Diagon Alley — A Dream Come True for every Harry Potter Fan
When Universal Studios Florida (USF) opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure (IOA), it created a paradigm shift in the Disney–Universal theme park rivalry. Not only did Universal trot out some groundbreaking ride technology, but it also demonstrated that it could trump Disney’s most distinctive competence: the creation of infinitely detailed and totally immersive themed areas. Next came Diagon Alley at Universal Studios. To say that The Wizarding World was a game changer is an understatement of the first order.
Following much deliberation and consultation with Warner Bros. and author J.K. Rowling, the final design called for a London Waterfront street scene flanking Universal Studios Lagoon. The detailed facades, anchored by the King’s Cross railroad station on the left and including Grimmauld Place and Wyndham’s Theatre, recall West London scenes from the books and movies. Diagon Alley, secreted behind the London street scene, is accessed through a secluded entrance in the middle of the facade.
Having arrived at the London area, take a moment to spot Kreacher (the house elf regularly peers from a second-story window above 12 Grimmauld Place); listen to the receiver in the red phone booth for a message from the Ministry of Magic; poke your head in the back door of the triple-decker purple Knight Bus; and chat with the Knight Bus conductor and his Caribbean-accented shrunken head.
Once you enter Diagon Alley, look down the way to the rounded facade of Gringotts Wizarding Bank, where a 40-foot fire-breathing Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon (as seen in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) perches atop the dome. The dragon doesn’t move, but about every 10 minutes (weather permitting), he unleashes a jet of flame; get your camera ready when you hear him growl.
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts — The Star of Diagon Alley
This super-high-tech 3-D dark ride with roller coaster element is an absolute must for every Muggle. Gringotts is the Federal Reserve of the wizarding economy, as well as the scene of memorable sequences from the first and final Potter installments. It’s known for its toppling column facade, chandelier-adorned lobby, and bottomless caverns (and the heart-stopping rail carts running through them). The theme park adaptation is the centerpiece of Diagon Alley and is the ultimate expression of the virtual reality rides that Universal has been refining since IOA opened.
Gringotts’s ornately industrial ride vehicles consist of two-car trains, each holding 24 people in rows of four. The ride merges Revenge of the Mummy’s indoor coaster aspects with The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man’s seamless integration of high-resolution 3-D film (the finale dome completely surrounds your car) and massive sculptural sets (some of the rock work inside is six stories tall), while adding a few new tricks, such as independently rotating cars and motion-simulator bases built into the track. The result is a ride that, though it doesn’t break completely new ground as Forbidden Journey and Spider-Man did, combines favorite innovations from its predecessors in an exhilarating new way.
Hogwarts Express — Travel from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade
Part of the genius of creating Diagon Alley at USF is that it’s connected to Hogsmeade at IOA by Hogwarts Express, just as in the novels and films. The counterpart to Hogsmeade Station in IOA is Universal Studios’ King’s Cross Station, a landmark London train depot that has been recreated a few doors down from Diagon Alley’s hidden entrance. (It’s important to note that King’s Cross has a separate entrance and exit from Diagon Alley: You can’t go directly between them without crossing through the London Waterfront.) The passage to Platform 9 3⁄4, from which Hogwarts students depart on their way to school, is concealed from Muggles by a seemingly solid brick wall, which you’ll witness guests ahead of you dematerializing through. (Spoiler: The Pepper’s Ghost effect creates a clever but congestion-prone photo op, but you experience only a dark corridor with whooshing sound effects when crossing over yourself.)
Once on the platform, you’ll pass a pile of luggage (including an owl cage with an animatronic Hedwig) before being assigned to one of the three train cars’ seven compartments.
The train itself looks exactingly authentic to the nth degree, from the billowing steam to the brass fixtures and upholstery in your eight-passenger private cabin. Along your one-way Hogwarts Express journey, you’ll see moving images projected beyond the windows of the car rather than the park’s backstage areas, with the streets of London and the Scottish countryside rolling past outside your window.
Hogwarts Express isn’t an adrenaline rush in the same way that Escape from Gringotts is, but for those invested in Potter lore, it may be even more emotionally thrilling. And unlike most Potter attractions, it can be experienced by the whole family, regardless of size.
Ollivanders where it belongs — in Diagon Alley
Ollivanders, located in Diagon Alley in the books and films, somehow sprouted a branch location in Hogsmeade at IOA. Potter purists pointed out this misplacement, but the wand shop stayed put with
J.K. Rowling’s blessing and became one of the more popular features of The Wizarding World. It also became a horrendous bottleneck, with long lines where guests roasted in an unshaded queue. In the Diagon Alley version, Ollivanders assumes its rightful place, and with much larger digs. At IOA, only 24 guests at a time can experience the little drama where wands choose a wizard (rather than the other way around). At USF, the shop has three separate choosing chambers, changing it from a popular curiosity into an actual attraction. As for the IOA location, it continues to operate.
The actual show inside is identical to IOA’s original outpost in script and special effects. Every few minutes, following a script from the Potter books, a wand-selection show takes place where a random customer (often a child dressed in Potter regalia) is selected to take part in a wand-choosing ceremony. Usually just one person in each group gets to be chosen by a wand, though occasionally siblings are selected together.
In his book The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, author Seth Kubersky shares descriptions of all rides at Universal Orlando. The book has also Touring Plans especially designed for guests who want to concentrate on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.