My 10-year-old daughter, Chloe, squared her feet, raised her arm toward the dark, diamond-paned windows, and waved her wand in a triangle pattern as she shouted an incantation into the night air.
Immediately, the building's dark windows glowed with brilliant white light, and a small crowd of people around us gasped and clapped. Chloe looked at me with a smile as bright as the magical glow she had just conjured.
It's a great time to be a Harry Potter fan.
Although Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the first installment in J.K. Rowling's seven-book juggernaut, is more than two decades old, in many ways the world of Harry Potter fandom seems more fevered than ever before.
One word helps explain why: immersion.
Fans want to do more than passively watch movies or read books. Instead, Potterheads long to taste Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, ride a broomstick, cast magic spells. and get sorted into their Hogwarts house. (I’m a Hufflepuff, Chloe a Gryffindor.)
For that kind of deep-dive Harry Potter experience, there are two main options, both of which Chloe and I visited this year.
Chloe cast her lantern-lighting spell in January at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort, sections of the Florida theme park that plunge fans deep into Rowling's magical realm of flying broomsticks and fire-breathing dragons.
In August, we headed to England to visit the Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, which features the real sets, costumes, props, animatronics, art, and more on the soundstages and backlot where the Harry Potter films were made.
Here's how they compared.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter includes two “lands” — Diagon Alley, a magical London neighborhood, and Hogsmeade, a snow-covered Scottish village — within two larger theme parks.
Diagon Alley is the standout. Its entrance is "hidden" from the rest of the park by a brick wall, marked only by signs for the Leaky Cauldron and the London Underground. A gap in the wall reveals a short, twisting path that opens into a rabbit's warren of cobbled streets, Tudor-style wooden buildings, and magical shops with names like Slug & Jiggers Apothecary. Gringotts Bank is a white marble tower capped with a huge, fierce-looking dragon that breathes real fire every 15 minutes and never fails to elicit shocked shrieks from newcomers.
There's also Knockturn Alley, a street devoted to the dark arts that's lit with a creepy green glow. Wanted posters of Harry Potter paper the walls, while evil artifacts like human skulls and poisonous-looking potions pack the shelves at the shop Borgin and Burkes. Chloe was visibly spooked, as though she had forgotten we weren't actually lurking in a dark wizard's stomping grounds.
At the London studio tour, the sights are kicked up a notch. Here, too, you can stroll down Diagon Alley, but you'll also enter the dark and twisting paths of the Forbidden Forest, where mist hovers in the air, giant spiders drop from branches, and a centaur stands in the shadowy distance. You can see Harry's cupboard under the stairs; step inside 4 Privet Drive; look around Dumbledore's office, with its magical tools and portraits of snoozing headmasters; peek into the Gryffindor common room, littered with candy wrappers and other teenage detritus; and witness a terrifying scene in which a giant snake is about to devour a Hogwarts teacher while Voldemort and his minions look on.
As for the props, costumes, makeup tools, prosthetics, animatronics, art renderings and movie-magic exhibits here, there are too many to list. Think of an elaborate prop or costume from the films and it's probably on display.
Winner: Studio tour
In the Wizarding World theme park, interactivity is the name of the game. You can really shop for gag gifts at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes and chocolate frogs and sugar quills at Honeydukes. The mirror at Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions critiques your wardrobe in a persnickety voice. Dial 62442 (M-A-G-I-C) in a red British phone booth to hear a message from the Ministry of Magic. You can exchange Muggle money for wizard money and really spend it in the park. There are live music and dance performances, and the Knight Bus' conductor will engage you in funny banter. And, of course, there are spectacular rides, like the thrilling Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which re-creates Harry's bank heist, and the Hogwarts Express, which visitors can ride between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.
But the biggest hits with our family were the interactive wands, which you can buy at the park. Wave them in different spots (and with the correct movement) to watch magic happen before your eyes. You can ignite lanterns, conjure writing on parchment, make water spout from a fountain, or open and close a magical flower. There are dozens of these interactive spots throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, including some that aren’t marked on the map that comes with the wand. Plus, Ollivanders wand shop is an interactive experience in itself — from each group that enters, one lucky kid (which on our visit happened to be Chloe) gets plucked from the crowd to be “chosen” by a wand. Don’t worry, you can still buy one even if you’re not chosen.
In London, there just aren’t as many elements of interactivity.
Winner: Theme park
Let's get the most important thing out of the way: You can sample butterbeer at both attractions. But to go deep into a wizard's daily diet, the theme park can't be beat. Get traditional British pub grub at the Leaky Cauldron and the Three Broomsticks; sip fire whisky and pints of beer at the Hog's Head; sample magical sweets and pumpkin juice at Honeydukes; and indulge in a frozen treat at Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour.
Winner: Theme park
Both the theme park and the studio tour opened new attractions in 2019.
At Universal, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is a thrill ride that whisks visitors among the Forbidden Forest’s magical plants and creatures.
At the studio tour, Gringotts Bank features dazzling marble floors, glittering chandeliers, and hard-working goblins.
In Orlando, the Wizarding World’s Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade lands are split between two separate parks, which means two admission prices. For our family of three, visiting both parks for one day with a park-hopper pass — which is required to ride the Hogwarts Express between the two — cost more than $500.
In London, the studio tour adult admission costs about $60 and a child about $50 (ages 5-15). Not insignificantly, in London the caregiver for a guest with disabilities is not charged admission. Chloe walks with forearm crutches (and was able to access nearly everything in both London and Orlando), so we paid for her admission but not for mine.
Winner: Studio tour, depending on travel costs
So which was better, Orando or London? Theme park or film set?
For what I’ll call the overall nerd factor, Chloe and I preferred the studio tour, hands down. There were jaw-dropping, OMG moments around every corner, and we felt as though we barely scratched the surface with our four-hour visit.
But really, we loved both attractions, and choosing between the two depends on your preferences.
If you’re looking for theme park thrills and real interactivity, head to Orlando (or the other Wizarding World locations, in Los Angeles and Osaka, Japan). If you want to geek out over behind-the-scenes movie magic and to walk through magnificent and detailed film sets, London wins.