Even before I visited Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, I knew this much to be true: A 38-year-old woman can definitely have a damn good time by herself at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Like many nerds of my generation, I was hooked on the books after reading just a few pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and have since cultivated a healthy obsession with Potterdom that involves regularly binge-watching all eight films and pairing them with themed snacks. An “unhealthy” obsession for a female approaching middle age, I have decided, would be donning Hogwarts robes and brandishing a wand. Except, of course, on Halloween.
What I was less sure about in advance of my trip was whether or not I could eat and drink well at either of the two Potter lands, Diagon Alley in Universal Studios or Hogsmeade in Universal's Islands of Adventure, both accessible with a park-to-park pass on the Hogwarts Express.
Butterbeer and chocolate frogs seem tantalizing when you read about them in the tomes, but the times I've tried of both have been cloying disappointments. And while the holiday feast scenes depicted in the movies are truly mouth-watering, showcasing towering trifles and platters of chicken legs that refill themselves, a quick survey of the options at both parks immediately revealed no such bounty would be available.
So I lowered my expectations and focused on taking goofy photos, procuring Hogwarts stationery souvenirs, and going on the Gringotts thrill ride as many times as possible.
But then (appropriately) something magical happened. I got hungry, and rather than trek all the way to another area of Universal Studios for a mediocre burger, I started snacking. My noshing soon turned into a multi-course, leisurely-progressive lunch as I discovered more and more goodies worthy of space in an adult gourmand’s gullet.
Here are my five favorite:
Cranachan and Cottage Pie (Leaky Cauldron)
It pays sometimes to eat dessert first. When I peaked at the menu at the Leaky Cauldron, I spotted a rather refined young Potter fan tucking into some cranachan that looked appetizing and decided to try their take on this traditional Scottish layered pudding of cream, oats, and raspberries for myself. Its refreshing, subtle sweetness and admirable execution encouraged me to sample the Cauldron’s other takes on traditional British staples, i.e., their cottage pie. Boasting sizable chunks of well-seasoned chuck roast in a hearty gravy and topped with buttery, fluffy mash, the cottage pie was for me the beginning of a delicious revelation.
Pumpkin Pastry (Sugarplum’s Sweet Shop)
I considered purchasing some “Nosebleed Nougat” or “Fudge Flies,” but fate fortunately led me to the simple albeit remarkable pumpkin pastry, a crunchy half-moon of savory flaky dough stuffed with the squash and enlivened with autumnal spices. A most pleasant pocket that I snarfed midday, though early birds should consider it a great breakfast option.
Inspired Ice Cream (Florian Fortescue’s)
Let the little ones have their chocolate and vanilla. Grown-up Muggles like myself will appreciate soft serve swirls that taste of Granny Smith and orange marmalade as well as scoops of the hard stuff in flavors including sticky toffee pudding, clotted cream, and Earl Grey & lavender. If you splurge on a sundae as I did, skip the sprinkles in flavor of “crystals,” which pack more of a sugary crunch.
Fire Whiskey (Hog’s Head Tavern)
Alcohol in some form is necessary for surviving the heat, the lines, and the incessant background caterwauling of spoiled tots (and, to be fair, equally obnoxious parents). Beer enthusiasts should check out the multiple whimsical ales on tap at the Hog’s Head. This writer went straight for the strong stuff by ordering some “fire whiskey," apple cider spiked with cinnamon whiskey in a sporty souvenir mug.