When my family and I recently planned a trip to Universal Orlando Resort, I searched the internet in vain for hidden secrets and tips for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
One promising "insider tip" article said to check out the fire-breathing dragon on top of Gringotts: the massive, animatronic dragon that breathes a giant plume of fire every quarter-hour. You literally cannot miss it. Others suggested trying a butterbeer. Yes, you absolutely should do those things, but they're hardly secrets. What sort of muggle nonsense is this?
So I resolved to find some real hidden gems. Here are my top picks for the surprising delights of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
(Disclosure: Universal Orlando Resort and TODAY share the same parent company. Another disclosure: There's a lot more to the theme park than just the Harry Potter sections, but my kids are pretty obsessed with the magical world so please benefit from the hours I spent standing in wand shops smiling apologetically while my budding Slytherin challenged innocent bystanders to duels.)
Before reading further, please solemnly swear that you are up to no good...
1. Hidden spells at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
There are 25 official spell-casting spots on the official Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley maps — places where, with an interactive wand, you can "flick and swish" just like Hermione to cause various magical effects. They're all marked on the map you get with your wand, and by gold medallions on the street. But there are some hidden spell-casting spots, too. My kids' favorite is the dragon dung in the far-right window of "Slug & Jiggers Apothecary" in Universal Studios Florida's Diagon Alley. Point your wand at the barrel in the window with brown lumpy stuff on top; the lid will lift and emit a sulphur smell. (Note: Sources differ on the correct wand movement here; some say a triangle, others say a circle with a slash downward. I'm not sure what exactly we did that worked, so just let your magical instincts guide you.)
Bonus tip: There's a water fountain in the middle of Hogsmeade, in Universal's Islands of Adventure, that's your standard-issue automatic faucet. Some of the official spells are tricky, which can be frustrating for little ones, so if you need an easy win, consider this: My 6-year-old was delighted when he waved his wand at the faucet and the water magically turned on (with a covert assist from me swiping my hand in front of the sensor). YER A WIZARD!
2. The goblins change money, and talk
At the Money Exchange in Diagon Alley, you can change your muggle cash for wizarding money to use in the shops at the Wizarding World. (They give change back in U.S. currency.) Even if you don't want to change money, check it out for the surly (is there any other kind?) goblin. He answers questions; ask "Are you a house elf?" to see the full goblin 'tude on display.
3. Check out Voldemort on the train
Get a glimpse of He Who Must Not Be Named on the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade to Kings Cross Station. About halfway into the ride, when the scene outside gets dark and stormy, a lightening flash just before Malfoy Manor illuminates the Dark Lord himself. A second lightening flash shows he's transformed into an old tree. Want to hear something spooky? We took a video so we could pinpoint the exact moment you see Voldemort, but that section of the video inexplicably went black. Do not underestimate the Dark Lord's powers, y'all!
4. Speak Parseltongue
If you walk to the left of the Magical Menagerie in Diagon Alley, you'll see a plate-glass window with a large snake on display. Step closer ... closssssssssser ... and you can hear the snake whispering in Parseltongue. Inside the menagerie, look up over the registers to see Luna Lovegood's favorite creature, the Crumple-Horned Snorkack. We believe, Luna!
5. Stay cool and dry
Universal Orlando is in Florida and Florida, as you may be aware, has some weather. It's very hot and sometimes it rains torrentially. When the skies darken, that's a good time to hop in line for "Escape from Gringotts" or "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey," both of which are indoors and thus not vulnerable to weather-related shutdowns. Another good option during a downpour is the side street off Diagon Alley, which is both spacious and covered, so you can stay dry(ish) while not crowding with 4,000 other damp muggles.
When you need a respite from the heat and humidity (again, it's Florida, so you will), embrace your dark side and spend some quality time in Knockturn Alley, which is blissfully cool.
6. What to do in Knockturn Alley
Check out all the treasures in Borgin and Burkes; the Hand of Glory was a favorite with my crew. Massive thanks to the supremely patient and in-character shopkeepers who never (visibly) tired of my little Slytherin's endless questions about various Dark artifacts. Check out the Vanishing Cabinet in the back corner, to your right if you're facing the cash registers. You may remember this enchanted furniture from Book Six, when Draco uses it to smuggle Death Eaters into Hogwarts, first testing it with a bird. If you listen closely you can hear the bird still chirping inside, and feel it flutter through the handle.
7. Gilly water refills
You can buy "Gilly water" and special potions to mix in, which are definitely very magical and not something you could do at home with regular water and Kool-Aid powder. Hang on to the water bottle, because you can get free refills of sparkling or still water at the Fountain of Fair Fortune in Diagon Alley. (Note you can get free water refills all over the park, but this way is more fun.) The refills made me feel a little better about spending $4.50 for magical water and $4.25 for a vial of potion. A little.
8. Repair or exchange wands
The interactive wands are worth the few bucks extra (in my opinion), but with glass sensors inside them, they are a bit delicate. Or maybe they're not delicate, but no matter how many times I explained that THERE IS NO HITTING WANDS IN MAGIC DUELING to my sons ... well, there was a lot of hitting wands. Fortunately, while you're at the park you can get any interactive wand repaired at any Ollivanders (even one you bought years ago). If you're having trouble with the interactive features, bring your wand in for a check-up. One helpful witch told us that even if the lens is slightly off-kilter it can stop your wand from working reliably; so it might work if you're holding it one way and not another, which would be enough to drive anyone batty.
9. Visit Hogwarts and Gringotts (even if you don't ride)
On our first visit, my youngest was sad he didn't make the 48-inch height requirement for "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey," which takes you through Hogwarts Castle. He really wanted to see if Fluffy was still on the third floor. On our second visit, little brother was still just shy of the height requirement but we realized we could walk through the castle and do the child swap; one adult waits in a nice, air-conditioned room with the smaller child while the other goes on the ride, and then you swap. Nobody likes waiting in line, but the lines for both Forbidden Journey and "Escape from Gringotts" (with a 42-inch height requirement) are pretty cool experiences in themselves and worth walking through.
The line for the new "Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure" ride (48-inch height requirement) is also full of fun story-telling details, but with wait times regularly topping four hours, you'll have to use your own judgment on that one!
9 and 3/4. Chat with everyone
I'm classifying this as three-quarters of a tip, because it's an obvious one, but it cannot be overstated how delightfully in character the folks who work in the Wizarding World section of the park are. My son spent hours in Ollivanders discussing the finer points of willow versus holly with very patient shopkeepers (more patient than I was, for sure). Ask the conductors at Kings Cross Station how to find platform 9 and three-quarters. And enjoy the magic.