This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at Six Surprises of Universal’s Hogwarts Express. With the opening of Diagon Alley this week, most of the headlines have been focused on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Whether it’s the incredible animatronics inside the queue, the amazing ride itself, the seemingly never-ending outdoor portion of the extended queue, or the oft-reported downtime, much of the week’s conversation has been spent on the newest E-Ticket attraction at Universal Studios Florida. However, right next door to Diagon Alley another ride opened on the same day with almost no issues, but has received much less fanfare. Maybe it’s a case of the squeaky wheel gets the oil, but for our money the Hogwarts Express was one of the most wonderful additions to the Wizarding World expansion.
The Hogwarts Express is the first attraction in theme park history to go from one park to another. With all the details in the King’s Cross and Hogsmeade stations along with the ride itself, this edition of the SATURDAY SIX is going to look at six of our favorite surprises of this newest attraction, starting with…
# 6 – Live Musicians in King’s Cross Station
The word you are going to see in pretty much every review of anything related to the Wizarding World at Universal is authenticity, and one small touch that adds so much depth to the experience of King’s Cross is the live musicians that play as you walk into the queue. You can hear men and women playing violins, guitars, and saxophones as you enter the cavernous building. All that’s missing is a hat to leave tips in.
#5 – Thestral Carriage outside Hogsmeade Station
Students going to Hogwarts for their first year exit the Hogwarts Express and take a boat ride over Black Lake with Hagrid. From the second year on they take what appear to be horseless carriages, which we first saw on screen in Prisoner of Azkaban. In Order of the Phoenix we find that these carriages are being pulled by Thestrals, who only appear to those who have witnessed death. At the Hogsmeade Station Universal has installed a “horseless carriage” that moves as if there is a Thestral anxiously waiting for students to hop on.
# 4 – Food and Drink are ENCOURAGED on the Ride!
The theme park Gods at Universal have finally smiled upon us. After years of being told “no food or drinks are allowed” on the rides, the Hogwarts Express not only allows it, guests are encouraged to buy food and drinks in the queue! This is a feat in and of itself, but in typical Wizarding World fashion, even the food and drinks are themed appropriately to the area. Boddington’s Pub Ale and Strongbow Gold are two of the adult beverages you can purchase, along with Golden Wonder crisps to snack on.
We have said it before and we will say it again: there is nothing in the theme park world you can compare the level of immersion of the Wizarding World to. There are no churros in Hogsmeade. There are no “Universal” ponchos in Diagon Alley. There is no merchandise for other brands. There are no Doritos, Coca Cola, or any other element that would take you out of the land. It’s that good, and if you’ve never been, it is almost impossible to understand.
# 3 – King’s Cross Load Station
The loading area at King’s Cross is one of those – pardon the phrase – magical queue moments that Universal seems to excel at. E.T. Adventure has the awe inspiring forest, Spider-Man guides you through the Daily Bugle, and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey has Hogwarts Castle complete with a safety spiel from the Sorting Hat, himself. Right before you begin your journey over to Islands of Adventure you pass Harry Potter’s luggage along with an animatronic of his owl, Hedwig. As the Hogwarts Express waits for guests to board, steam is pumped all around the train, brilliantly providing a sense of complete realism.
# 2 – The Tinted Glass Windows
Now, we knew that Hogwarts Express would be using screens to replace the windows of your cabin, allowing you to watch the story of the ride unfold outside your window. But what we didn’t know is that Universal somehow created an even more spectacular effect on the other side of the cabin. Using a technology that is still almost impossible to figure out, the tinted glass doors you enter the cabin through are used to display show elements of things happening in the hallway. Whether it’s an appearance by Harry, Ron, and Hermoine, or an encounter with a Dementor, after picking your jaw up off the floor you’ll be wondering how did they do that?!
# 1 – Platform 9¾
From the moment many of us read the Harry Potter books or saw Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time, we wanted to pass through the brick wall to get to Platform 9¾. The real King’s Cross in London even created a photo-op at the station to appease guests looking for this iconic landmark. For the King’s Cross station in Florida, Universal Creative came up with a system that uses the Pepper’s Ghost technique, which many theme park fans have seen before in Disney’s Haunted Mansion and at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights.
The effect is more for the person watching rather than the guest actually walking through the wall, but it works surprisingly well.
We at the SATURDAY SIX offices loved seeing This Video of what we believe to be the very best way to go through Platform 9¾ and hopes it encourages others to be equally as creative. Hopefully one day we can present The Six Best Ways to Enter Platform 9¾, so get those thinking caps on people!
HONORABLE MENTION: Nod to Half Blood Prince
In a word: brilliant.
So there you have it: a Six Surprises of Universal’s Hogwarts Express. See you next weekend for the latest edition of the SATURDAY SIX, where we are going to head into Diagon Alley itself. If you had fun, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles, or, for your listening pleasure, check out Pardon the Pixie Dust podcast.
Special thanks to Seth Kubersky and crack staff photographer Brandon Glover for their assistance in this article. I highly encourage all readers to follow both Seth and Brandon on the Twitter Machine for their excellent coverage of the opening week of Diagon Alley.