Universal Orlando Trip Report, featuring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley & Hogsmeade
We were very excited to see the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley area at Universal Orlando during our visit in August 2014. On our previous trips to Universal, we thought they had done an excellent job re-creating Hogsmeade. It felt like you had truly entered the world of the books and films. But due to the small size of the area and number of rides we were left wanting more, more, more! So we were eager to see how Universal did with Wizarding World of Harry Potter 2.0.
We arrived early (staying on property to gain early entry) and got in line to enter Diagon Alley with the rest of the crowd. From the rest of the park, the Diagon Alley area just looks like a nice section of “muggle” London, with only a few tips of the hat to the world of Harry Potter. The triple-decker purple Knight Bus is parked out front and the building façade includes a recreation of the front of Sirius Black’s family home, #12 Grimmauld Place, with an animatronic Kreacher who occasionally peeks out of a window. To enter the main portion of Diagon Alley you have to go through the “secret wall” famously seen in the first movie. They obviously can’t open and close it the way they do in the movies, but they play a sound effect that gives you the impression that you stepped around the corner just after someone else opened it up. The sensation of moving from the muggle world into the wizarding world is incredible! You feel like you have walked into the movies. The whole Diagon Alley interior area is completely visually isolated from the rest of the park, so there’s nothing to remind you you’re actually in Florida (except the heat and humidity).
The line to get into Diagon Alley basically just turned into the line for Escape from Gringott’s. A few of the early-entry guests split off to explore, but the rest of the crowd, including us, wanted to see what all the fuss was about with the Gringott’s ride and stayed in the queue. The line moved quickly, but we had time to look around and see the amazing detail that Universal has put into the Diagon Alley area. There is much more space and more to explore than in Hogsmeade. There’s an area called Carkitt Market that has the same kind of glass canopy you see over Borough Market, Leadenhall Market and other covered markets in London. Not only does it make the area look more authentic, it’s slightly shaded and gives you a little shelter from the sun – clever! The overall impression is a kind of skewed Victorian London that feels comfortable and lived-in. Everything is covered with detail: posters and ads for various made up wizarding products, “magical” moving window displays, carvings, gargoyles, bits and pieces of Victorian decoration. And all of it has a certain patina of age, like it’s been there for a few hundred years.
When we entered the Gringott’s building there was a bit of confusion. You are required to put any loose items in a locker. The lockers are free, but it wasn’t made clear to us that they’ve made it easy for one person to split off and rejoin their party later. The designated locker-getter can get a return ticket as they leave the line; they just ask a Universal team member for one. The return ticket allows them to enter a special parallel line that lets them reconnect with their group. Sarah didn’t get one of them (as no one told her they existed), and had to work her way back to the rest of us via the time-honored method of saying “excuse me” to a few hundred people and weaving through the line to rejoin us. A minor blip in the end, but it made for a stressful moment or two; it would have been nice if the team members could have provided a bit more direction about the process, and made it clear that they have a system in place to make using the lockers easier.
Once you enter the bank itself (after winding around the back of the bank for a while) there is lots to see – the main lobby of the bank is full of animatronic goblins, all working away and occasionally looking up and staring at the guests moving through the lobby. In the lower levels of the bank, there are several other small “shows” as you get closer to the ride itself. About midway through the queue a group photo is taken, for “security” reasons. We thought this was a clever way to integrate a photo into the experience, though it means your “ride” photo is just a nice group picture rather than a reaction shot from your ride.
The ride itself is really well done. It pulls together multiple elements Universal has used to good effect in other rides. There are physical sets that are beautifully integrated with 3D projections, as used in the Spider-Man and Transformers rides. The ride vehicles have motion control and can shake, rotate and tilt as needed, and also travel along a track. The ride is not primarily a roller coaster, but there are a few high speed sections, something like the Mummy ride, but not quite as long or fast. Apparently the integration of so many different technologies has led to frequent breakdowns, and occasional issues with certain ride elements (fog, mist, sound effects) not working correctly. But when everything comes together, it’s an unforgettable experience that ranks among the best amusement park rides in the world. Don and the kids gave it a big thumbs up.
Sarah, on the other hand, was not a huge fan. She finds most “thrill” rides at Universal to have too much movement for her stomach, and Gringott’s was no exception. She doesn’t care for motion-control rides with lots of jerks and bumps, or rollercoasters with drops and tight turns, and this one has all of the above. It’s not nearly as intense a rollercoaster as, say, The Hulk, and the motion sections are not as bumpy as the Simpsons, but put them all together and it’s not a ride for the very motion-sensitive.
After the ride we took our time exploring Diagon Alley. There are lots of shops – some you can enter, some are just for show, but all of them have fun window displays, many of which have special effects that can be activated by performing a spell with a special interactive wand ($45!). The fire-breathing dragon atop Gringott’s is very impressive and sends out a blast of fire about every 10 minutes. Kids, and some adults, were running around with their interactive wands trying out the spells at the designated spell-casting spots. It was fun to watch what happened when their spells were successful and there were staff members nearby to provide help if you first try wasn’t successful. There’s a recreation of the dark-arts specialty area, Knockturn Alley. The light in Knockturn Alley is perpetually dim, and there are numerous creepy window displays and posters, plus a store you can enter: Borgin & Burkes, suppliers of the finest dark wizarding materials. The sheer amount of amazing things packed into Diagon Alley means that you can easily spend several hours exploring and just looking at the displays and detail.
There’s really only the one “ride” in Diagon Alley, but several shows. Ollivander’s Wand Show is the same (cute) show as in Hogsmeade, but with three separate show rooms to increase the number of people who can see it each day and reduce the incredibly long lines that build up for it in Hogsmeade. Over in the Carkitt Market area, there are two alternating performances to watch, Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees and Tales of Beedle the Bard – which are performed about every half hour. Both were great and we can only hope they add more shows over the years so there will be something new for the repeat visitor.
And of course, multiple shops and stands in Diagon Alley feature snacks and drinks. Impressively, the only food items sold in Diagon Alley are either authentic British foods like imported crisps and chocolate bars or the specially-produced Harry Potter items like butterbeer and pumpkin juice. Universal has added several new Harry Potter beverages, including our favorite, “Fishy Green Ale.” This is non-alcoholic and tastes a bit like a spiced cream soda, with a pile of blueberry “poppers” in the bottom. When you suck a popper through the straw it bursts in your mouth and floods your taste buds with tangy blueberry flavor. Delicious! We also had lunch at the Leaky Cauldron. The two adults split a ploughman’s platter with a scotch egg, beet and apple salad, and some nice cheese. The kids had a shepherd’s pie (which was really a cottage pie, since it was made with beef) and fish and chips. Everything was excellent and we’d eat there again in a second.
Next up: the Hogwart’s Express! You have to exit the main Diagon Alley area and return to “London” so you can enter King’s Cross Station. (Quick reminder: you need to have a Park-to-Park ticket or an Annual Pass to take the Hogwart’s Express, as it travels between Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios.) You wind your way through the station for a bit and eventually get to go through the brick wall at Platform 9 ¾. They’ve employed clever visual trickery (using mirrors, of course) to make it look like people are walking through a wall. You can only see other people walking through the wall; the angles don’t work when you’re going through yourself, but it’s still impressive. The ride itself was cleverly done – and tame enough for any stomach. King’s Cross Station was relatively large and yet there wasn’t much to look at as you wound your way through to the Hogwart’s Express. They did have a busker performing, which was a nice touch, but there seemed to be a lot of empty space, and a missed opportunity for creating some atmosphere.
We thought Universal did an excellent job with Diagon Alley – you felt as immersed in a magical world as you do at a Disney park – perhaps even more so. Universal took all the things they did so well in Hogsmeade and did more – which was great. There were more areas to explore, more things happening in the display windows and the live performances were an excellent addition. The only question was – how well will this hold up for multiple visits? There is one main ride, and once you have explored the shops (which are mostly souvenir shops) you have seen everything. It also has the unfortunate effect of making the other areas in Universal Studios Florida seem much less appealing by comparison. The only section of Universal that really comes close to the level of detail and theming is the new Simpsons area. The rest of the parks are perfectly nice, but not really up to the standards of Diagon Alley or of Disney’s parks.
With the exception of Diagon Alley, Universal doesn’t really try to isolate the other areas of their park from each other, which means you can be standing in Springfield enjoying a Flaming Moe or Krustyburger and clearly see all the other themed areas like San Francisco and London right across the water. Universal also uses very loud music in several areas and doesn’t do a good job of isolating the sound from other parts of the park. So you can be standing next to the Knight Bus in front of Diagon Alley and still hear the incredibly loud, bombastic theme music from Transformers in the background. It’s a little jarring if you’re used to Disney’s care with isolating each area visually and aurally so you feel immersed everywhere you go.
One big caveat: like much of Universal, the headliner Harry Potter rides are fairly intense. So if you don’t enjoy intense rides, there aren’t really very many rides for you in Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley – really just the Ollivander’s show (which is cute, but short and minor) and the Hogwarts Express. For Sarah, Disney’s parks are much more appealing because the average intensity is much lower, and there are only a few rides she feels the need to skip. And there’s more and better stuff to look at in the Disney parks for someone who’s skipping a ride and waiting for the rest of his or her family. One area that Universal does excel at is shows. Their Horror Makeup Show is probably the best, funniest theme park show we’ve ever seen, and the Disaster show is a hoot.
Overall if Universal can keep updating or adding attractions/areas at the level of the Harry Potter areas we think it will eventually be as good as (or even better than) Disney. But even if we think it currently falls a bit short of Walt Disney World, its well worth a visit, especially for teenagers and young adults who like thrill rides, and of course anyone who loves Harry Potter.