Help me plan a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!
February 6, 2013 8:12 AM   Subscribe

A friend and I want to get to the Harry Potter theme park at some point in 2013 (I guess during March/April or September/October when it isn't so hot, though the fall is hurricane season so maybe that is a bad idea?). Neither of us has ever been to Orlando theme parks and we're kind of at a loss. And is there a way to do this that isn't so crazy expensive?

We've just started talking about this and have absolutely no plans yet. I've looked at some previous Orlando-related questions but they didn't address all of my concerns. I'm hoping some Mefites who have Orlando theme park experience can answer some questions!

--The prices seem totally insane, is there a way to get discounted tickets? We seriously just want to go to the Harry Potter park, but do those tickets include the other Islands of Adventure?
--Are there good hotels nearby that don't cost an arm and a leg? The package deals don't seem like super good deals.
--Will we have to rent a car? Or should we?
--When is the best time of year to go, in terms of temperature and crowds?
--How much should I budget for a trip like this? What are restaurant prices like? How much does, like, a wand at the theme park cost?
--What else should we be thinking about?
posted by leesh to Travel & Transportation around Orlando, FL (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a "land" inside of a larger theme park. It is to Islands of Adventure what Tomorrowland is to Disney's Magic Kingdom. At present, there's only three rides there. It's very well themed, but it can be a bit of a let down if it was the entire thrust of your trip.

Avoid any time of the year when kids are out of school. This includes the weekends and during summer vacation. Quietest times are after the new year until around Easter and like the first week of December.
posted by inturnaround at 8:33 AM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you can work it out, the week before Thanksgiving is statistically the 2nd least busy week of the year at the Orlando theme parks. We did Disney for a week at that time and never stood in a line for more than 15 minutes. And it was unusually cool so we needed light jackets some days.

For a non prime week, I would make a reservation somewhere you will be comfortable staying, then watch Priceline and Hotwire a few weeks before the trip. If you can get a discount room and cancel the more expensive reservation do it.

Every chain restaurant ever invented has at least one location in Orlando. You can spend as little or as much as you want on food.
posted by COD at 8:34 AM on February 6, 2013

We went to the Wizarding World a couple of years back as part of a larger Disney trip, so I can answer any questions you might have.

1. The price is pretty insane. You are buying a ticket to the whole Islands of Adventure park, and there is no way around that. There are some other things there that are kind of fun (Jurassic Park, Dr. Seuss) so consider them the freebies that come with your HP experience.
2. The package deals are not good deals, but hotels are pretty expensive in the Orlando area generally.
3. Yes. You probably could get around Orlando without one by relying on hotel shuttles and stuff, but I wouldn't want to.
4. Not sure. We went in late summer and it was hot and there was a downpour while we were in line for Ollivander's. I would say late fall/early winter? Definitely not when most schools are out of session. The crowds were insane when we went, but it was less than a year after the Wizarding World opened.
5. Food and Merch prices in the park are high, but not as astronomical as you might expect. I think a wand was $20ish, decent food (including a butterbeer) was less than $20 per person, and fun little trinkets at Zonko's and Honeydukes could be found for no more than a few bucks. Outside the parks, food prices are highish, but it's a big city, so you can find cheap eats if you want.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:41 AM on February 6, 2013

Yeah, as inturnaround says, the Wizarding World is small. If there were no lines, you could probably experience every inch of it, including browsing in the shops and eating a meal, in 4 or 5 hours, tops. It's maybe like a smallish city block, not a whole town. That doesn't change the fact that it is totally fun and this question kind of makes me want to go again.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:45 AM on February 6, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers so far! I should have been most specific in my hotel question--does anyone have specific recommendations or should I just find like a nearby Courtyard Marriott or something?
posted by leesh at 8:45 AM on February 6, 2013

Response by poster: If there were no lines, you could probably experience every inch of it, including browsing in the shops and eating a meal, in 4 or 5 hours, tops. It's maybe like a smallish city block, not a whole town.

We are HUGE Harry Potter nerds and will want to do all of this more than once. :)
posted by leesh at 8:46 AM on February 6, 2013

Disney perspective, February/March timeframes (many visits over the years). Your Universal Harry Potter problem is similar but also different.

February is off-peak season for Disney and Universal, and March/April is a bit busier based on past experience. Weather typically in the '60's and '70's in Feb, getting warmer until it hits '80's-'90's in May. AVOID spring break, Going rates on rooms right now, if you don't mind crummy hotels, is about $40 a night. A nice hotel like a Holiday Inn should run around $100-$120 a night if you reserve in advance. Staying on property at Disney is pretty awesome. You may get early access to one of the parks, and transportation is designed with the assumption that you may not have a car, so there is transportation between the Disney resorts and the parks. On the negative side, Disney transportation is a version of the "line ride" - it's a bunch of waiting around for transportation not-quite-when-you-want-it. I believe that Universal has some sort of resort arrangement with nearby hotels.

There are plenty of ways to get discounted tickets, but many of them seem to involve dodgy techniques or possibly even fraud. The totally legitimate way to get discounts is to buy a multi-day ticket. A single day one person ticket that lets you into one Disney park is around $90. A ten day one person ticket that includes park hopper and no expiration is ... hm they don't seem to offer it online anymore, but last we did it, think around $450 - half price and incredible convenience in being able to jump from park to park. I'm almost positive that Universal had something similar, but we really don't go there too often so I don't have the details.

For Universal, I would be thinking car rental. Disney's a sufficiently large property with internal transit options that you could manage without a car. But there's a lot of Florida to see that you need a car for, and presumably you are going to do more in Orlando than just Harry Potter, which I imagine to be a half day thing, maybe a day if you are really into it.

The thing to remember is that during the off season, the number of businesses in the area are there to deal with peak season, and so some of them are hungry for business during the lean season. You can find good deals by asking about coupons at the hotel desk (and everywhere else you go) and then analyzing them with a critical eye. But you'll be spending some money. Orlando is designed to wring money out of tourists. Stay away from obvious tourist spots to get better deals.
posted by jgreco at 8:49 AM on February 6, 2013

I realize this is not what you asked -- but -- while you are there, don't miss The Simpsons ride! We thought that was the highlight of our Orlando trip.
posted by bearwife at 8:52 AM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

We stayed in one of the Disney resorts (Animal Kingdom, totally amazingly worth it), but I'd say just go with a major chains nearby and call it a day.

leesh: We are HUGE Harry Potter nerds and will want to do all of this more than once. :)

Cool. Just want to be sure you are fully aware of the scope of the place. The wooshieness of the website makes it seem a bit bigger than it really is, and be aware there is nothing there that is not seen on the website. Even riding all the rides twice or thrice, it's a one day thing at most.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:54 AM on February 6, 2013

I just went on this exact trip for this exact purpose in early January. The ticket prices are insane - we got discounted tickets through AAA, but it was only a $5 savings per ticket. As mentioned above, Harry Potter is one of the "islands" at Islands of Adventure.

March/April is a great time since it's not too warm. The lines are long all the time, but if you go on a weekday they're not too bad. One thing to note: Universal is currently expanding the Harry Potter exhibit so you may want to wait another year or so.

Hotels: There's a Hyatt Place across the street from the park this is nice and can be booked inexpensively. I've gotten rooms for $80/night in the off season. There is also a La Quinta by the Hyatt that is clean and inexpensive. You can walk to the park from either hotel, or they have a shuttle that will take you to the park entrance. You can also walk across the street to one of the fancy hotels and take the shuttle from there.

There are lots of taxis and if you stay close to the park there is plenty to do nearby so I wouldn't rent a car if you'll only be in town for a day or two.

The wands at the park range from $30-$300 depending on how nice you want it to be. The park food is about $9-12 per meal. There are lots of restaurants (mostly chain stuff like TGI Fridays, etc.) nearby. I would probably budget about $60 per person per day on meals.

Honestly - the park was a letdown for me. I went with the intention of spending my day in Harry Potter and I don't think I spent more than 1.5 hours there (with the exception of waiting in line....the lines are crazy). Of the three rides in the Harry Potter area - two are adult-worthy. The third is a kiddie coaster. If I had a do-over, I would wait until the expansion happens, then go on a weekday in Jan-March.

I hope this helps.
posted by jacindahb at 8:54 AM on February 6, 2013

We stayed at the closest LaQuinta to the park - it was perfectly fine. (We visited Presidents Day weekend last year) We drove down and wound up going over on Friday afternoon, which was a little rainy, and it was perfect - we went back Saturday morning, and it was packed.

We paid for the membership to get the inside information, and I think it was worthwhile - they give you tips and tricks on a lot of things. (Like the fact that there is normally a walk through only line for Hogwarts - so you can go through and just watch stuff and take photos, after you've ridden - plus, it takes you through a different room!) They currently have a $5 month plan, which might be worthwhile for you to check it out.

We purchased multi-day tickets through Costco, and found that was the most cost-effective way for us - but we planned on doing multiple days with our niece in any case.
posted by needlegrrl at 8:55 AM on February 6, 2013

Also, take note that Easter and Passover are early this year (I think Passover starts March 24) so the parks will all be extra crowded in that timeframe.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:18 AM on February 6, 2013

In my experience, outdoors in Florida is really only pleasant from about mid-November through about mid-March. September/October can and probably will be brutally hot.
posted by justjess at 9:22 AM on February 6, 2013

You might also look at Touring Plans which was just a Disney based site but now has expanded to cover Universal Studios as well. They have listings of all the food vendors, fairly accurate crowd prediction calendars and a subscription service that lets you get access to mobile apps that allow for dynamically optimized suggestions for viewing the attractions in the park with the least amount of waiting i.e. it provides plans for touring.

It is written by the people who write the Unofficial Guides to Disney World and they are chock-a-block with good suggestions on optimal transportation and where to stay off site that is reasonable and non-awful.
posted by mmascolino at 9:27 AM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Orlando and had an annual pass to Universal during college, so I went all the time. I think late October is the best time to go, specifically on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. At that point the weather starts to cool down and you can avoid people taking long weekends and field trips. They usually have Halloween Horror nights throughout October, so the parks close a bit early and less people show up during the day. It actually does get chilly in Florida occasionally, so I wouldn't wait until too late in the year.

Tickets are crazy expensive, you can get minor discounts through AAA or by buying the package deals if you want to go for more than one day. They will try and sell you a pass to skip lines, but it's not worth it. If you know a Florida resident, they can buy your tickets for a better rate.

Islands of Adventure has a lot of stuff to do besides the Wizarding World. I love the Spiderman Ride, Hulk rollercoaster, and Jurassic Park ride. You can buy an all day meal pass for about $20 for unlimited burgers, chicken fingers, and pizza throughout the park. It's a great way to save money while there (and you can totally be a cheapskate and have just one person buy the pass).

There are lots of discount hotels in the area, many of which offer free shuttles. At that time of year you can usually get a room for around $50 on Priceline. Universal is off of International Drive, which is a huge tourist trap. Think lots of buffets, souvenir shops, and tattoo parlors. If that's your thing, you can easily stay there without a car. However, Orlando is a great city with lots of fun and low cost things to do, but requires a car to get around. Keep in mind parking is $15 at Universal.

You may want to consider looking into timeshares. I believe you have to be a homeowner who makes a certain amount of money to qualify. There are a bunch that offer discounted hotel rates and free tickets, in exchange for you attending a two hour sales pitch. These meetings are ROUGH, they will make you feel like crap, and try everything to sell you on their ridiculously overpriced timeshare, but you get free breakfast and can save a lot of money on your trip. Make sure they offer tickets for Islands of Adventure (not Universal Studios), because they are sneaky.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 9:47 AM on February 6, 2013

I have a $40 wand from there (well actually purchased at CityWalk right outside the gates because I only had an hour of free time), it is beautiful. I have no idea what the $300 wands cost but I love my $40 one.

I MIGHT also have ordered a custom wand stand for it to rest in on the shelf....maybe.
posted by magnetsphere at 10:30 AM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Later in October is probably your best bet if you're sticking to that time frame. Otherwise, early December (like first week) is a good time to go. Grinchmas will be in the park (free shows / extra stuff), everything is decorated for the holidays, and the scenery will flow better from one portion of the park to the next.

Are you planning on going anywhere that isn't Universal? If no, find a hotel that does shuttles to/from the airport and to/from Universal to save you on car costs. Rental cars in Orlando are on the cheaper side due to volume, however, and it might be worth it for flexibility. Bear in mind, however, that there is a parking charge if you park your car ($14, I think it is).

There is another way you might be able to get off cheaper if you have the time. Look into car re-positioning. Every spring, the fleets shift north and in the winter, back south. You can sometimes get a dirt cheap rate with unlimited miles if you are willing to take the car from or to FL depending and fly back. Not sure if the times line up for you, but it's a thought.

How much should you budget? Depends on how many days you're going for, honestly. And if you and your friend are eat on the go types or want to do sit downs. The Three Broomsticks inside the HP land isn't bad at all for theme park food cost, but that is for theme park food cost.

I'm a local, so feel free to MeMail me for more info / specific questions if you need it.
posted by skittlekicks at 12:19 PM on February 6, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks again for all the answers, everyone! I've sent this thread to my friend so we can start making some actual plans. :)
posted by leesh at 12:27 PM on February 6, 2013

You could also drive down instead of flying and renting a car, if costs are an issue. You could easily do it in one day, if you can share driving duties with your friend.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:32 PM on February 6, 2013

Response by poster: Yeah, that's a possibility, we could listen to Harry Potter audiobooks the whole way!
posted by leesh at 12:37 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

AAA will also give you discounts at some hotels and Hertz car rental.
posted by brujita at 12:38 PM on February 6, 2013

We're AP holders at Universal and go quite often. I know this is a budget trip, but if you're driving rather than flying, maybe consider staying onsite at one of the 3 hotels. If you go offseason (fall is great, spring is more crowded even during the week), you can get them for as little as about $170 a night. The perk is getting in to Harry Potter early (an hour before the park opens) as well as front of the line access to all the other rides. Forbidden Journey doesn't allow FOTL access, neither does Ollivander's. The wait for Ollivander's will quickly get up to 45-90 minutes within the first hour the park opens, so it's something you'd want to do first.

Wands start at $25 and go up from there to a few that are around $100. (We just bought one for our son), but they're kinda cool for HP fans. I've never used them, but I've heard great things about Undercover Tourist for discounted tickets.

If you decide to stay offsite, look on Priceline and you can get decent hotels pretty close to the park for well under $100 a night. The area you want is I-Drive north. If you have any questions just memail me, we do Universal and Disney quite a bit!
posted by hollygoheavy at 1:48 PM on February 6, 2013

In my view the best time to do the Theme Parks down here is from a week or two after Labor Day until just before Thanksgiving. Kids have just returned to school so parents are reluctant to pull them for a vacation and the weather usually rocks. I wouldn't worry about hurricanes, anything less than a direct hit & the park is open.

There are plenty of cheap-ish places to stay. You just need to dig. If you memail me I'll dig out the name of the condo's we've stayed at for Thanksgiving. Everything from 1 to 4 bedroom fully equipped condos for not much money.
posted by jeporter99 at 8:33 AM on February 7, 2013

I just got back! It was great, though chilly.

We hit Ollivander's first, as directed. We didn't get early admission, so there was already a line at 9:10, 20 minutes or so, but we were still in awe of the setting, so we didn't mind the wait. It was a silly little kid's show, but charming. The architecture and décor throughout the park are really fantastic, very well done.

The wait at Hogwarts was 30 minutes in the morning, but closer to an hour in the afternoon, but worth it. You're inside the castle for a lot of the time, so there are moving pictures and indoor snow and stuff to look at. I think a line-skipper pass would be a good investment--we were jealous of the folks passing us while we waited. Wait times are posted at the entrance to the lines, and tended to be accurate. I could see the wait getting to two hours at peak season, easily.

We were a little disappointed at the souvenirs. I was ready to drop some cash on a nice piece of jewelry, but there wasn't really anything that suited. We got some keychains and a scarf, but that's it. Much emphasis on t-shirts and school sweaters and things like that, lots of wands for sale, and the candy shop had some neat things. I brought back Fizzing Whizbees and Peppermint Toads for the office, and they went fast.

We stayed across the street at the Hyatt Place. Very nice, decent breakfast, and the food service was adequate. $111 a night at government rates, which was great. If I had it to do over, I think I'd stay in the park. Even though we were right across the street, it was too much trouble to go back and forth during the day. It was quite chilly and windy, and it would have been nice to take a break in the middle of the day then go back. I’m not kicking myself over it, but it would have made the trip extra special.

Many food options in the park, places like Bubba Gump and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and Hard Rock café, as well as standard food stands. We ate lunch at Three Broomsticks, ample portions of fish and chips and shepherd's pie, one butterbeer and a real beer for me, $35. There's a family meal deal that looked pretty substantial, too.

It is small. My daughter is a huge HP geek, but we still ran out of stuff to do after about 4 hours. Many of the other rides at the Islands of Adventure park were water-based (or for little kids), and it was just too cold to do them. We stayed for about 7 hours total, but a lot of that time was wandering around looking for something to do. You have to pay extra for access to the Universal Studios park, but that might be a good option. Again, the Hogwarts ride was great, very impressive special effects, rollercoaster-esque without being a rollercoaster. The Hippogriff rollercoaster is a kiddie ride, and the Double Dragon was too traumatic for me, though my daughter enjoyed it. There is a lot to look at, but not a whole lot to do.

My daughter is a senior in high school, and this was what she wanted for her 18th birthday/graduation present. We spent close to $1500 between the flight and hotel and tickets and taxis and food. Not the most economical thing we've ever done, for sure, but it was absolutely magical for her, and I got an enormous amount of vicarious thrill out of it, and tons of enthusiastic hugs. It will be a treasured memory, and I heartily recommend it for HP fans.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:42 AM on March 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

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