup of hot butterbeer). These treats are available in both parks.

Enjoy butterbeer in various forms at Universal Orlando. Contributed by Cynthia J. Drake

More insider tips

As with most major theme parks, staying at one of the resort properties will save you time and offer additional perks, and that is absolutely true at Universal. We stayed at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and loved the on-site waterpark as well as the rum bar, which my husband and I enjoyed later in the evening as a reward for surviving a busy day at the theme park. Staying on site gives you access to a free boat or bus shuttle to Universal, as well as early access to one of the parks (the designated park changes throughout the year).

To make the deal even sweeter, choose one of the premium resorts: Portofino Bay, Hard Rock Hotel, and Royal Pacific. Though the room rates are certainly much higher at these hotels than others, a Universal Express Pass is included for each guest, meaning you’ll cut down on wait time on all but the most popular rides (currently, Jurassic World VelociCoaster and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure do not accept these fast passes). If you are at Universal during a school break, as we were, an Express Pass seems almost like a necessity. Do the math—you might even break even staying at a premium resort versus paying for express passes a la carte.

For even more of a personalized experience that allows you to cut through lines effortlessly, set up a behind-the-scenes VIP Experience tour. These are escorted tours that give you priority access to rides and attractions, plus behind-the-scenes experiences, Express Passes, and complimentary breakfast and lunch, starting at $189 per person in addition to your daily admission. You can also arrange for a Private VIP experience for your own group. Universal doesn’t disclose the price on these tours, as they change depending on demand—but it’s always worth pricing these out, as they can be tremendous time savers when the parks are full to capacity.

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