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Universal Studios Photo Journal

The Non-Disney Park of Your T.V. Dreams

Seuss Landing. Photo by Neil.

When we started planning our Disney World trip, I made a polite demand to visit “Harry Potterland.” I did not realize it was not in Disney World proper, although this makes sense, because Disney missed out on buying the Harry Potter franchise. Instead, it’s part of Universal Studios, the junk drawer of non-Disney-owned media in theme park form.

As Disney eats more and more of the media landscape (it even owns The Bachelor), this gets more confusing. Now that Disney owns Marvel, for example, the Marvel area of Universal Studios can only feature the cartoons, so there’s no ScarJo or Robert Downey Junior.

Entering Universal Studios felt like entering Brand World. The walkway in is full of restaurants and stores—its answer to Disney Springs. The actual parks are modeled partly after movie studios, which Disney later copied in Hollywood Studios. If you can’t buy ’em, copy ’em. It worked for Instagram with Snapchat!

While Disney parks are eerily clean and orderly, Universal Studios is the opposite. People are rolling around vaping without shirts on, chugging beers and making messes. It feels more human in that sense, but also notably less magical, especially when emboldened pigeons eat old food at your feet while you’re having a half-cooked pile of French fries.

After enjoying The Mummy ride and exploring a bit, we made our way to the themed sections we came for. Notably …

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Hogsmeade in all its glory. Photo by Neil.

No, it is not called Harry Potterland. It is called “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” which seems a bit extra to me. And it’s not its own park, it’s two distinct areas, one in each Universal Studios park. You can take the Hogwarts Express train to travel between them, which is an attraction all on its own, filled with preteens in fanny packs arguing about their Hogwarts houses.

Hogsmeade

As we strolled into Hogsmeade, it felt notably cramped. Kids used their enchanted wands to make toys in windows move, parents chugged Butterbeer and selfies abounded. I couldn’t help but notice that it felt … small. This is Harry Potter we’re talking about. It needs a huge park, not a section in the back of another park.

Your view after taking the Hogwarts Express. Photo by Neil.

The theming was cool, but I know that Disney probably would have done it a lot more elaborately, and made it a more peaceful environment to hang out in for a day.

Hogsmeade looking charming. By Neil.

I was really excited to try Butterbeer. I thought it was actual beer for some reason. Instead, it’s cream soda with what seems like a whipped cream head. It’s not terrible, but not great. Definitely terrible for you!

Neil with his Butterbeer.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the ride in Hogsmeade, was really cool. It’s immersive and thrilling, and lets you know what it feels like to play Quidditch. I’m super down for the VR future if these rides are any indication. Plus I didn’t puke, so I’m very tough and cool.

After going on the ride, we were ready to bail. Maybe the other Harry Potter area would be cooler.

Diagon Alley

The dragon who breathes fire like clockwork in Dragon Alley. You can feel the heat. Photo by Neil.

It was. Diagon Alley is much more immersive and less cramped. You can actually walk into all the stores and find hidden gems, like Dark Arts-vibe jewelry and magical candy. There’s also a fire breathing dragon.

Diagon Alley at Universal Studios.

The theming seems much more elaborate and interesting. If you have to go to one, I’d pick this one.

Neil snuck some pictures in the Escape from Gringotts ride. The entryway itself is very elaborate and real-looking. You really feel like you’re going to the bottom of a magical bank.

Escape from Gringotts. Photo by Neil.
Escape from Gringotts. Photo by Neil.

The ride itself was really exciting, but not quite as cool as the Hogsmeade ride. We did get stuck at the end and had to sit in our little car for an extra few minutes. One of Neil’s fantasies is to get stuck on a ride and have to walk off, getting to see behind the scenes. Unfortunately, this did not come to pass.

Springfield (Or Simpsons Land)

I had not realized there was going to be a Simpsons-themed area, and I flipped out. I didn’t have cable as a kid, so The Simpsons was about as good as T.V. got for me. It was so surreal to see a cartoon universe made real like this. I felt like I was in the episode where Homer goes into another dimension and becomes 3D.

Lard Lad Donuts at Springfield in Universal Studios.

As you walk through the park, the elaborate writing steals the show. Kang and Kodos the aliens have a particularly funny script for a kid’s ride that resonates through the whole section.

It’s super crowded, so plan for saving your sanity. We bailed on trying to get food at Moe’s Diner, but got our hands on some pretty disappointing tacos at Bumblebee Man’s Tacos.

Krusty Burger at Springfield.
When in Springfield, eat like Homer.

Duff Beer for You, Duff Beer for Me. I’ll Have a Duff. You Have One, Too.

We enjoyed a Duff Beer (appropriately plain) and bought some merch. A Duff tank top for me, a shot glass for our house and a Lady Duff beer opener for my work.

Duffland at Springfield.

The Simpson Ride was actually one of my favorites of the whole trip. While you’re waiting to get in, they play you a little episode made expressly for the ride, and it’s hilarious. I couldn’t stop giggling—it must have been written by some of the better Simpsons writers. It’s another VR experience with some serious drops and turns, plus a lot of humor, and even a joke about dog neutering! Wow. We went on it twice.

The other ride I enjoyed most at Universal Studios was the E.T. ride. It was so quaint and well-themed. It’s one of the oldest rides, but it’s very charming. You get to ride a little bicycle into space. Definitely check it out.

Universal Studios feels like America. Messy. Branded. Thrilling. It’s definitely worth a visit.

We’ll be back for more butterbeer soon.

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