If you’ve been lucky enough to travel to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Hogsmeade area at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, you know that the park is filled with so many tiny details from the book and movie, it’s incredibly easy to get lost. This week, Diagon Alley opens its wall to patrons from around the world with that exact intention, to let you completely lose yourself in the works of JK Rowling. The near labyrinthine section of Universal Studios Orlando opens today, complete with a 3D Gringotts coaster, a fully immersive Hogwarts Express and enough attention to detail that even the most ardent muggle might give this magic thing a little more credence.
Standing out against the London skyline where Amity, Massachusetts once used to reside, King’s Cross station makes a bold visage for arriving guests. King’s Cross is where guests riding the Hogwart’s Express from Hogsmeade will arrive. Making up the rest of the London waterfront as it is known are Charing Cross Road‘s bookstore, Leicester Square, which hides the brick entrance to the Alley, Wyndham’s Theatre, and Grimmauld Place a/k/a. Sirius Black’s London home. The house is also home to Kreacher, who you can catch peaking out of a window if you hang out in front of the townhouse long enough.
Upon entering Diagon Alley, visitors are inundated with details of the films. Straight ahead and lording over the area is a giant dragon perched atop Gringotts bank. The Dragon will breathe fire at regular intervals, though we didn’t have the patience to determine the timing in between flames, but by our guess-timation it occurs at 10 and 40 minutes after every hour.
As you walk down the main thoroughfare the Leaky Cauldron is on your left, with the delicious smell of meat pies and other local London pub food with a wizard spin wafting through the air. Across the path from the Cauldron is Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes. The business operated by the Weasley twins is a very detailed inside, but the coolest detail that Universal has nailed is the rabbit on top of a giant automated Weasley that does in fact disappear when whichever Weasley twin is on the outside of the shop raises his hat.
As we continue down the main drag, the entrance to Knockturn Alley is on our left, next to the Leaky Cauldron. The pitch black area is is cold. You’d expect it to be. When reading JK Rowlings books, I think it’s safe to say chilly is what we imagined. At night, stumbling into Knockturn Alley isn’t much of a change. To truly be appreciated, Knockturn should be traversed under the harsh light of day. Stumbling through the alleyways, replete with wanted posters for the likes of Bellatrix Lestrange, the blackened path leads to Borgin and Burkes, where Slytherins can be as goth as they want without fear of reprisal from the Ministry.
Continuing down the main pathway, on our right fake store fronts (including a Flourish and Blotts window display for Gilderoy Lockheart) form the facade that is the queue for a new and improved Ollivander’s wand shop. When we went for our demonstration, happily I was picked to be the wizard in search of a wand. I was proud to say that I could handle sixteen inches of wand. The actress didn’t break, but the snickers in the audience let me know my infantile humor was not lost to the ages.
At the end of the street, on the left hand side when facing Gringotts is Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour. Soon to be famous for it’s soft serve butterbeer ice cream and hot chili chocolate ice cream (that in truth is going to be tame for anyone who has a taste for hot wings or sriracha). The soft serve butterbeer is addictive and will most likely have a near constant line.
Unfortunately during our time at Diagon Alley, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts suffered some technical problems and we were unable to ride. We were, however, able to walk the queue for the ride, which is almost as impressive as anything else we were able to see. Stunning audioanimatronic goblins line the grand entry hall to the ride. If you stand before the main goblin long enough, he will address you and try to shuffle you along. Moving through the queue, you will be able to see Bill’s office, complete with an introduction from Domhnall Gleeson. As you move lower underground you will reach an elevator on par with the Haunted Mansion’s entry, but this is where our journey ended, as we never were able to get on board a car.
Horizont Alley blunts the main path of Diagon Alley. While Gringotts bank rests at the intersection of the two streets, to the right of Gringotts you will find Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment. Wisacre’s is the gift shop and exit for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride. It’s across a courtyard from the entrance to the coaster. The magic meets science theme of the room is quite cool, with stunning telescopes of various sizes and uses lining the ceiling.
Outside the store is one of many new magic spots, where wizards and witches who purchase a special infrared wand can perform a magic spell. This particular spot is for seeing the future and when completed properly star charts will fill a dangling pensieve. Just a few feet further we found one of many unmarked magic spots. When we waved our wand in the manner dictated by markings on the ground a secret note was revealed in the shop window. More spells around Diagon Alley allow you to float feathers with a very famous incantation (swish AND flick, people), cause water spouts to go berserk and even repair a suit of armor. More magic spots were also added to the Hogsmeade area, so keep your eyes peeled… or use the map provided when you purchase the wand. While it may seem steep it’s only a few bucks more than the regular collector wands, and the interactivity is genuinely worth it.
Further to the right of Gringotts is Carkitt Market, home to two shows and a number of magic spots. Performances in the area include readings from The Tales of Beedle the Bard and music from Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees. That’s right guys, original wizard rock will be pumped out on the daily and it’s good to boot.
Except for a few other minor details and shops that I didn’t feel the need to patronize, that’s pretty much Diagon Alley. Outside of Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which features new footage shot specifically for the ride featuring Helena Bonham Carter and many more, the only other attraction the area is offering worth mentioning is the one and only Hogwarts Express. This people mover could have been a quick way to sell a few chocolate frogs, but Universal has smartly made the trip fully interactive, giving riders a different experience based on the direction the passenger is traveling. From London to Hogsmeade, be prepared for a dementor attack and seeing your old pal Hagrid race to Hogwarts to make sure he gets there to welcome students. Also, if you board from King’s Cross station, getting to platform 9 & 3/4 is as magical as you’d hope. From Hogsmeade to London though you’ll get a swell goodbye from the Weasley Twins and the creatures of the Forbidden Forest. Pay special attention to the glass windows as the shadows of other “passengers” will pass by and try to join you in your car.
Ultimately, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley is everything you would hope for from a Harry Potter themed area. The cast of actors patrolling the streets are hyper-aware of where they are and can’t be broken to save a life. The rich details of not just the movies, but of the books as well make their way into the bricks and facades of the section. Even the Knight Bus sitting out front is perfect in detail, right down to the talking shrunken head. While thousands of visitors flood the park today, rest easy knowing that it’ll be there for you waiting for the day you get to say in your best Hagrid voice, “Welcome to Diagon Alley!”