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Wizards, wands, and witches: Diagon Alley opens a new chapter in theme park entertainment


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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando, a new themed section of the already-thriving theme park, is now open and inviting its muggle visitors to step even further into the mystical world of Harry Potter.

I spent the whole day there, immersing myself in the magical delights of J.K. Rowling’s fictional world, which is brought to life through the fairly hidden away Diagon Alley, which lies behind a pretty standard and uninviting brick wall. It's easy to believe that muggles might simply walk past the London facades, smiling at the signs for King’s Cross and Grimmauld Place, but generally failing to understand what lies beyond.

As you stand by the entrance and look at the alley, it’s pretty mind-blowing. The Hogwarts Express can be heard trundling along the bridge above your head, and Gringotts Bank is at the top of the alley, topped with a large imposing dragon that breathes fire, much to the amusement of camera-bearing tourists. The Leaky Cauldron is serving up traditional British fayre to your left, whilst there are rows and rows of shops selling wizardly wares along the edges. Fantastic artwork can be seen on the stone walls, and the influx of tourists makes it appear like a thriving shopping precinct filled with wizards and witches (wearing shorts and t-shirts, of course).

As you leave the hustle and bustle of the rest of the theme park behind you, you'll feel like you’ve been transported into a fictional world that's only supposed to exist in your head - but somehow, everything seems to match up with how you imagined it.

The main attraction at Diagon Alley is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The ride was down for maintenance upon our arrival, and unfortunately this appears to be an all-too-common issue. Personally, I was happy to be given that extra little bit of time to admire and enjoy the themed queuing area. Guests are essentially ushered through the main hall at Gringotts Bank, with animatronic goblins working away on their accounts, and a huge chandelier hanging from the ceiling. There are constant references to the Harry Potter story, even if it’s just a name-tag or a newspaper article resting on a desk. It’s so incredibly slick, and it is the minor details like this that really help to tell the story effectively.

The ride itself is absolutely brilliant – guests are spun around and shaken all over the place whilst encountering the Harry Potter cast as they pop up on 3D screens. As you’d expect with such a combination, it really feels like you’re hurtling through a series of underground tunnels, hundreds of metres below the bank. I was pretty speechless afterwards, and it’s exactly the type of attraction that I was hoping for.

As for merchandise, Universal has really hit the jackpot. The generic plush toys, robes, and wands are still for sale, but there’s now a lot more variety on offer. Whole shops are now dedicated to robing, Quidditch, and stuffed animals, whereas everything had previously been combined and mashed together. Guests can now buy interactive wands from Olivander’s, and we spotted many of them subsequently wandering around Diagon Alley, flicking them at random shop windows and statues to activate a particular feature. At $45 a wand, and with the technology already in place, it’s clear to see that big bucks are rolling in each and every day.

Food and beverage choice is generally very good. I decided to sample the “Fishy Green Ale,” which was a combination of mint and cinnamon with blueberries on the bottom. The berries pop when you drink them, giving the impression that you’re biting into a fish egg.

The same outlet also offered “Gillywater,” and whilst I wasn’t expecting to grow gills and webbing, I was a little taken aback when they were just offering me plain old bottled water. The Leaky Cauldron restaurant was decent, with servers bringing your food to your table, rather than standing around by the cash registers. It was a much more smooth operation, and clearly saved a lot of time and stress. The restaurant offers pretty traditional pub grub, which was a welcome alternative to typical US burgers and fries.

Finally, guests are able to ride the Hogwarts Express to Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the sister theme park just next door. The train leaves from King’s Cross, and the theming was pretty close to perfect. Luggage carts and trunks were scattered around the station, with advertisements for London attractions pinned to the walls. There’s a fantastic illusion that makes it look like passengers are running through the wall to Platform 9 ¾ too.

The train itself has intimate cabins which seat eight guests each. There’s a screen on one side, which makes it look like you’re rolling through the English countryside with the Harry Potter characters. The other side has a pane of translucent glass with familiar shadows popping up to entertain guests – both chocolate frogs and dementors make an appearance.

More than ever before, I strongly believe that the magic of Diagon Alley, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter more generally, is in the tiny details. The smallest of flourishes all add to what is an impressive theatrical effect; guests aren’t simply visiting a theme park in Florida, but are instead being fully immersed in that immense story of The Boy Who Lived.

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