In the bestselling books, in the box-office-breaking movies and now at Universal Orlando Resort, Diagon Alley is a magical land where boy wizard Harry Potter goes to shop. Oh, its Florida incarnation is an eye-popping place, as hundreds of media members, here and abroad, discovered this week at a glitzy press event inside the second Potter playground for Walt Disney World's chief competitor.
Every square inch, back alley and goblin hideaway is tricked-out and big-grin fun — theme park ingenuity at its finest. And there are two rides, the coaster-like Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express train, that will give guests a chance to stop spending.
But for all its architectural flourishes (a full London facade, a delightfully dark place called Knockturn Alley), Diagon Alley, which opens to the public July 8 in the Universal Studios park, is inherently, unapologetically, about commerce: Butterbeer, wands, robes, stuffed owls — all of which can be had in seven stores. If that sounds cynical, Universal's Diagon Alley just happens to be the most fantastical cash registers you've ever seen, one that comes with an enormous fire-breathing dragon.
Times staffers Sean Daly, Sharon Kennedy Wynne and Eve Edelheit spent Wednesday and Thursday "working" at Diagon Alley. Here's what they found.
— Sean Daly, Times staff writer
As Harry Potter says in J.K. Rowling's first book in the bestselling series, I wished I had eight more eyes to see everything in Diagon Alley. Here are some of my favorite things about the world of the boy wizard.
Dale Mason of Universal Creative said it was "an easy yes" to approve a fire-breathing dragon to sit atop Gringotts Bank. You never know when it will erupt, but when it does there's a deafening roar, the ground rumbles and you can feel the heat from the fireball that the Ukranian Ironbelly spews on tourists below.
The enchanted wands
You can wave a special wand to make trolls dance or (at the Weasleys' joke shop) stir a plunger in a toilet next to a display of U-No-Poo pills. The magic is in the dozens of medallions embedded in the cobblestone. But it's not so easy. Remember how terrible Ron was at the Wingardium Leviosa levitation charm at first? You have to learn how to use the wand. It's all in the wrist. The interactive wands cost $44.99. You can exchange your old one for it if you still have the original box and receipt.
Universal added seven new shops (vs. the five that are in Hogsmeade) but Potter fans practically beg them to take their money. There's lots to buy, and it's so entertaining while you do it. The Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes joke shop is as wild as you'd expect with explosions on the ceiling and things whizzing about. And window shopping takes on a whole new dimension when you see self-knitting needles or a Firebolt broom levitating with no wires in sight.
Like Harry, you have to walk through a brick wall at Platform 9 3/4 to get on the Hogwarts Express. When I first did it, I had no idea because it was just an archway from the ride queue to the hall to board the train. But the people behind me in the queue have a screen between them and me, so it appears I'm walking through bricks. Very clever.
That in-the-movie feel
Universal has drawn raves for rides like Transformers and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey that make you feel like you've been plopped into the chase scene of a movie. In the Harry Potter sections of the theme parks, they have extended that feeling to the whole experience. You will never find a muggle (non-wizard) product like Coke here. And the people who work here are in character. When you enter the creepy Knockturn Alley, the workers of the dark wizard shops act shady, even hostile.
Forget Butterbeer. Try Fishy Green Ale, the sweet signature drink of Diagon Alley that tastes similar to a minty boba tea. Harry Potter ate some Gillyweed to grow gills and webbed fingers, and this comes with a dozen "fish eggs" on the bottom and a wide straw so you suck up a few eggs with each sip, giving you a tart explosion. Also new is the Butterbeer-flavored ice cream, "Tongue-Tying Lemon Squash" lemonade and hearty English pub fare in the Leaky Cauldron.
J.K. Rowling's humor is in great evidence here. The faux Museum of Muggle Curiosities has a microwave and desk fan in the window. In Knockturn Alley (my favorite section) the enchanted wands cast curses, not spells, and there's a very funny trick with a doorknob that unexpectedly blasts you.
"We never realized the crowds we would get," said Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative, "but we needed to be faithful to the story." When the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010, with its narrow cobbled streets, Universal saw a 36 percent increase in attendance that year, a leap that had never been done in the history of the theme park industry. This time the streets are much wider, Ollivander's Wand Shop is huge compared to the one in Hogsmeade, with a much better way of moving people along. Putting the Hogwarts Express at a separate entrance from Diagon Alley divides the crowd as well and the ride queue there is miles long.