Universal Orlando Resort executives continued their quest to reinvent the theme park guest experience on July 19 with the first media preview of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Studios in Orlando. A red carpet event drew hundreds of media guests and several supporting actors from the Harry Potter films. It proved a triumphant occasion for the NBCUniversal and Universal Orlando Resort executives on hand to open the wall of their much-anticipated attraction, which doubles the size of Universal’s Harry Potter theme park areas in Orlando.
“Many of you joined us in June of 2010 when we opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade,” said Tom Williams, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Universal Parks & Resorts in his opening remarks to the red carpet crowds. “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…You will be among the first to experience the real Diagon Alley.”
Williams praised the team of Universal Orlando Resort's President and Chief Operating Officer Bill Davis, as well as that of Mark Woodbury, President of Universal Creative, for bringing a new level of “immersive” theme park experience to the new attractions.
Aboard the Hogwarts Express
The experience began for the media on a green “London embankment” opposite the Kings Cross Station that houses track 9 ¾ and the Hogwarts Express train. The train runs continuously between the Diagon Alley area in Universal Studios and the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade in Universal’s 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 Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios.
Among the prominent character cameos seen during the Hogwarts Express rides are Hagrid, played by actor Robbie Coltrane, and the Weasley brothers, played by Domhnall Gleeson and James and Jeremy 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 will be a lot of entertaining diversions for the expected lines of guests waiting to board the trains after the July 8, 2014 opening. The ability, for example, to have one’s photo taken passing through the brick wall in the station entering, as Harry Potter did, the platform for track 9 ¾ is a highlight.
Along the faithfully recreated London street adjacent to Kings Cross station is the lofty façade of the Wyndhams 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 Picadilly 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.
Inside Diagon Alley guests engage in the authentic, “immersion” experience described by Universal management. On the left side beyond the entrance is the soon-to-be-popular Leaky Cauldron Restaurant. However the attention of arriving guests is immediately drawn skyward to the lofty Gringotts Bank at the top of the street 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 when she (reportedly a female) periodically feels cranky.
The centerpiece attraction of Diagon Alley is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The thrill ride is based on a key event in the Harry Potter saga when Harry and his friends 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 the eminent English actress Helena Bonham Carter. Carter added her star power to Universal’s red carpet event and answered questions at a crowded press conference in 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. It is transporting. It creates a real sense of wonder.”
Riding Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
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 bank chambers and vaults that will keep lines of visitors entertained en route to the boarding area for the ride. The ride itself, which we were fortunate to experience before a shutdown in its test phase, is a combination indoor coaster and high-definition, multi-dimensional visual feast. While rivaling the visual experiences of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade castle, the Escape from Gringotts involves slightly less physical twists and turns to allow a more family-friendly experience. There are 3D dragons and snakes, along with villainess Bellatrix Lestrange and the evil Lord Voldemort appearing repeatedly as the stars of this ride in which Harry Potter himself appears primarily to rescue guests in the finale. The attraction delivers the desired immersive thrills with enough authentic story elements to keep Potter fans coming back for repeat viewings to capture details missed the first or even second time.
Attention will also be paid to the cleverest new technical wizardry in the Wizarding World of Harrry 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 Diagon Alley complex. Expect young guests to want to spend more than an hour or two activating their wands, with help from costumed witches and wizards helping cast their spells, in all the magical points around the new park area.
Shopping will also be a prime experience in Diagon Alley as Potter fans shop for wands in Ollivanders; 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; plush animals in Magical Menagerie; telescopes in Wiseacres Wizarding Equipment; sports apparel in Quality Quidditch Supplies and traditional writing equipment in Scribbulus.
Hungry from long lines and multi-street shopping, Diagon Alley visitors are likely to flock to the Leaky Cauldron Restaurant, near the entrance and exit point from the London street. Our group found the traditional English fare in Leaky Cauldron, ranging 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.
Travel Agent Opportunities in Diagon Alley
Dennis Quinn, Vice President of International Sales for Universal Orlando Resorts, said Universal is creating new sales opportunities for travel agents to visit the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley. Agents can visit www.UniversalTravelAgents.com where they can undertake a study curriculum 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 Quinn. “This is a multi-day, multi-park experience.” He noted that Universal’s sales team will also be doing regional training of travel agents in the new attractions.
Travel agents can now offer their clients a new Wizarding World of Harry Potter package from Universal. Priced at $155 per adult per night for travel from June 29 through Aug. 16, or $135 per night from Aug. 17 to Oct. 2, or Nov. 10 to Dec. 18, the four-night deal includes the following:
- Accommodations at the new Loews Cabana Bay Resort.
- A three-day park-to-park ticket.
- Breakfasts in both the Three Broomsticks Restaurant in Hogsmeade and the new Leaky Cauldron Restaurant in Diagon Alley.
- Universal’s transportation between the hotel and both the two Universal theme parks and the CityWalk enterainment area.
- A themed welcome parcel.
- One hour early admission each morning to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
- Quinn said that guests who purchase the package for travel starting June 29 will get access to the new
Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, even though the park is not officially scheduled to open until July 8.