The streets of Universal Orlando seemed empty. It was a Thursday morning and the park had only been open for half an hour. I could take photos with no other people in them. A cheerful Despicable Me parade rolled by and only a few spectators gathered to see the adorable Minions. As I walked past Springfield from The Simpsons I realized why the park’s attendees seemed few and far between: we were all headed straight for Diagon Alley.
Universal Orlando recently expanded the popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter to include the colorful and rich Diagon Alley. The area opened in July and includes a plethora of shops and dining options as well as two new attractions: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express. The latter takes you between Universal Orlando and Universal Islands of Adventure (a two park ticket is required) and dumps you right into the heart of Hogsmeade near the Hogwarts Castle. Magical? Yes. Worth the trip? Absolutely.
If you’ve visited the Hogsmeade portion of Wizarding World, you know what kind of detailed theming Universal is capable of providing. I’m pleased to say they went above and beyond to make Diagon Alley even better and more immersive.
Read all about my experience, the food (butterbeer ice cream!), and the new rides after the break. And yes, I’ve got plenty of photos for you to enjoy.
The Diagon Alley experience begins in London. As it should. Familiar sites on the London waterfront include Wyndham’s Theatre, the Eros Fountain, King’s Cross Station, Charing Cross Road, and Grimmauld Place – the home of the Black family. Even the trash cans are labeled “London.” It’s not all for muggles though because the giant purple Knight Bus (as seen in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) is on full display. I wanted to run right to it, but I forced myself to slow down and explore.
I recommend doing the same. London has plenty of little touches that deserve your attention before you rush into Diagon Alley. Stand outside of Grimmauld place for a little while and wait for Kreacher, the Blacks’ house-elf, to appear in the window. Step inside the phone booth, pick up the phone, and listen to a message from the Ministry of Magic. Look at the shop window in the record store to see a Jaws Easter egg; it’s a nice shout-out since the Diagon Alley development pushed the Jaws attraction out of the water.
Be sure to stop by the Knight Bus. Standing in the short line to interact with the driver and the shrunken head is a must. You’ll get a memorable photo, sure, but you’ll also get a memorable experience. I was impressed by the amount of time the driver spent talking with each person and the level of interaction with the shrunken head. It’s charming.
Before you step away from the Knight Bus, head to the back of the vehicle. No one was there, and there’s a spot for you to climb aboard and peek inside and get a photo taken. Because come on, it’s the Knight Bus!
Once you’ve seen everything in London (except King’s Cross Station – save that for later), it’s time to go into Diagon Alley. The entrance is hidden, but you only have to follow the crowds. I’ll dispel one expectation you may have: you don’t tap any bricks in order to enter and the wall doesn’t move. My guess is that would cause too much of a traffic bottleneck. Instead, you walk around a corner and the beauty of Diagon Alley is before you. I felt like a little kid.
Again, my instinct was to run around with my arms flailing while screaming, “I’m in Diagon Alley! I’m a witch.” But, running is frowned upon at theme parks and I’m not good at it anyway. I took a deep breath, blinked back emotional fangirl tears, and ditched my companion so I could walk around at my own pace and photograph all the things.
Even though I’ve been to the original Wizarding World, I wasn’t prepared for the experience ahead of me. Universal has done an incredible job at creating an illusion, and I truly felt like at any minute I could bump into young witches and wizards shopping for school supplies. No wall was left untouched, no corner felt out of place. I browsed a beverage cart selling “potions,” and I wandered through shops selling everything from Quidditch team paraphernalia to wands to quills and parchment to sweets. I had to sit down for a few moments to take everything in and process what I was seeing.
It was Harry Potter heaven.
There are seven stores for you to spend money in, and there are countless signs for other businesses. I read them all and photographed as many as I could because all those little touches add up to make the world feel more complete. Several of the shops featured an interactive window display that could be activated with a special wand, but honestly, you don’t need to buy the wand to enjoy the experience. Just hang back and watch muggles approach the windows and see what happens. It’s not quite the same as wielding the wand yourself, but it will save you $44.95.
If you only have time or the patience to pop into one store, make it Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. It’s packed with everything you read about in the books: fever fudge, puking pastilles, the Skiving Snackbox – they’ve got it all. It’s a bright store that sort of dazzles you. Take a moment to look up and see the cool animatronics on the top level and to watch the firework display.
And a quick note about shopping in Diagon Alley: the shop aisles thankfully feel wider than they are in Hogsmeade. While the stores were crowded, I never felt like I was going to be smothered. That’s one area in which I’m glad convenience won over authenticity.
While you’re meandering around Diagon Alley, chances are good that you’ll catch a show. Celestina Warbeck performs regularly (why yes, J.K. Rowling did recently write about her), and you can also see a puppet production from The Tales of Beedle the Bard. The stage is set up in such a way that it’s easy to view from all around, and if you miss a show, they rotate through frequently enough that you only have to wait 15 – 30 minutes for the next one.
One part of Diagon Alley that’s easy to miss is Knockturn Alley. The dark and dusty offshoot has an ominous feel, and it’s where you’ll find Borgin and Burkes. The Dark Arts shop is filled with enough merchandise for any Death Eater fan, and the decor is both beautiful and creepy. Stop in front of the shrunken heads long enough to hear them a sing a tune and to watch someone with an interactive wand wake them up.
I worked up an appetite with all of my oohing, aahing, and drooling, and the Leaky Cauldron beckoned. The offerings are similar to what you’ll find in Hogsmeade, but the fare is different enough. You can choose from fish and chips, bangers and mash, cottage pie, and a variety of drinks. But not soda. There’s no Coke or Sprite in the films, and there’s none in Wizarding World. They even offer Gilly Water instead of Dasani. I love it. I ordered a butterbeer because as far as I’m concerned, there isn’t any other way to go.
I sampled some of the cottage pie and the toad in the hole. They came with side salads. Though I enjoy the meals at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade, I wasn’t overly impressed with my selections here. The portions were just okay for the price, and the food wasn’t anything to write home about. My toad in the hole was tasty just not amazing. I’ll sample something else when I return.
Satisfactorily fed and watered, it was time to brave the 70 minute line for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The line moved at a nice clip, and it only took 45 minutes to get on the ride. Universal does a decent job at keeping queues moving and giving you plenty to look at besides your watch or phone.
The queue begins in the lobby of Gringotts. The place looks immaculate with its faux marble, grand pillars, and gleaming chandeliers. Animatronic Goblins look up from their work as you walk by, and it feels like they’re judging everything you’ve ever done. You know that inexplicably guilty feeling you get when you see a police car in the rear view mirror? That feeling accompanied me the entire time I wound through the lobby. Goblins are intimidating. Even when they’re bankers.
Before moving on to the lift that will take you down to the right vault, you get pulled out of line to take a photo that you can later purchase. Then you wind through the passages of Gringotts and you can browse some pages from the Daily Prophet along the way. You’re herded into a lift that simulates dropping for several floors. The pretense of all of this is that you’re at Gringotts for a tour, and the queue entertainment convinces you of that. Then it’s time to put on special glasses and board. As luck would have it, you’re at Gringotts at the same time Harry Potter and his pals are there in Deathly Hallows, Part 2. Well, maybe it isn’t lucky. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but you’ll see plenty of familiar faces as you embark on your adventure.
Escape from Gringotts is definitely a thrill ride, but it’s much less physically taxing than Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The movements aren’t too wild or stomach churning. I had a front row seat for all the twists and turns, and besides being a gripping and insanely fun ride, it drops you right into the middle of the story. You feel like you are in legitimate danger from Bellatrix and Voldemort and the dragon. While I’m not a person who has patience for long lines, this one is worth the wait. I loved it.
After the adventure through Gringotts, it was time for a trip to Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour. Butterbeer ice cream waited! Soon after stepping into line, I was conflicted. Other ice cream flavors like sticky toffee pudding and earl grey and lavender were tempting me. Sadly, they don’t offer samples so I went with my gut and ordered some butterbeer soft serve. Sad news: it was so not for me. The ice cream version of the beverage is overly sweet – to the point of being cloying. If you love the foamy topping on butterbeer more than the drink, then you’ll dig butterbeer ice cream. If that’s not the case, skip it and order another flavor.
Finally, it was time for one last Diagon Alley experience: boarding the Hogwarts Express! I exited Diagon Alley and stepped into the streets of London and was pleased to see King’s Cross Station was themed to the max. You can even step out of line and into a small shop to buy British snacks before you board. And yes, you disappear right through Platform 9 ¾ thanks to a little engineering magic. This was the point at which I couldn’t stop myself from squeeing out loud.
Once through the magical entrance, you’re only steps away from boarding the Hogwarts Express. Harry Potter’s luggage and Hedwig are there to greet you, and though the whole experience had been simply astounding, this is where I nearly lost it. Hogwarts Express pulled into the station, and it felt so real and that moment of utter joy I felt is what theme parks are all about. For just a second, I completely forgot that I was a muggle. I had received my letter, and I was going to Hogwarts.
We loaded into snug cabins on the train, and a video plays on the window while you roll along. There are effects that happen outside your door as well. Again, I don’t want to spoil the experience, but suffice it to say there are plenty of events that make your journey to school interesting. The only thing that could improve the experience is the appearance of an actual Honeydukes Express food trolley.
Overall, Diagon Alley took me by surprise. My previous visit to Wizarding World on the other side of the park gave me an idea of what to expect, but Universal stepped it up with Diagon Alley. It feels like they thought of everything, and their work truly made me feel like I transported into the world of Harry Potter for a day.
Have some more photos:
You can see even more photos of my Diagon Alley adventures at Facebook or on Flickr. How many more? Let’s just say I killed the battery on my point and shoot camera and managed to fill my iPhone to capacity. I had to pause in the middle of the day to delete cat pictures and videos to make room for more Harry Potter.