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 review 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 Hogwarts Express review, 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 is subject to change once the area is open to the public. BEWARE: Minor spoilers ahead.
4 1/2 STARS
APPEAL BY AGE
- PRESCHOOL 4 stars
- GRADE SCHOOL 5 stars
- TEENS 4 stars
- YOUNG ADULTS 4 1/2 stars
- OVER 30 4 1/2 stars
- SENIORS 4 stars
What it is Transportation attraction with special effects.
Scope and scale Super-headliner.
When to go Immediately after park opening.
Special comments Expect lengthy waits in line. A park-to-park pass is required to ride.
Authors’ rating A moving experience; Not to be missed; 4 1/2 stars
Duration of ride 4 minutes.
Probable waiting time per 100 people ahead of you 7 minutes.
Loading speed Moderate.
DESCRIPTION AND COMMENTS
Part of the genius of creating Diagon Alley at USF is that it is connected to Hogsmeade at IOA by the Hogwarts Express, just as in the novels and films. The counterpart to the Hogsmeade Station in IOA (see xref) 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 cannot go directly between them without crossing through the London Waterfront.)
The passage to platform 9¾, 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 only experience a dark corridor with wooshing sound effects when crossing over yourself.]
Once on the platform, you’ll pass a pile of luggage (including an owl cage with animatronic Hedwig) before being assigned to one of the 3 train cars’ 7 compartments. The train itself looks exactingly authentic to the n-th degree from the billowing steam to the brass fixtures and upholstery in your 8-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 ares, with the streets of London and Scottish countryside rolling past outside your window. The screen isn’t 3-D, but it’s slightly curved to conceal the edges and create a convincing illusion of depth. Even more impressive is the frosted glass doors you enter through, which turn out to be amazing screens that makes it seem like someone is standing on the other side. You experience a different presentation coming and going, and in addition to pastoral scenery there are surprises appearances by secondary characters (Fred and George Weasley, Hagrid), and threats en route (bone-chilling Dementors, licorice spiders) augmented by temperature and sound effects in the cars.
[Note: Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson did not return to film new footage for the attraction. Harry and pals' CGI stand-ins look okay, as they are never seen up close, but Hermione's voice double is dreadful.]
Hogwarts Express isn’t an adrenaline rush in the same way that Gringotts is, but for those invested in the 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.
Universal was somehow surprised by a survey that showed guests considered the Hogwarts Express an attraction rather than merely transportation connecting the two parks. This “revelation” threw the creative team into a tizzy about how they could increase the capacity of the train—a task made all the more difficult because the stations and track were already under construction.
There’s a capacity-versus-authenticity issue front and center with the Hogwarts Express—and if you know J. K. Rowling’s reputation for perfectionism where adaptations of her books are concerned, you know the sticky wicket this presented for Universal. The train cars from the films and novels are divided into private compartments that seat eight, but replicating those compartments means fewer seats and longer loading times (and longer queues, too).
As a result, not everyone in one or the other park will be able to experience the train, because its carrying capacity is relatively small and the track can accommodate only two trains, each moving in a different direction and passing one another in the middle of the journey. This leaves Universal with a few crowd-mitigating options.
- First, because using the train for a one-way trip involves park-hopping, one-way passengers will need a valid two-park ticket. Disembarking passengers must enter the second park and, if desired, queue again for their return trip. You’ll be allowed (nay, encouraged) to upgrade your one-park pass at the station entrance.
- Second, Universal Express is ironically unavailable for the Hogwarts Express, at least for the time being.
- Third, you will only be permitted one ride per day on the Hogwarts Express. If you wish to take a same-day return trip, you will be relegated to a secondary queue that promises to be exponentially slower than the already glacial standby queue.
- Fourth, on days of peak attendance, Universal could close off the entry to King’s Cross from outside the London Waterfront and mandate a timed return ticket for entry, as with Diagon Alley (see below).
At the other end, the Hogsmeade Village station lies within the footprint of the Dragon Challenge roller coaster and provides pedestrian access to Hogsmeade and IOA’s Lost Continent themed area. On days of low-to-average attendance, disembarking guests will be allowed directly into Hogsmeade, less than a minute’s walk away. On days of heavy attendance, they’ll be directed to the bridge between The Lost Continent and Jurassic Park, where they’ll have to either queue to enter Hogsmeade or obtain a free timed-entry ticket to visit The Wizarding World at a specified time.
Park-to-park ticket-purchasing Potterphiles should make the train their first attraction of the day. If, for example, Diagon Alley is your top priority of the day, enter Islands of Adventure as early as possible and line up at the Hogsmeade Village station for the train to London King’s Cross. Then get a return ticket (if necessary) to reenter the London area.
Guests exiting in Hogsmeade have a chance to take a photo with the locomotive before it backs out for its next run. Guests departing from Hogsmeade should pose with the static train outside the station before queuing.