Way back when a woman published the first of seven books about a famous boy wizard, the child I was would have done anything in order to be a part of the action and magic. Go forward to the year 2015, and I find myself sitting on the Hogwarts Express and listening to a songstress singing the best tunes that the magical realm has to offer.
For all of the people who do not frequent theme parks, this is the reality of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Diagon Alley at Universal Studio’s Orlando location, the latter of the two only recently opened up late last year. It is brilliant, a money trap and everything that that small person I once was could ever hope for.
First things first about it for anyone ever wishing to visit the attraction:
1) In order to ride the Hogwarts Express, you need to have a pass for both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, as the train connects the two. You can, however, visit each separately if you have a pass for either one of the parks.
2) The crowds will swallow you alive, due to how this is by far the most congested section(s) out of all the two parks.
3) Be prepared to wait on lines for everything, to food and drink to the four rides that are split between the two locations. You will eventually get to your destination: just wait it out.
Now then, onto the actual review, starting with Diagon Alley, the newest expansion.
Yes, this is how it looks from where you enter. You may all giggle in delight.
Located between the attractions of Disaster! and Fear Factor Live, the entrance to the wizarding equivalent of a shopping mall looks simple enough: a normal building front with a large black fountain outside of it. Innocent enough, save for the dark blue-purple double decker bus outside of it with a talking shrunken head in the window. Any fan will tell you the name of the bus, the driver and the story behind it. Next to this, on the left hand side, is King’s Cross Station which will be discussed later.
Approaching the tweed-dressed employee and following the giggling children and adults alike, you round a corner lined with stones to a wall breaking away with a hole in it. And there before one’s eyes is a busy shop-lined avenue and a white dragon sitting atop Gringott’s Bank.
And then, it breathes fire. It always attracts a crowd when it happens, so listen for the growling noises from atop it’s perch to be alerted for the plumes. Make sure you have a camera ready!
Diagon Alley is more shopping then Hogsmead (the first Harry Potter themed section in Islands of Adventure) is, but I think there is more variety here then in IoA. Weasly’s Wizarding Wheezes, for example, is much more expansive then Zonko’s Joke Shop and features a wider array of silly items like jester hats, whoopie cushions, etc. And the colors on the store fronts are one thing that will draw you in.
There is one shop though that is clearly the most popular: Ollivander’s Wand Shop, where every wizard and witch in the magical world comes to purchase the staple tool of their trade. I, being a sucker for such things, was caught in the money trap and fell victim to it, purchasing a nice twelve inch Reed wand. And when you wait on the snaking line that goes into the store, you are greeted by an elderly shop keep who chooses a random person in the room to experiment with the wands. Magic happens at this point, so I wont spoil this too much. Its a beautiful thing, but everyone after may head on into the shop to buy their wands after the experience.
Note: the interactive wands are more expensive then the normal ones. The normal ones are character wands belonging to the main trio, Voldemort, Draco Malfoy, amongst others.
Once you are the proud owner of one of these wands, though, that is where the fun begins. Scattered around the property are locations where you “cast your spell” at random things and BAM! Suddenly things start happening that were not there before. Rain falls down on unwary passerbys, a fountain spews water at you; the lights in a store flicker and dim. There is at least 20 or so of these magical locations. Your wand comes with a map that shows you the locations of each spell and the corresponding motions you must do to activate it, but head to Knockturn Alley and put it under the black light to reveal hidden spots as well!
Here I am playing with one of the marked spots, and after some aggravation in making it happen, I react like a small child on Christmas day.
The details are all down to a perfectionist level, and you can tell that the Universal Studios crew did their homework on the source material. There are signs that I am quite certain are ripped straight from the studio set of the films, lights that turn themselves on, and Fwoopers in the window of the pet shop that sing as you pass by (why would anyone want a Fwooper is beyond me). Toads croak in a display case made of a tree and a quill feather floats on its own accord.
There is even Knockturn Alley, the part of Diagon Alley devoted to darker arts. Keep an eye out for it or you may pass by it completely. There are even animated wanted posters strung up, including of that dastardly Death Eater, Bellatrix LeStrange (the picture to your left hand side). I wanted to buy a shrunken head, because there’s a case full of them that sing when you cast the proper spell at them but I don’t think I could get that onto the airplane back home.
Of course, there’s a staggering amount of merchandise to purchase, from Time Turner necklaces to Hogwarts Express throw pillows and student robes for each of the houses. You could easily spend over 200 dollars here just on gifts alone, but to the die-hard Potter fans, I think they would argue that it is money well spent.
One other notable feature about Diagon Alley is how just next door to it sits King’s Cross Station and Platoform 9 and 3 Quarters, or the way each witch and wizard gets to Hogwarts. Even in Florida it delivers us there in style: the iconic red and black steam engine pulls up, bellows to the waiting passengers before they board. I won’t ruin what happens inside of it but it’s nothing short of breath-taking. And, just like in the books, it brings you straight to the school. In this case it’s Hogsmeade which is located in Islands of Adventure.
*Note: You MUST have a ticket for Islands of Adventure as well in order to use the Hogwarts Express, since it takes you back and forth from one park to the other.
In conclusion: if you have always wanted to feel like you stepped right into the movies and stories, this is a definite must-do when you go to Florida. Just be prepared for lines, lines, lines. But always keep an eye out: you never know what magic lays right around the corner. Now if you will excuse me, I am going to get myself a cup of frozen Butterbeer. You should do the same.
Other photos from Diagon Alley: