How to Save Big at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

By Carrie Kirby on 3 March 2016 0 comments
Photo: eyfoto/iStock

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure isn't like other theme parks. While it has rides, the experience is more about immersing yourself in beautifully rendered facsimiles of Hogsmeade Village, Hogwarts Castle, and Diagon Alley. Thanks to JK Rowling's insistence on authenticity, and the involvement of production designers from the films, the place is a masterpiece — and it has justly become a mecca for Potterheads.

The downside of this success is that crowds can jinx the experience if you let them. The cost can also ruin the magic if you don't plan carefully.

Employ these charms to get the most out of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter while avoiding excessive spending.

Visit on a Low-Crowd Day

Because it is by definition a narrow, enclosed space, the Diagon Alley section of the attraction in particular becomes unbearably crowded during busy times. The shopping street is rich with whimsical window displays and sly Potter references. But you won't enjoy any of that if all you can see is the backs and selfie sticks of other muggles.

A crowd calendar like the one at Orlando Informer shows the best times for avoiding the masses — such as weekdays in September and early October.

Get Early Admission

When I visited with my children, we entered Universal Studios an hour before general admission, and experienced the thrill of walking through Diagon Alley in the misty pre-dawn darkness, practically alone. We strolled into the mini-show at Ollivander's wand shop with no wait, and tried on robes at Madam Malkin's with no crowds to block our photos.

When we peeked into Diagon Alley later in the day, thinking we might pop into Florian Fortescue's for ice cream, the street was wall-to-wall bodies. How did we get the valuable privilege of an early-morning hour in Potter's world? Easy: We stayed for one night at one of the five on-site hotels. Not only did our key cards get us in early, but we were also able to check in at about 6 a.m. and use our keys for early admission on the day of our arrival! Another frugal bonus: the frequent shuttles between the parks and our hotel allowed us to keep our lunch in the room fridge.

Buy Tickets for Both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

Since Universal put Diagon Alley in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade Village in IOA, you pretty much have to spring for the park-to-park pass to get the full Harry experience. Besides, the Hogwarts Express train that shuttles guests between the two areas is a key attraction, and you can't ride it without admission to both parks. You may be able to get a discount on park-to-park admission through Undercover Tourist.

Visit With an Annual Passholder — Or Become One

Because we visited with an annual passholder, our stay at the on-site hotel was discounted. Since we all fit into one minivan, we took advantage of the free passholder parking as well. But the benefits of buddying up with an annual passholder don't stop there. You can also get 10%–15% off multi-day tickets at the gate, 10% off food and merchandise in the park, and 10%–15% off restaurants in Universal's CityWalk, depending on which level pass your friend holds.

If you plan to visit more than three days, you might as well become a passholder yourself. Park-to-park annual passes start at $239.99, with discounts for Florida residents and Florida AAA members.

Bring Your AAA Card

I wish I had known that my very mugglish membership to the American Automobile Association could have gotten me 10% off food and merchandise in the parks. With a party of four, even spending modestly, this could have saved me about $50.

Buy Your Kids Interactive Wands

Although they hexed about $50 out of my wallet each, the electronic wands sold at Ollivander's were worth the price to me because they make the experience interactive. At many spots in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, waving one of these wands causes something to happen: a little explosion, a rain shower, or a flurry of movement. The kids loved it, and frankly I felt sorry for kids who had to watch others have all the fun because their parents didn't spend the extra money.

Ask to Walk Through Hogwarts and Gringotts

The lines for both the roller coaster Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and the flight simulator Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey wind through beautiful and interesting "sets" complete with video entertainment, which you won't want to miss even if you don't want to board the rides. Ask a staff member if you can walk through the line area as a non-rider. When we did this — once because my kids were scared to ride Gringotts and once because the line for Forbidden Journey was too long — staff members opened a new lane for us to walk through at our leisure, and we were able to exit just as other guests were boarding the ride.

If You're There for Harry, Skip the Express Pass

Express Passes can help you bypass long lines in the other areas of the Universal parks, but they're not honored in the Harry Potter sections. So if you're planning on spending most of your visit in the Wizarding World, don't bother buying these. By the way, you can get free Express Passes by staying at the higher-end on-site hotels.

Rain Is Your Friend

Don't be sad if the forecast calls for some of Florida's famous thunderstorms during your visit — just pack a poncho or waterproof invisibility cloak. The fact is, rainy weather clears out crowds. Besides, there are plenty of indoor parts of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to enjoy, from the covered Knockturn Alley to the insides of all those charming shops to the Three Broomsticks pub where you can taste butterbeer.

Here's a less obvious bad weather benefit we stumbled upon: When the roller coaster we were waiting for ceased operation due to rain, the staff member running it told us we could skip the line or take the Express Pass lane for any other attraction in the park, just by mentioning his name. We saved this perk until afternoon, when the wait for the popular Minions ride was over and hour, and sure enough — as soon as we mentioned the rain and our benefactor's name, we were allowed into the Express Pass line and were on the ride in no time.

Have you visited the Wizarding World? Any other tips or advice to share?

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