Helena Bonham Carter and other actors from the “Harry Potter” movie series tour Diagon.
Universal Orlando Resort continues to reinvent the theme park guest experience with the opening last month of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Studios. Travel Agent was part of a media preview in June, during which Tom Williams, chairman and CEO of Universal Parks & Resorts, said, “We knew the expectations of all of you and of Harry Potter fans around the world would be very high when it comes to Diagon Alley,” and praised the teams of Universal Orlando Resort’s president and COO Bill Davis and Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative, for bringing a new level of “immersive” theme park experience to the new attractions.
Our experience began on a green “London Embankment” opposite the Kings Cross Station that houses Platform 9¾ and the Hogwarts Express train. The train runs continuously between the Diagon Alley area in Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. Eight passengers per compartment watch a 3D video in the train window that presents a virtual passing landscape between central London and Hogsmeade in Scotland. The journey, which can be taken in either direction, requires a multi-park ticket allowing entry to both parks.
Among the character cameos seen during the Hogwarts Express rides are Hagrid, played by actor Robbie Coltrane, and a trio of the Weasley brothers, played by Domhnall Gleeson and James and Oliver Phelps. (All four actors were among several of the Harry Potter cast members attending the opening red carpet evening.) Most impressive are the details within Kings Cross Station, from old suitcases, dustbins and advertising signs to authentically dressed train conductors filling the station entries and directing passengers to train carriages. There are several entertaining diversions for guests waiting to board the trains, such as having one’s photo taken passing through the brick wall in the station as Harry Potter did.
The ‘Escape from Gringotts’ ride lets visitors experience a key event from the movie series.
Along the faithfully recreated London street adjacent to Kings Cross Station is the lofty facade of Wyndham’s Theatre. Between the two buildings is Leicester Square, from which an opening through a brick wall leads to Diagon Alley, as it did when Harry Potter himself first discovered the place. Before entering Diagon Alley, guests say hello to the bus keeper outside the triple-decker “Knight Bus” located next to a replica of Piccadilly Square’s Eros Fountain. Visitors can join the bus man in an entertaining live dialogue with the shrunken head hanging from his rear-view mirror.
A highlight of the Diagon Alley experience is the lofty Gringotts Bank, where an iconic fire-breathing dragon lies draped over the dome of the building. Guests wait in the street for the fireballs that explode from the dragon’s mouth periodically.
‘Escape from Gringotts’ Ride
A new thrill ride, “Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts,” is based on a key event in the movie series when Harry, Ron and Hermione break into Gringotts Bank to steal Helga Hufflepuff’s Cup, needed to combat the evil Lord Voldemort. The item is a possession of Bellatrix Lestrange, a villainess portrayed in the Potter films by actress Helena Bonham Carter, who was on hand at Universal’s red carpet event and answered the media’s questions at Diagon Alley’s Leaky Cauldron restaurant the following morning. Describing her visit to Diagon Alley with her two young children, Carter said, “They are enchanted. They went on the [Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts] ride and loved it. It is so sweet to see everything from their point of view…to them it is all so real.” Our group found the Leaky Cauldron’s traditional English fare—from fish and chips, bangers and mash, and fisherman’s pie to desserts of trifles and sticky toffee pudding—to be uniformly excellent. Items were fairly priced, considering the generous portions and highly satisfying presentations.
The passage through the Gringotts Bank lobby, complete with eerily live-looking goblin bankers gazing upon visitors from around the room, leads to a series of lower chambers and vaults that will keep lines of visitors entertained en route to the boarding area for the ride. The ride itself is a combination indoor coaster and high-definition, multi-dimensional visual feast. While rivaling the thrills of “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” in Hogwarts castle, the Escape from Gringotts involves slightly less physical twists and turns to allow a more family-friendly experience.
Attention must be paid to the cleverest new technical wizardry in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, namely an interactive wand. Available in Ollivanders, one of the half-dozen shops in Diagon Alley selling Potter-related merchandise, the wand allows wizards and witches to activate a wishing-well that spits water, an invisible knight with visible armor in the blacksmith’s shop, an umbrella that begins raining, shop-window characters that dance, and more than a dozen other entertainment elements throughout the complex.
Shopping will also be a prime experience in Diagon Alley as Potter fans shop for Dark Magic objects in Borgin and Burkes, toys and novelties in Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, wizard wear and Hogwarts uniform gear in Madam Malkin’s Robes, telescopes in Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, sports apparel in Quality Quidditch Supplies, and traditional writing equipment in Scribbulus.
Agents can visit www.universaltravelagents.com where they can study to become a Universal Specialist agent. Upon completion of the curriculum, and successful passage of the specialist test, the travel agent can earn a Universal park-to-park ticket for a visit to the new Harry Potter attractions.
“We are working through the travel trade to get the word out that it now takes two to three days to explore our destination,” said Dennis Quinn, VP of international sales for Universal Orlando Resorts. Universal’s sales team will also be doing regional training of travel agents in the new attractions.
Agents can offer their clients a Wizarding World of Harry Potter package from Universal. Priced at $155 per adult per night for travel now through August 16, or $135 per night from August 17 to October 2 or November 10 to December 18, the four-night deal includes a room at the new Loews Cabana Bay Resort, a three-day park-to-park ticket, breakfasts at restaurants in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, hotel-park transfers, a themed welcome parcel, and one-hour early admission each morning to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.