UNIVERSAL ORLANDO Resort
Universal Studios Theme Parks
By: Lance Hart
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: PART 1
(6/23/14) Over several days this week, I was invited to attend a special Media / VIP Preview Week at the Universal Orlando Resort for the new Diagon Alley expansion, as well as to see the latest offerings at CityWalk as well as the new fully completed Cabana Bay Beach Resort. The week was full of fun and memorable moments, as all the secrets of Diagon Alley were opened wide before us and now I am so excited to finally get to share them all with you!
To start off the tale, I should mention that this was a major media event for the Universal Orlando resort, who really pulled out all the stops, and invited in many of the Harry Potter film series celebrities to attend the event, answer questions, give their own impressions of the new land and attractions, as well as to make the official announcement to us all that the official public grand opening will take place on July 8th.
I’ll try to name them all, but there were quite a few, so forgive me if I forget any names, but in attendance were: Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley), Warwick Davis (Griphook/Prof. Flitwick), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), James Phelps (Fred Weasley), Oliver Phelps (George Weasley) & Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid).
One by one, along with other big important names from Universal Orlando, NBCUniversal and Warner Brothers, they were all brought out to walk the red carpet in front of the cameras and many questions on the night of June 18th to attend the big “opening” of Diagon Alley for the gathered Media and VIP guests in attendance. Just as Hagrid had first opened the brick wall to Diagon Alley to Harry Potter in the very first movie, Robbie Coltrane was on hand to do the same for the rest of us.
I quickly followed in the footsteps and passed through the brick portal from London and found myself standing inside Diagon Alley. This was not just a new theme park “land”, Diagon Alley was a living breathing world full of wizards, witches, shop keepers, and (“ROARRRRRR!!!!”) a mighty fire-breathing dragon perched atop the roof of the Gringotts Bank building at the end of the street. Unlike other fake theme park lands, the buildings that make up Diagon Alley are not false fronts, but real structures and shops that you can open up the door, walk inside, browse the merchandise and buy some amazing and unique items. For the sports fans, there is a Quidditch store, for the practical jokers there is the infamous Weasley Wizzard Wheezes shop, and don’t forget a stop into the original Ollivander’s wand shop! Unlike the smaller Hogsmeade version of Ollivander’s that always has a huge line, the Diagon Alley version of Ollivanders features not only a nicely set up indoor queue, but three different ‘showrooms’ where your group can encounter a Wand Keeper and one person will be selected to have the magical experience of being chosen by a wand. Honestly, if your child is chosen by a wand in this manor, it simply has to be nearly impossible for any parent to turn down their request to purchase ‘their’ wand at the end of the experience. Universal knew what they were doing when they created Ollivander’s… with standard wands selling for $34.95 and a new line of “interactive” wands selling for $44.95. I believe the new “interactive” wands are sold in either one of three character replica models as well as the 13 different Ollivander’s original wands. These new “interactive” wands can then be taken out and used to perform various feats of magic on the streets of Diagon Alley and Hogsmease by uttering the right magic word, and moving the wand in just the right way, while standing by a medallion embedded into the street. Most of these are built within shop windows, but there are others that perform other unique forms of magic elsewhere in the streets that you will have to explore and experience for yourself.
When you are hungry there are many options, ranging from a full meal inside the Leady Cauldron and the tasty frozen treats inside Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream which include: Butterbeer Ice Cream, along with other unique flavors like Granny Smith, Early Grey and Lavender, Chocolate Chili, Clotted Cream, Apple Crumble, Sticky Toffee Pudding, Salted Caramel Blondie, Chocolate and Raspberry, Strawberry and Peanut-Butter, Orange Marmalade.
There is also a long list of unique beverage items you will only find inside Diagon Alley! Along with the standard Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice items you can get in Hogsmeade, the list of Diagon Alley exclusives include: Tongue Tying Lemon Squash (a lemonade style drink) Otters Fizzy Orange Juice (also tasty) and the very unique Fishy Green Ale which is a green mint and cinnamon tasting drink, that comes with a very wide straw so you can suck up the layer of “fish eggs” sitting on the bottom, which I believe were blueberry flavored boba “popper” balls that explode in your mouth as you drink them! The Fishy Green Ale seems to be a source of almost mischievous fun, as you can’t resist urging your friends to give the odd flavored concoction a try, only to see the reaction on their face as they suck up an egg bursting fruit explosion into their mouth, the taste does really grow on you as you drink it. In fact, the more you drink, the stronger and better the flavor seems to become as it gets more concentrated in the bottom of the glass at the end. If you want something a little lighter, be sure to venture down Horzont Alley to the Eternelle’s Elixir of Refreshment stand where you can purchase a bottom of Gillywater (water) but have one of four different flavored Elixirs added to it, giving it both color and taste, as well as a magical property ranging from Fire Protection, Indulge Euphoria, Draught of Peace or Babbling Beverage. For those seeking a more “adult” option, you can easily find the exclusive Wizard’s Brew and Dragon Scale beers, along with a collection of alternate brews imported in from the Muggle world.
Still want more? Oh Diagon Alley is shopping heaven for fans of the Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, as you will find unique shops set up for those looking for stuffed animals, higher end themed clothing, stationary, magic items of the darker variety and least we not forget the Gringotts money exchange, where you can convert your Muggle currency into special Gringotts bank notes, in $10 and $20 denominations. You can then take these bank notes and use them to not only make purchases in Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade, but they will also be accepted anywhere within either Universal Orlando theme park. I suspect Universal will make a ton of money by people just spending their money to obtain these unique keepsakes of their visit.
For those who lean a bit more towards the “dark arts”, you wont want to miss a chance to travel the dark and spooky passageways of Knockturn Alley, inhabited by dark wizards and home to the infamous Borgin and Burkes shop for those looking to buy objects and artifacts of Dark magic. A good number of memorable ‘interactive’ wand spots are located within Knockturn Alley as well… which is not to be missed.
Mix all these things together, and Universal Orlando have created a living breathing world within but separate from the rest of Universal Studios Florida. And I mean that… you will soon realize that you have forgotten entirely about the rest of the theme park that exists outside of the very tall walls and buildings of Diagon Alley. The world inside Diagon Alley is so detailed, that each and every ‘employee’ inside of the Wizarding World has been trained to interact with you in every way possible as if they are natives of the Wizarding World and treat you as an interesting Muggle guest visiting their world for the first time. They can be just as curious about your unique Muggle habits and items (especially cell phones) as you are curious about their world, which can make for some interesting interactions. It is also fun to note that traveling over and across a large section of Diagon Alley is what appears to be an enclosed train bridge structure, which provides the roof and darkness for Knockturn Alley. I’m told that this “bridge” is actually a behind the scenes access point from backstage areas directly into Diagon Alley, allowing for the transportation of both employees and items directly into many of the shops and off the streets, and one of the reasons you’ll never catch a native of the Wizarding World leaving Diagon Alley to venture out into the real world outside. It is also fun to note that every major shop in Diagon Alley also has a hidden attached, enclosed and air-conditioned queue, ready to be filled up with guests if things get a bit crowded within the shops. It is clear that these streets were made for shopping…
On that note, I’ll will bring Part I of our visit and preview guide to Diagon Alley to a close. I know you will be back tomorrow, as I’m sure you will want to read all about the experience of taking the Hogwarts Express from Kings Cross to Hogsmeade, and what will soon become the more well known attraction in Universal Orlando… Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Again… this new attraction is another game changer in the theme park industry, and different than anything you have ever experienced before and I can’t wait to tell you all about it, along with a little mishap along the way. In the meantime, I created a fun desktop wallpaper for everyone to download, use and share with your friends, featuring the angry dragon atop the Gringotts Bank building. (CLICK HERE)
UP NEXT: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts