When the world first heard the roar of the Gringotts dragon and gazed upon the stunning scenery of Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, it was difficult for each of us to not be awestruck. However, now that the grand opening confetti been swept away from the streets and our own perceptions, it’s time to examine this ground-breaking experience a little more closely.
Let’s take a look at the aspects of this land that have earned a special place in our hearts and discuss what, if anything, could have been done better.
An ingenious addition
The last thing any of us were expecting when Diagon Alley was first announced was the addition of Muggle London – and, even then, we didn’t think it’d be worthy of being a destination unto itself.
It turns out that the London waterfront – which, really, was designed to hide the Wizarding World behind it from the rest of the park – features some of the very best theming to be found anywhere in Orlando, if not the rest of the world. The faithful recreations of famous London landmarks, the inclusion of the Knight Bus and its Conductor, and, even, the surprise appearance of the obscure cabmen’s shelters all combine to make this an area that almost demands slow exploration and pleasant discovery.
But then Universal went ahead and one-upped themselves once again: little touches like the street buskers that perform near the entrance to King’s Cross Station or the sneaky, crotchety Kreacher peeking out from behind the curtains of 12 Grimmauld Place imbue the otherwise ordinary-looking waterfront district with a sense of magic and anticipation.
It’s hard to think of a better prelude to Diagon Alley, and my hat’s off to Universal for coming up with the concept – and executing it so flawlessly.
The spellbinding details
I am a theme park fan for one simple reason: the way the parks make me feel (I am sure I am not alone in this rationale). This feeling is generated mostly by the immersive environment that the parks create, enabling us to escape our day-to-day lives and be transported to worlds which we’ve only dreamed of.
With the new Wizarding World being located behind the massive facade that is London, guests really are completely immersed in the experience. This may have been done to be consistent with how Diagon Alley is depicted in the books and movies, but it has the wonderful side-effect of isolating the area from all the rest of Universal Studios Florida. It’s one of the few theme park lands to afford this level of immersion, and it’s quite fascinating.
Anytime I stroll down the cobblestone pathways of Diagon Alley, Knockturn Alley, or Carkitt Market, I am elated by the details in all the storefronts, window displays, the painted advertisements on the sides of the crooked buildings, and by the sounds.
Oh, the lovely sounds. The background music, just like within Hogsmeade, samples the best of the Harry Potter films’ scores, providing a magic all its own.
But the music is just one component of the sensational sounds billowing throughout Diagon Alley. If you open your ears, you can hear delightful audible effects throughout. One of my favorites is the large record player horn that subtly plays a crackling broadcast of the Wizarding Wireless Network, which you can find near the stairway and motorcycle photo op at Gringotts Bank.
Then there’s the soft, heartbreaking chirp of the canary trapped inside the vanishing cabinet inside Borgin and Burkes. This effect is “plussed” by the clever vibration that can be felt by placing your hand on the cabinet’s surface. I love this subtle detail that adds a level of melancholy to the dark and foreboding shop.
Speaking of dark and foreboding, there are a couple of details inside Knockturn Alley that you must pay attention to – they’re just too neat to miss!
First is the glowing animated advertisement located on the left-hand wall of the main entrance to the alleyway. Most people do not stick around long enough to see the full animated effect of the phoenix bursting into flames.
Then there’s the fascinating tattoo parlor, where tattoos move and glow.
These are just a few in a very, very long list of the incredible little touches that are to be found throughout both Diagon Alley and the London waterfront. Without a doubt, they remain the biggest things we’re still enchanted by in the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and we probably will be for some time to come.
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The hits and misses of wizarding dining
Another exciting way that theme parks (now) immerse guests is through their taste buds. Depending on how you count, Diagon Alley offers about 10 signature beverages, and while there are, indeed, some definite stand-outs here, not all of them are as amazing as we may have initially hoped.
Both signature beers, Wizard’s Brew and Dragon Scale ($7.75), are as popular now as they were during the heady opening days of the summer. But the clear king of the beverage mountain (besides Butterbeer, of course) is Otter’s Fizzy Orange Juice ($4.79) – the flavors are bright, and the cinnamon sugar rim really make this a fun drink to see and be seen with.
The beverages that bring a little less satisfaction are the Gilly Water ($4.00 just for the bottle, plus $4.25 for a vial of flavored potion – yikes!) and the Peach Fizzing Tea ($4.79). Sadly, the Fishy Green Ale ($4.99), which was easily the most interesting drink option when Diagon Alley’s menu was originally announced, doesn’t seem to have won many Muggles over, either. In fact, it just may be the most contentious culinary item in the new land.
Then there’s Leaky Cauldron, the flagship eatery of the new Wizarding World. Reviews of the food here seem to be split right down the middle, with some criticizing flavorless dishes and everyone complaining about the exorbitant prices.
In addition, the overall atmosphere of Leaky is somewhat bare, featuring a rather straightforward decor that misses the charming character of Three Broomsticks, its counterpart in Hogsmeade. In the case of the Leaky Cauldron, you’ll likely feel as though you’ve seen everything with one walk through; in the case of Three Broomsticks, its separate rooms and subtle effects can lead you to discovering something new each visit. In all, we can’t help but get the feeling that Leaky’s sense of immersion might have been sacrificed slightly to ensure it was prepared to handle crowds.
(Maybe Leaky Cauldron, like some of Diagon Alley’s individual food offerings, is a victim of being over-hyped, as can be seen in this early blog post published by Universal.)
Was putting so much emphasis on new culinary offerings a mistake on Universal’s part? Possibly for the drinks (which can come across mostly as a money grab instead of thematic experimentation), but certainly not for the ice cream!
I think we can all agree that Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlor is nothing short of brilliant; the creative flavors pique our curiosity, and the adorable pastel decor of the eatery easily invites us in. Florean Fortescue’s is everything Potter heads hoped it would be… except, of course, for its size, which leaves something to be desired. More on this in a bit.
The final misfire on the edible front, I think, is the lack of more substantial food offerings at the popular Hopping Pot outdoor beer and beverage station. I think adding a cheese plate similar to what is found inside King’s Cross Station would be a great idea, just for starters.
Overall, the food and beverage lineup at Diagon Alley is done more than well enough – so much so that I find myself craving my next Diagon Alley fix on a regular basis. Here’s just to hoping that Universal takes the last few steps to truly knock the menu out of the park.
Making the most out of each space
A lot has been said about the size – or, rather, the lack thereof – of the shops inside both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, a byproduct of trying to keep the theme park lands as close to the source material as possible. In many cases, Universal worked larger, more spacious stores into the new Wizarding World, but there are still some instances in which space could have been maximized a little better.
The first – and most infamous – example of this is the previously mentioned Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlor. On an average day, the queue often fills up the small shop and spills out into the street.
There is a vacant room next door that was originally intended to be the overflow queue for Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, and this could be better used to expand the super-popular parlor – exactly what ended up happening with Honeydukes over in Hogsmeade Village.
Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes could also be much more enjoyable if it had a little more room to maneuver in. Even better, this would still be consistent with the material – or, at least, what we see in the film version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which shows a surprisingly large shop.
A possible remedy would be shrinking down the space taken up by next-door Shutterbutton’s Photography Studio, which is a fun experience but doesn’t seem to catch the eye of too many guests.
The opposite is true with Ollivander’s Wand Shop. What a wonderful use of space! I absolutely love both this expanded experience and the fact that so many witches and wizards can come be a part of the wand selection ceremony with a much shorter, almost non-existent wait time.
But even here there’s a small catch: I wish that, instead of having built a second, “competitor” wand shop, Universal would’ve made the actual retail space of Ollivander’s a little larger to give some extra breathing room, which it more than needs from time to time.
The trouble with Gringotts
Some of the most persistent gripes many guests have with Diagon Alley are the long wait times and technical difficulties associated with Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the new land’s signature attraction. This is a common challenge for any new attraction that pushes the technology envelope, something which the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom can identify with.
And Gringotts itself may actually part of the problem. Even those who enthusiastically love the ride still often admit that Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the main attraction of Hogsmeade, affords a better, longer, and more fulfilling experience. When combined with Escape from Gringotts’ constant technical difficulties, for many guests it’s a less-than-satisfying finale to the new land.
As frustrating as the ride’s problems can be, there is actually something else I think could have been done better when it comes to the overall Gringotts experience: the Gringotts Money Exchange is, I think, oddly located. Why isn’t it closer to the actual bank facade and attraction?
To me, it would have made more sense for it to be right next to the bank building, instead of being separated by two shops (which technically puts it on Carkitt Market, in fact a different street). This would bring in more guests who are waiting for other family members that are on the ride, and it wouldn’t be so “lost” and hard to spot.
Additionally, I think the queue inside the attraction/shop makes guests think they need to keep walking rather than linger within and interact with the goblin – which is tragic, given that the interaction can be one of Diagon Alley’s more entertaining features to experience.
The Hogwarts Express and its station, of course, make up the final component of Diagon Alley, and, overall, they’re nothing short of brilliant.
An immaculate recreation of the train and King’s Cross Station double as an actual mode of transportation and take you to a completely different theme park, all while continuing the story of Harry Potter between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. It’s an incredible achievement and even more convenient than you’d expect – and if they’d only get a better voice for Hermione’s part (Emma Watson didn’t supply it herself), it would be nearly perfect.
Overall, I say the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley is superbly executed on many levels. There are countless things that were done right with this land, including some I didn’t even get a chance to mention, like the interact wands (a hit with fans and priced reasonably enough) and the live stage shows (much improved over the shows in Hogsmeade).
Still, work can be done to make the new land better, and the good news here is that Universal still has plenty of time to do so; theme parks are an ever-evolving creature, and as the company continues to get guest feedback – and as it preps the next Wizarding World, the Ministry of Magic, which is rumored to be coming in 2018 – there is more than ample opportunity to fix what few problem areas there are.
Be sure to visit the OI Universal Center for everything you could possibly want to know about Diagon Alley. Do you have any thoughts on what was done right in the new Wizarding World or what could have been done better? Share them with us below.
Special thanks to Marc and Dan for adding a few additional details to my evaluation.
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