For the past 4 years, Universal Studios Orlando has hosted The Celebration of Harry Potter, a large three day fan event that takes place at the end of January. Fans and their supportive friends/family members enjoy the thrills of the Universal Parks (for my full write-up about the HP parks, click here) as well as host of additional magical delights.
The 2018 Celebration will be the third one for my family and me. I love being in a space that is overtaken by fans of the series that we adore. My partner and I have since gone to the parks outside of the Celebration weekend and, while I love it just as much, it misses that heightened sense of community and shared connection that permeates the event. (As an example of this, Alan Rickman, who played Professor Severus Snape in the Potter films, passed away shortly before the 2016 Celebration. Many of the fans attending the event gathered together on opening night to have a “wands up” moment to honor and celebrate his life.)
If you are thinking about or planning to attend the Celebration of Harry Potter for the first time, it’s always helpful to know what you are getting into! There are plenty of things to do, see, and enjoy.
Celebration Vacation Packages
Do you need a package to go to the event? Not necessarily but does help. It is certainly possible to enjoy the Celebration without purchasing a vacation package. There are tons of events and activities that are open to anyone who buys a ticket to the parks. However, there are definitely perks to purchasing a package. Universal offers two levels of packages – the Celebration Package and the Premium Package. (They also have packages specifically for Florida residents and Annual Pass Holders.) We have purchased the Celebration Package for the past two Celebrations and for the upcoming 2018 Celebration.
Packages change somewhat from year to year. For the upcoming 2018 event, the Celebration Package includes: a 3-night hotel stay, 2-park 3-day park-to-park passes (good for Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure; the new park Volcano Bay is not included in this), a Q&A with film talent that is reserved for package holders, an exclusive package-holder evening in the HP parks, a commemorative merchandise item (one per package), a commemorative pin (one per person), access to the ‘Behind the Magic’ workshop series (which seems to be new for 2018 though not much information has been released about this), early park admission for staying on-site, special access to the HP Expo, special access to panels and demonstrations, and a breakfast at the Three Broomsticks restaurant in Hogsmeade.
A note about planning your schedule: When you purchase a package, you will also select the days and times for your Film Talent Q&A as well as your breakfast. If you can, make sure to plan these on different days so you don’t miss out on getting to your Q&A on time!
The Premium package includes all of the above with the addition of: an autograph and photo session with the invited film talent, an evening reception at the HP Expo, a Shutterbuttons photography session, and breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron (as well as the Three Broomsticks).
We have wanted to indulge in the Premium Package but the cost for the additional features is much more than we are willing to spend.
The Celebration Package, however, lets us enjoy the Celebration with a nicer seating selection and shorter time waiting in line to access the events and activities. Note: Package holder status does not enable you to jump lines for rides. The Friday evening night at the parks is in itself worth having the package! There are appetizers and desserts served free of charge, as well as free Butterbeer (served hot, over ice, frozen, or as soft serve), Pumpkin Juice, etc.
It’s likely that packages will sell out, so if you’re interested in this, make sure to investigate early!
At the beginning of the Celebration on Friday evening, Universal’s emcee for the weekend opens the event. Representatives from a variety of HP/Wizarding World facets are present — Pottermore, Scholastic, the Harry Potter Studio Tour, etc — and come on stage to introduce themselves and (usually) reveal some upcoming information about new films, books, events, etc. At the 2017 Opening Ceremonies, Warwick Davis led a frog choir through a few song selections which was super fun! We also saw a previously unreleased deleted scene from the Fantastic Beasts film and overall built a lot of excitement for the weekend.
Film Talent Q&A Sessions
Universal brings in a group of film talent as part of the Celebration each year. The first year we went (2016), we saw Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Katie Leung (Cho Chang), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), and Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley). The second year we went (2017), we saw Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Matthew Lewis, and Warwick Davis (Professor Flitwick and Griphook).
While there are reserved Q&A times for the package holders, both Saturday and Sunday have at least one Q&A session that is open to the general park public. As with almost everything related to this event, arrive early for a better standing/sitting area. Audience members are able to ask questions and the film talent share stories from their experiences working on the films. It’s a ton of fun to get to see the actors and to hear some of the little known behind-the-scenes stories.
Panels and Demonstrations
The first year we attended the Celebration, it was my partner’s first time going to the parks in general and her daughter’s first time going as a family (she had previously had a brief visit with a friend). We spent most of our time in the parks — riding rides, taking in all of the details, shopping, etc — and did not attend as many of the panels and demonstrations. We wanted to change that up for the second year so we made sure to attend all of the ones that interested us.
My two favorites were the panel by MinaLima (the graphic design team responsible for pretty much every iconic image from the films) and the panel by the supervisor of the creature effects department which was co-hosted by Warwick Davis. I loved being able to see some of the actual props that they brought in for the event and to learn some of the filming secrets/techniques they used to create creatures and special effects, how they used makeup, etc.
There are tons of other panels and demos and plenty that are kid/family friendly. Kids can learn to dance like Beauxbatons students, battle like Durmstrang students, finesse their wand dueling skills, etc. Other panel topics included the Harry Potter exhibition, the Studio Tour, etc.
The Harry Potter Expo
The HP Expo is great fun — but also something that means standing in lots of lines, so make sure to plan accordingly. If you don’t end up with a vacation package, my best advice for you is to go straight to the Expo line (on the Universal Studios side) first thing in the morning. I have heard stories from non-package holders who have said they’ve waited 3+ hours just to get into the Expo (only to be met with more lines for each of the activities you can do).
In 2017, the Expo expanded into two sound stages at Universal (instead of one building in 2016) which helped with crowd control and made it feel less stuffy overall. Vendors from many facets of the Harry Potter universe set up booths, sponsored activities, etc.
The HP Studio Tour has a small exhibit set up which usually draws a long line. Make sure to hit that first if you are wanting to see it. We were able to “meet” Aragog and learn a bit about how he was created.
Other fun exhibits from this year included a MinaLima art gallery (where you’re likely to meet Eduardo Lima and/or Miraphora Mina), a glimpse at the production and props of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a fan wall sponsored by Scholastic, trivia hosted by Pottermore, and a host of others (like a VR game!). There are also tons of little giveaways (make sure to visit the Scholastic booth for free posters of artwork from the illustrated editions).
Fans are encouraged to wear their Potter gear, dress up as students from their Hogwarts house, or come as their favorite characters from the books/films. Saturday is the busiest day of the Celebration and also the most popular day for attendees to dress up (though many fans dress up each day). I haven’t yet worn costumes other than my Ravenclaw uniform but am planning to dress up as Professor Trelawney for the 2018 Celebration.
Universal has some rules about costumes, so make sure to take note of them before planning your outfit. From their website, “No masks, facial coverings, veils, long trains, live animals, swords or weaponry are permitted. Any home-crafted wands must be rounded on either end and must be appropriate in nature. Universal Orlando™ will have sole discretion to decide whether an item is permissible. Any item deemed inappropriate will be turned over by the owner and may be retrieved at the end of the day at the Universal CityWalk™ hub.”
The schedule is subject to change, but there is typically a costume contest (paired with a House Rally Meet-Up) on the Saturday of the Celebration. Even if you don’t enter, it’s worth going so that you can gawk at all of the amazing costumes people create!
No matter how you choose to do it, you’re bound to have a fantastic time at the Celebration of Harry Potter. There really is something for everyone!