If the hordes of Orlando visitors pressed against the barricades separating Diagon Alley from the rest of Universal Studios Florida are any indication, park executives have clearly found a potent accio in J.K. Rowling’s billion-dollar franchise. The summoning charm is so strong, in fact, it’s already working.
The toothy maw of the Gringott's dragon fires the imagination. Literally. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Muggles won’t get their first taste until the new section officially opens on July 8, but Diagon Alley’s alluring façade – which includes London’s King’s Cross Station, the iconic three-level Knight’s Bus and even No. 12 Grimmauld Place, Sirius Black’s familial residence (stand and wait a bit and you may see house-elf Kreacher peek from its window) – is more than enough to lure them to gawk and speculate.
Inside? Well, it’s magic.
Amid its many shops, treats and shows to a new state-of-the-art ride, Diagon Alley has loads of hidden “Easter eggs” for the die-hards and more than enough immersive spectacle for the casual Potter fan, particularly come evening (or cloud cover) when it’s even easier to buy into the lovingly recreated Londonscapes.
Practicioners of the Dark Arts will find the shopping in Knockturn Alley serves all their malevolent needs. — Photo courtesy of 2014 Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved.
“The scale is just magnificent,” says Alan Gilmore, Art Director of the Harry Potter films and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. “You have the Victorian streets and the Victorian market, which are very typical of London…. In our world back there, we all live in much older structures and there’s a real romance to that.”
At Universal, he notes, it’s an “enhanced reality” – the buildings lean a bit more, the colors are a little bit stronger to impart a greater sense of magic.
The centerpiece of this wizardry is Escape from Gringott’s, a coaster-3D motion-based hybrid attraction on which riders will come face to face with numerous celebrity-acted characters including demented Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange and the sadistic Lord Voldemort himself (portrayed here, as in the films, by Helena Bonham-Carter and Ralph Fiennes). For those less-enthused by thrill rides, the bank itself is a soaring spectacle where astonishingly realistic goblins go about the business of the day.
Prepare to come face to face with You-Know-Who on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringott's. — Photo courtesy of 2014 Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved.
And ohhhhh: the dragon.
Sixty feet long, the beast sits atop Gringott’s Bank, a fire-breathing harbinger of the excitement that beckons on the ride, set deep within the bowels of the goblins’ well-regulated financial fortress. The heat overwhelms. The acrid scent of its breath hangs over the cobbles.
All the more reason to pop into Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour for a treat.
Cool delights abound, not the least of which is a brand-new confection for Potter fans to taste: Butterbeer ice cream. Rich, thick and importantly (for those who find the Butterbeer beverage a tad treacly) not too sweet, it’s a frozen custard-like soft serve that will likely prove an insta-hit. Even so, scoop ice cream and an array of confections ensure there's something for everyone.
Alan Gilmore, art director for the Potter films and the Wizarding World believes "British visitors, particularly Londoners, will really warm to this place," which integrates the UK's layers of architectural history. The Leaky Cauldron is great example. — Photo courtesy of 2014 Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved.
For heartier fare, guests can pop into the Leaky Cauldron for a mostly British-inspired menu (bangers and mash, fish and chips, Scotch eggs and the like) along with some interesting beverages like Fishy Green Ale – a sweetish Potterized bubble tea of sorts with “fish eggs” at the bottom. Even if you’re not hungry, the place bears a peek. Soaring ceilings, aged walls and massive chandeliers bring visitors right into the medieval aura of this signature Potter location.
“Look at this place,” Helena Bonham-Carter remarked at the Diagon Alley press conference, gazing up at the restaurant’s substantial rough-hewn beams. “Look at that ceiling. It’s better than what we had. We didn’t have ceilings. It sort of stopped at about 10 feet or so….”
Riders on the Hogwarts Express will see the Weasley twins, Hagrid and the centaurs of the Forbidden Forest, among other scenery and characters along their journeys. — Photo courtesy of A.D Thompson
Bonham-Carter, in fact, brought her whole family for the event and sampled its attractions while in Orlando – including the sensationally recreated Hogwarts Express, a train that will take visitors from the Hogsmeade section of the Wizarding World to Diagon Alley and back. The experience is different depending on which way you’re traveling.
“It’s so sweet to see everything from their point of view. They are completely enchanted. But what’s so great about this place is that it makes me a child, too. It really has created a sense of natural wonder. It’s transporting….”