Last week we had a sneak peek at the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando, which is full of magic at every turn, literally. Opening on July 8, it expands the park’s Harry Potter experience from Islands of Adventure to Universal Studios, doubling its size. The connection is easily made with a ride on the Hogwarts Express, which gives guests a similar experience to what Harry Potter and his friends embarked on when traveling between Scotland and London. Guests will need a park hopper pass in order to board the Hogwarts Express, but if they didn’t purchase it at the entrance, they can get a ticket upgrade right at kiosks at the Hogwarts Express gate.
During our visit, Diagon Alley definitely lived up to the hype. As guests walk through the crumbling brick wall, they enter a colorful, magical land. The Harry Potter experience at Diagon Alley definitely surpassed Hogsmeade, which opened about four years ago. One main difference that we particularly enjoyed was that Diagon Alley seemed to be its own little town, with a sectioned-off entrance versus when you’re in Islands of Adventure visiting Hogsmeade, you just walk through the Hogsmeade “island”, while wandering around the park.
As guests wander through Universal, they’ll encounter the terminal entrance for the Hogswarts Express; next to it there is a brick wall that guests walk around and enter through crumbling bricks into the magical land of Diagon Alley. To their left is the Leaky Cauldron, where guests can feast on British fare such as fish and chips, bangers and mash, and other uniquely designed treats fit for Diagon Alley like the Fishy Green Ale, a new beverage created by Universal’s chef, which is a sweet treat with bursts of blueberry flavor from “fish eggs” that are filled with a jelly-like substance at the bottom of the glass. (To keep with the authentic and immersive experience “muggle”—a non-wizarding human—favorites like popular soda brands are not served in Diagon Alley, but are served just outside in the Universal Studios theme park.) Those with a sweet tooth can indulge in Butter Beer ice cream, or either frozen or chilled Butter Beer drinks. This non-alcoholic sweet drink will have both adults and children alike asking for more. Take our word for it, because we couldn’t get enough.
The most striking image upon entering Diagon Alley is the huge dragon that sits atop the Gringotts Bank roof. Universal execs said in a press conference that adding the dragon to the design was the quickest and easiest “yes” they agreed on. What a sight this dragon is, and feisty, too—this fire-breathing creature emits a loud, growling sound followed by a flaming roar sporadically throughout the day. The heat from the flames can be felt from yards away, and the sound can be heard throughout Diagon Alley. It’s captivating, as you never know when the flaming roar will strike.
Gringotts Bank is an experience itself. When entering the ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, guests are greeted in the grand lobby by goblins who are hard at work, and when approached have been known to lock eyes with guests. Then guests are taken for documentation and their photos are taken with antique cameras [available for purchase after the ride], then walked through the halls of the bank to the elevator, which descends to the pit of the building, giving riders a shaky ride. Guests can even feel the sweeping air as they descend—it’s not a fast ride down, it just seems that way. Once in the basement, guests retrieve their 3-D glasses before they board the cart. The ride is an immersive roller coaster and 3-D combination that, unfortunately, we couldn’t experience because of technical difficulties. The issues were not yet fixed when we returned the following day, so you and your clients will have to tweet us @recommendmag the details.
When asked about the malfunction, Universal’s Tom Schroder, vice president of corporate communications for Universal Orlando Resort said, “We are excited by the incredible feedback we’re getting from all our guests who have previewed Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. We use previews to refine and perfect our guest experience—which is just what we are doing.”
The other main attraction, the Hogwarts Express, definitely surpassed our expectations. As guests make their way through the terminal, complete with London ads on the walls, they go through the brick wall of terminal 9 3/4—those standing in line can see other guests make their way through the brick wall (an illusion made possible by the brains of Universal creatives), then guests reach the boarding station, where conductors dressed in complete uniform help guests board their train. Once inside the ancient train cabin, which is decorated to resemble the ones in the Harry Potter movies (complete with the exact same tapestry on the seats used in the movies) guests begin their adventure to either Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley (if traveling from Islands of Adventure). We took a roundtrip ride to experience both unique routes, as each direction the train goes offers guests a completely different experience. The two trains leave simultaneously from each station, taking eight guests per cabin along the picturesque digital journey featuring scenes through the window that include the Weasley brothers, fireworks, centaurs roaming the pastures, the flying blue car of the Weasley family, and Rubeus Hagrid who you see flying on his motorbike and later greeting guests at the station, among others. Guests will also hear and feel the footsteps of other Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry students as they roam throughout the train. Through a frosted window on the door, guests can see the students’ shadows, and they’ll hear Harry, Weasley, and Hermione as they search for a seat, even peeking in the window, and of course, as they dive into the candy cart and purchase chocolate frogs that then escape and jump around the glass door.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, just roaming around Diagon Alley is an experience itself. Villagers dressed in exceptional costumes just like in the movies interact with the “muggles.” It’s unsure at this point if villagers will constantly be around, but guests will come in contact with witches and wizards working throughout Diagon Alley shops and attractions. New interactive wands, which retail for $45 each, add to the experience with 25 marked areas (and nine in Hogsmeade) where guests can cast a spell and watch magic appear. Each area has a different spell—a map will help guests find these spots. The magic can be anything from a fountain shooting water, an umbrella on an awning of an alleyway that starts raining, a discombobulated knight coming to life in his armor, storefront windows coming alive, and many others. It’s been said that there are even a few secret, un-marked spots for “muggles” to discover.
Travel agents, you can discover Diagon Alley with comp tickets after completing the Universal Specialist program; FAM trips can also be planned. For more information, visit universaltravelagents.com.