As PotterWatch wraps up with the approach of Diagon Alley’s July 8 official opening date, I’m proud to present Touring Plans’ first in-depth reviews of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions. During the recent VIP preview week, I spent nearly 12 hours exploring the expansion at Universal Studios Florida and was the only member of the media to successfully ride the Gringotts attraction three times. I’ve distilled that first-hand experience into the following Diagon Alley review and touring strategy, which will appear in edited form in the 2015 edition of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, as well as other affiliated titles.
Bear in mind, the following opinions and information are based on a preview of the attraction and are subject to change once the area is open to the public. BEWARE: Minor spoilers ahead.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley Review
Guests approach the Wizarding World’s London Waterfront from either the San Francisco or World Expo areas of Universal Studios, at the opposite end of the park from the front entrance. Wrought iron fencing surround the park-like promenade (complete with snack and souvenir stands, and a towering statue-topped fountain) with a shoreline sidewalk along the embankment bypassing the area. Guests access London through the gateway closest to the Fear Factor Live stadium, and exit towards Disaster!
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), and chat with the Knight Bus conductor and his Caribbean-accented shrunken head. Then enter Diagon Alley next to the Leicester Square marquee in the approximate center of the building facades. As in the books and films, the unmarked portal is concealed within a magical brick wall (which unfortunately does not actually move, due to safety concerns) that is ordinarily reserved for wizards and the like. However, the endless queue of Muggles (plain old humans) in shorts and flip- flops will leave little doubt where that entryway is.
[For some Easter eggs from the attraction designers -- including the first of several tributes to Jaws, the original occupant of this area -- inspect the record albums in the music store window.]
Once admitted, look down the alley to the rounded facade of Gringotts Wizarding Bank, where a forty-foot fire-breathing Ukranian Ironbelly dragon (as seen in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) perches atop the dome. To your left is the Leaky Cauldron, the area’s flagship restaurant, serving authentically hearty British pub fare like bangers and mash, cottage pie, toad in the hole, Guinness stew, and a ploughman’s platter for two of scotch eggs and imported cheeses. Meals are ordered and drinks received at a counter; then you are seated with a candle which helps servers deliver food direct to your table. You can top off your meal with potted chocolate and sticky toffee pudding for dessert, or step around the corner to Florean Fortescue’s for Butterbeer soft-serve (the newest variation of the cult-favorite beverage) or unusual hard-pack flavors like clotted cream, Earl Grey & lavender, and chocolate chili. If all that eating makes you thirsty, a variety of new novelty drinks are poured at The Hopping Pot and Fountain of Fair Fortune, both alcoholic — Wizard’s Brew (a heavy porter) and Dragon Scale (a hoppy amber), both $8.50 — and virgin ($4-$5), like Fishy Green Ale (mint boba tea with balls of blueberry juice) and Gillywater, which can be spiked with four different flavored elixirs, alongside ever-popular Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice.
Shopping is a major component of Diagon Alley in Potter lore; while Hogsmeade visitors went wild for the few wizardy shops there, Diagon Alley is the planet’s wackiest mall, with vastly expanded array of enchanted tchotchkes to declare bankruptcy over. Shops include Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, a joke shop with many of the toys previously found in Hogsmeade’s Zonko’s, plus new gags like Skiving Snackboxes and Decoy Detonators; look up through the three-story store’s “glass” ceiling for fireworks. Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, which sits at the exit of Gringotts, sells crystal balls, compasses, and hourglasses. Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions stocks school uniforms, Scottish knitted wool sweaters, and dress robes for wizards and witches. Adopt a plush cat, rat, owl, or hippogriff from the Magical Menagerie, greeting the animated animals in its windows. Shutterbutton’s will film your family in front of a green screen and insert your into a DVD of Potter scenes (about $70); Quality Quidditch Supplies sells golden snitches and jerseys for your favorite teams; and Scribbulus carries quills, notebooks, and similar school supplies. You can pay for all this loot in Gringotts bank notes, which you can purchase inside a money exchange overseen by an imperious interactive animatronic goblin, and then spend anywhere within the Universal resort (think Disney Dollars). In general, Diagon Alley’s stores are larger and more plentiful than the tiny shops over in Hogsmeade, with carefully-planned external and internal queues to corral waiting customers, but don’t expect Walmart.
To the right of Gringotts is Carkitt Market, a canopy-covered plaza where short live shows are staged every half hour or so. Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees (4 stars) showcases the “singing sorceress” swinging to jazzy tunes titled and inspired by J.K. Rowling herself, and Tales of Beedle the Bard (3 1/2 stars) recounts the “Three Brothers” fable from Deathly Hallows with puppets crafted by Michael Curry (Lion King, Finding Nemo The Musical).
Intersecting Diagon Alley near the Leaky Cauldron is Knockturn Alley, a labyrinth of twisting passageways where the Harry Potter bad guys hang out. A covered walk-through area with a projected “sky” creating perpetual night, it features spooky special effects in the faux shop windows (don’t miss the creeping tattoos and crawling spiders), and Borgin and Burkes, which sells objects from the dark side of magic to discover — just watch out for the mummified hand!
“Discover” is an important word in Diagon Alley, because this overwhelmingly intricate area actually feels like a place you can explore and get “lost” in, much like Epcot’s Morocco pavilion or Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. It can’t be overstated how seamlessly Diagon’s designers have rendered the illusion of a living word, topping even Disney California Adventure’s Cars Land. Immersion is an often-overworked buzzword in themed entertainment, but the new Wizarding World exemplifies it, enveloping fans in Potter’s world to a degree that far exceeds Hogsmeade’s high standards. And even if you aren’t a follower of the franchise, you may find yourself falling for the fictional universal after experiencing Universal’s incarnation.
Diagon Alley Touring Tips
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Diagon Alley is the queen of the hop in the theme park world in 2014 and beyond. Because of the crowds, experiencing Diagon Alley without interminable waits is a challenge—if you visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Hogsmeade during its first three years at IOA, you know of which we speak. Hogsmeade opened with three rides and Ollivanders; now it has four rides plus the wand shop. Diagon Alley has another upsized Ollivanders and only two rides, one of which, Hogwarts Express, it shares with Hogsmeade in IOA. Because only half of each day’s total train passengers can board at the Studios station, Diagon Alley in essence has only one-and-a-half rides, plus Ollivanders and the various shops, to entertain the expected masses.
In other words, it’s crazy, y’all.
Once again, Universal resort guests are admitted an hour before the general public; which hotels are eligible on each day is up to Universal’s determination. Early entry is a tremendous perk if you’re staying on-property, but you’ll still be competing with thousands of other resort guests, so arrive at least 40 minutes before early entry starts. If you’re a day guest, Diagon Alley will already be packed when you arrive.
As at IOA, Universal has multiple operational options for allowing guests into USF’s Wizarding World. On low attendance days, you may be able to stroll in and out of Diagon Alley without restriction; expect days like this to be vanishingly rare for at least the next year. On most days for the foreseeable future, barricades will limit access to the London waterfront all day, and timed-entry return tickets specifying when you can visit will be distributed from touchscreen kiosks located between Men In Black and Fear Factor Live. Guests are given a selection of one-hour return windows, assuming any are still available. Once your time comes, report to the gates at the end of London near Fear Factor Live. On the busiest days, a return ticket may be required not only to enter Diagon Alley, but also the Hogwarts Express, and if you leave the London area you’ll need a new ticket to reenter. At any time, you may experience an additional wait after being admitted to the London plaza before being permitted to pass through the portal into Diagon Alley.
The earlier in the day you obtain your ticket, the sooner you’ll be admitted to Diagon Alley. It remains imperative, therefore, that you arrive at the Studios’ turnstiles 35–45 minutes before opening. Circling the lagoon clockwise to the waterfront is the shortest route to the Hogwarts Express, but it’s also the route that about 70% of guests take. Hustling to the waterfront counterclockwise through the Simpsons area is the most direct path to the ticket kiosks.
On the upside, the rush to Diagon Alley diminishes crowds and waits at other attractions. The downside to that upside: Those who can’t enter Diagon Alley right away spread to nearby attractions, particularly Disaster!, Men in Black Alien Attack, and to a lesser extent The Simpsons Ride and Revenge of the Mummy. Diagon Alley spillover affects wait times at these attractions all day, so experience them as early as possible.
In addition to guests flocking to Diagon Alley from the Studios entrance, about 168 passengers arrive from IOA’s Hogsmeade Village station every 7–8 minutes on the Hogwarts Express—making it an even tougher ticket than Gringotts. Heading first to The Wizarding World–Hogsmeade at IOA and lining up for the Express may be the best way to experience both the train plus Gringotts in the least amount of time. Hogsmeade won’t be hit with a morning inundation comparable to that of the Studios, and the queue there isn’t slowed by a Platform 9¾ effect, so waits for the train from there should be less onerous. You’ll want to grab a Diagon Alley return ticket from the opposite end of the area immediately upon arrival. If you are among the first on the train in the morning, you shouldn’t be too far behind the first wave of guests who entered USF directly.