When Universal Orlando’s Diagon Alley –the extension of Wizarding World of Harry Potter --opens to the public on July 8, expect it to cast a spell on Potter and non-Potter fans alike.
Diagon Alley, an impressive set of high-tech attractions, live entertainment, shopping, dining, and more, is the closest thing there is to being transported into a fictional world out of the movies. But it’s lively entertainment and good food will likely be a draw for all.
Building on the success the original Wizarding World in their Islands of Adventure theme park, Universal took everything they learned from its first attraction and applied it to the Diagon Alley expansion, located in neighboring Universal Studios Florida. New streets are larger, buildings taller, window dressings more detailed, and entertainment richer.
"We needed to be true to the stories, to keep things tight and close, but we also needed to have the space. I think we've achieved this feeling of a very tight and closed in urban environment but still have the space for our guests." said Dale Mason, director of creative development for Universal Creative.
Diagon Alley is full of innovations designed to bring out a childlike sense of wonder, like the realistic-looking fire-breathing dragon perched atop Gringotts Bank at the end of Diagon Alley.
Cornerstone to the experience is Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, a thrill ride that's part roller coaster, part motion simulator and all immersive experience. From the moment guests walk through its doors, they’re met with high ceilings and wide-open spaces without designated lines to give the feel of visiting a real place, not just entering a theme park ride. Even before stepping foot on the ride, visual effects send visitors on a virtual trip deep into the bank vaults via an underground elevator. The cars then launch a wild ride alongside Harry’s adventure to retrieve a magical Horcrux. Through 3D animation and special effects, guests come face-to-face with goblins, trolls, and even Harry Potter's nemesis Lord Voldemoort. Naturally, Harry Potter and his friends swoop in to save the day.
The fantasy world continues on the new Hogwarts Express train, which travels between Diagon Alley area and the Hogsmeade section in Islands of Adventure. After taking that step onto platform 9 ¾ like in the film, guests find themselves facing a full size, real-life Hogwarts Express train. Once inside, a 5-minute ride includes scenic landscapes, flying creatures, fireworks, and a set of special effects that makes it seem like Harry, Ron, and Hermione are standing just outside the cabin doors.
Interactive magic wands, for sale in Hogsmeade Village and Diagon Alley areas, let guests try their hand at making “magic” –and if pointed in certain ways and can make lights flicker on, rain come down, or make a broken suit of armor repair itself.
Immersing park guests into worlds that feel real is key to Universal's new generation of themed entertainment–and extends from the rides to retail. Whether wandering through the amusing Weasleys Wizard Wheezes store, filled with animated props and silly sound effects, or slowly slinking through the spooky Knockturn Alley, a dimly-lit winding path that makes every day feel like a dark and stormy one, guests of Diagon Alley are never taken out of the moment.
Even the food has been carefully thought out. The Leaky Cauldron restaurant, faithfully recreated from the films, serves up strangely-named but delicious drinks like Fishy Green Ale, a mix of pineapple and green apple juices featuring bursts of blueberry flavor.
"People enjoy the discovery and exploration part of this experience as much as they enjoy any particular ride or individual thing," said Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. "It's kind of a sum of the parts experience."
And while, die-hard Harry Potter fans will delight at discovering the attraction’s layered detail, the high-tech, in-your-face features will be a draw for many.
Visitors can purchase a park-to-park pass for $136 or a single park pass for $96.
Ricky Brigante is a theme park expert and fan who edits InsideTheMagic, a blog focusing on Disney and theme park news and entertainment. He's also host of the award-winning "Inside the Magic" podcast.