It was the hottest ticket in town. The most coveted invitation since the 2010 opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Hogsmeade, and we were bouncing off the walls with excitement when our invitation arrived. On 17 June we joined the U.K. press group for an exclusive visit to Universal Studio’s Diagon Alley, in the company of none other than Alan Gilmore, Art Director for the Harry Potter films and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
We started at Hogsmeade Station at Islands of Adventure, winding our way through an enormous queue that will certainly fill up once the station finally opens, and it’s here that the hints of a truly enormous level of detail begin. Once aboard the Hogwarts Express, those suspicions are confirmed: the magic wand Universal Creative used to bring this new land to life left no stone unturned. British visitors will instantly recognise every aspect of the train carriage and their compartments, right down to the upholstery.
The ride itself is a marvel, even before you leave the station. Steam from the train billows up along your window, then Hagrid waves you off as you begin your journey to London, passing Centaurs in the Forbidden Forest, Malfoy Manor, and the Scottish countryside. The hallway outside your compartment bustles with students, including Harry, Ron, and Hermione, who stop briefly for a peek inside. The return trip is equally scenic…with a startling brush with a Dementor!
We arrived at King’s Cross, and spent an hour taking in the detail and visiting with the Knight Bus conductor and his sidekick, Dre Head.
This comedic interaction set up our entry into Diagon Alley beautifully, and, as we walked through the brick wall, we literally stopped in our tracks. It was as if we had stepped out of the Muggle world directly into the wizard’s world, so realistic and alive, it practically breathed.
Hogsmeade’s buildings are all of a similar style and period, but Diagon Alley looks as if it has grown up organically over the course of a thousand years. The official Red Carpet event the next night would add a slew of witches and wizards wandering the streets, and the effect was complete: we were IN a magical village.
To the left of the entry is the Leaky Cauldron, featuring traditional pub food such as Banger and Mash, Cottage Pie (delicious!), and Fish and Chips, along with Dragon Scale Ale and Wizard’s Brew, plus non-alcoholic beverages developed exclusively for Diagon Alley. To the right is a Quiddich supply shop and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, a riot of colour and visual gags.
But the real stunner is the dragon, its talons wrapped around a turret above Gringotts Bank, its massive wings, covered in the scars of battle, hugging the side of the bank. With mouth opened in a massive roar, its terrifying head is aimed directly at anyone who gets in its way. Not scary enough for you? Wait until it breathes fire.
Walking down Diagon Alley itself, we passed every shop a wizard could need, including a book store and Madam Malkins robe shop, a potions and charms shop, a shoemaker, button vendor, the Slug and Jigger pub, and even a Fear of Flying class. Gringott’s Bank sits at the junction of Diagon Alley and Horizont Alley, with Ollivander’s to the right and Florean Fortescue’s ice cream parlour on the left. Turning right took us to Carkitt Market, where Eternelle’s Elixor of Refreshment serves up Gilly Water with flavouring, and the area’s two shows take place. We were treated to a special showing of The Tales of Beedle The Bard, a delightful live actor and puppet show, and we would hear jazz singer Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees the next night.
Further along Carkitt Market we came upon the Hopping Cauldron for more wizardly beverages, the most bizarre of which is Fishy Green Ale, a non-alcoholic drink with ‘fish eggs’ (large blueberry flavoured gelatin pearls) in the bottom. A blacksmith, the Mermaid Fountain, the Jellied Eel Shop, and Ollivanders’ competition, Wands By Gregorovitch led us back to the Leaky Cauldron, but our tour wasn’t over yet. Not by a long shot.
Just to the right of the Leaky Cauldron is a small, unassuming sign. Here we found Knockturn Alley, a dark lane where only ne’er-do-wells visit. It’s always night-time here and, while the area is certainly eerie, we also discovered it’s one of Diagon Alley’s most interactive areas. Using magical wands (available for purchase at Ollivanders or Gregorovitch’s) we stopped at each of the 5 shop windows in Knockturn Alley (there are 25 throughout Diagon Alley) and made shrunken heads talk, skeletons dance, and a poor, innocent budgie blow up (ok, so it just blew its feathers off).
Borgin And Burkes shop caters to the evil forces, and here we found Tom Riddle’s diary, skull-shaped candelabra, Horcruxes and all manner of dark-arts wares for sale. As with all of Diagon Alley, the realism inside the shops is immensely convincing. Knockturn Alley turned out to be Susan’s favourite place in the wizarding world. Simon’s vote went to Gringotts Bank.
We would return to Horizont Alley the next evening, but we’ll give you the full picture now, since you’ve waited so long for the area’s headliner attraction already. Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts was not running during our first day in Diagon Alley, so we made a bee-line for it during the Red Carpet event and we’re so glad we did. It’s a highly technical ride and tweaks are ongoing, so we were among the very few who were able to ride the next night.
The experience begins inside the marbled halls of Gringotts Bank and, if the buildings in Diagon Alley are immensely impressive, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Just wait until you get a look at the goblins toiling over their ledgers, looking up occasionally at the Muggles passing by who will be absolutely convinced these bank employees are living, breathing beings.
The head teller instructs visitors about their journey into the vault, and then it’s down a winding staircase to the lift that takes guests to the underground vaults, 9 miles below. As you journey downward, the lift shakes and rattles and you can track your descent on the cavernous shaft visible from your lift.
Once inside the cavern, where stalactites drip from the ceiling, we boarded our vehicle and set off toward the vaults. We won’t give away the story, but Bellatrix Lastrange, Voldemort, Harry, Hermione, and Ron feature heavily, as does a rather frightening snake and a dragon with a bad attitude. Part roller coaster, part dark-ride, all in 3-D, you will be convinced you’ve ridden directly into a magical—if maniacal—place full of startling surprises and ultimately, a heroic ending that will leave you breathless and in awe of its jaw-dropping creativity.
So that’s the big picture. We’ll take a look at the rest of this magnificent 3-day event on Friday, so be sure to join us here for more detail, more surprises, and a very special Red Carpet event with the stars of the Harry Potter movies!
Diagon Alley opens the 8th July, so be sure to get your Universal tickets for this amazing new themed area at Universal Orlando with Attraction Tickets Direct!