When it comes to the magical world of Harry Potter tourism, two champions rise above the rest: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida and the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in London, England.
I had the pleasure of visiting both of these locations within the span of a year, and while one can argue that these locations couldn’t be any different (one is in a theme park, the other is a tour), I actually found many similarities between the two.
But which one is most worth a visit? I’ll give a run down of what each establishment has to offer (and supply my own photos!), then spell out the pros and cons of both before giving my final two cents on which one offers the absolute best Harry Potter experience.
Wizarding World of Harry Potter
There are actually three locations of the Wizarding World (one in Tokyo and another currently under construction in Hollywood), but the first and most popular is located at Universal Studios Orlando in Florida.
Universal Studios Orlando expanded their Islands of Adventure area in 2010 to make room for their Harry Potter themed area, which just so happens to be a very realistic replica of Hogsmeade Village – snowcapped buildings and all.
Throughout the village you’ll find plenty of souvenir shops modeled after actual businesses in the film (such as Honeydukes), and their window fronts are compatible with interactive wands, which is a great perk if you’re traveling with children (or if you’re an overzealous adult, no judgement!). There are routine street performances, and there’s even a fully functioning Three Broomsticks restaurant that serves traditional English food (which I found to be delicious and incredibly well presented), butterbeer, and probably the best warm apple pie that I’ve ever tasted.
And, of course, there is a replica of the most famous building in Harry Potter, Hogwarts castle itself.
The castle is naturally not to scale (duh, that would be absurd), but it is still pretty large. The castle serves as a line queue for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a cinematic roller coaster that takes you on a Quidditch adventure gone horribly wrong. You won’t be bored waiting in line for this ride, either, as the line takes you through famous sites throughout the castle, and prerecorded holograms from the original cast pop up at nearly every turn to greet you. Plus, it’s air conditioned. When you’re done with Hogsmeade Village you can hop on an exact (but again, scaled down) replica of the Hogwarts Express and travel to Diagon Alley, which is located in the normal Universal Studios Orlando park. The train ride itself is extremely entertaining and has a lot of surprises and special effects, and they even decked it out so that you are actually sitting in booths like in the film, rather than in generic tram seats.
And just as a note, in order to access both areas via the Hogwarts Express you will unfortunately need to purchase Park to Park admission, rather than admission to just one section of Universal.
Like Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley is a near exact replica of the film set, and it includes plenty of functional stores that are familiar to fans of the film, including Ollivanders and the Weasley’s joke shop. This section also is home to its own ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which is yet another 3D cinematic ride.
A word of advice for travelers: Orlando is extremely crowded during peak travel times, so if Universal Studios Orlando is on your list of places to go, then I highly suggest planning your trip around typical school vacation schedules. I was fortunate enough to visit the park just before October of last year, and the maximum wait time I encountered was only 2 minutes!
But based on all the detail and care that was put into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I can say with absolute certainty that I will happily wait in line for even 3 hours just to be able to experience the magic of this park once more.
So if you’re a Potterhead like me, then this place is absolutely worth checking out!
- Visually stunning and exciting rides
- A working Hogwarts Express
- Fun gift shops
- Butterbeer (frozen varieties available, because Florida) and authentic dining
- Street shows
- Pre-recorded content from the films stars
- Domestic travel if you live in the United States
- The Orlando heat somewhat takes away from the illusion, as it’s strange to be looking at snow capped buildings when you’re in shorts and a tee.
- American employees with ridiculous fake english accents, or no accent at all
- Very crowded if you are visiting during peak tourism times (aka, when children are on vacation!)
- You need to pay for Park to Park admission to gain access to both parks and the Hogwarts Express
Warner Bros. Studio Tour London
If you’re a Harry Potter devout, then the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London is your temple.
This is the actual studio where the cast and crew filmed the Harry Potter franchise for over a decade, and today the location is basically a huge museum full of original sets, props and costumes from filming.
After entering the studio and going through the line queue, fans are first brought into a small theater where they are shown a pre-recorded video from the stars of Harry Potter, who introduce the location and share some insight into their time there. When the video ends, the tour group is then moved into different areas of the studio indoors, where you’re free to explore and check out everything.
You’ll see the Great Hall, Hagrid’s hut, the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore’s office, etc. etc. You name it, they have a set for it. There even is a full set outdoors, which includes Privet Drive, Godric’s Hollow, Hagrid’s (well, Sirius’s) motor bike, and the Knight Bus. Perhaps the most notable props are the original Hogwarts Express and Hogwarts Castle, both of which make for an amazing photo op.
And speaking of photo ops, there are plenty of opportunities throughout the tour to get your photo taken with their green screen technology. You can soar above the Hogwarts Express in the Weasley’s Ford Anglia, Hop upon a broomstick and test out your flying skills, or get your photo taken on the train. Guests are able to try out the green screen technology totally free, but you do have the option of purchasing the photos later if you so please. It’s definitely good fun, but the only problem is that the attendants don’t always angle the cameras correctly – both my head and my sister’s heads were chopped off in the photos during the broom ride, rendering our photos totally useless (they did try to rectify the situation by allowing us to skip the lines to retake them, but we passed on that opportunity as we were short on time).
Butterbeer is readily available during the tour if you get thirsty, and you even have the option of purchasing one with a souvenir glass. But beyond chugging down some butterbeer, there really aren’t many dining options available on site except for a Starbucks and a small cafe.
As far as souvenirs go, there are a few small shops throughout the tour, but at the very end you’ll exit through a very large gift shop, which pretty much has all the Harry Potter swag you’ll ever need.
The full tour takes approximately 3 hours, so visitors are going to want to plan accordingly. You’re also going to want to purchase your tickets well in advance (at least a month), as they sell out extremely fast. Your ticket will be for a specific time slot, and only a certain amount of people are let into the tour per time slot, ensuring that it’s never over crowded once you get in there. Once inside, you’ll also have the option of purchasing an audio guide.
And just as a big FYI, Warner Bros. Studio Tour London isn’t actually in London, but rather in Leavesden, which is about an hour drive from Central London (without traffic). If you plan on staying in London, then I highly recommend booking a charter bus to bring you to the studio and back. I booked my visit to the studio through Evans Evans Tours, which included admission to the studio, complimentary hotel pickup (which many tours do not offer), and drop off at Victoria Station in Central London.
Visiting the studio is kind of an all day commitment, but hey, if you’re in London and you have the opportunity to go, I say absolutely take it. The Warner Bros. Studio Tour London is definitely an experience you won’t forget.
- Original sets, props, and costumes.
- Prerecorded intro by the cast
- Green screen activites
- Authentic feeling experience
- Controlled lines
- Plenty of photo opportunities.
- Stand where Harry Potter stood!
- Need to purchase tickets well in advance
- Limited food selection
- Green screen experience is fun, but results aren’t always impressive.
- Expensive and long trip for foreign travelers
- Not ideally located if staying in London
To be fair, both of these Harry Potter tourist traps offer pretty much the same thing: incredible sets, fun activities for muggles, and butterbeer. The souvenirs that you will find in both of these locations are also EXACTLY the same (literally; the only difference is the establishment name branded on the products), so you wouldn’t be missing out on unique swag if you decide to go to one location over the other.
But honestly, if you’re stuck between choosing between these two, I’d tell you to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando. This location doesn’t have the real props like the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London does, but Universal did an INCREDIBLE job with their craftsmanship and attention to detail when making the Harry Potter expansion. Couple that with the live performances, adorable shops, an unforgettable visit to The Three Broomsticks, and you’ve got yourself an experience of a life time. Oh, and there’s rides.
It’s also way cheaper and easier to get to Universal Orlando if you live in the United States, but if you are by chance going to be in London, I’d absolutely recommend planning a full day to visit the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. There is absolutely nothing as magical as experiencing the world of Harry Potter in London, but it’s just not worth planning an entire vacation around.
I hope that all of you Potter fans are able to visit both of these amazing locations during your life time like I was, but if you can only choose one, then Orlando has my vote as the absolute best Harry Potter experience.
Which Harry Potter location would you prefer to visit? Let us know in the comments!