There is a little recent addition to Universal Orlando called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. Maybe you’ve heard of it – it’s one of the most highly themed areas across the entire globe, it’s been responsible for some crazy year-on-year growth for NBCUniversal and its parent company, Comcast, and it’s pretty much single-handedly paved the wave for all future growth at the resort, including this summer’s Sapphire Falls Resort and the new chunk of land that Universal has purchased in order to (eventually, some day) build a third theme park on.
I have personally been involved with Diagon Alley ever since 2013, a full year-and-a-half before it opened, when Orlando Informer’s previous owner and editor, Dan Hatfield, asked me to take over the rumor column here at the site. With his help and some timely information from our various sources and contacts, I was able to help break the name of Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express’s ride experience; later on, I would help propose, organize, write, and edit all the myriad – and quite exhaustive! – pages in the OI Universal Center on the land, its attractions, and its food.
All of this is a quite verbose way of saying that I’m intimately familiar with the new Wizarding World, its craftsmanship, and its secrets.
But that didn’t mean a thing when I finally was able to step foot in the land this past weekend.
Having seen more than my fair share of reaction videos and photos of when guests round the corner and see that iconic street for the first time, I was silently committed to not repeating the open-mouth gaping and watery-eyed wonderment. It didn’t matter – within just a few seconds, my steely resolve melted away into a smile of pure joy. I was caught flat-footed when walking into the lobby of Gringotts Bank for the first time, with its rows of goblin tellers and – much more impressively – its mammoth, attention-stealing chandelier. I was delighted by The Tales of Beedle the Bard, smitten with Knockturn Alley, and impressed by how much more detailed Ollivander’s Wand Shop was over its Hogsmeade predecessor.
I had, in short, fallen in love, big time.
But, as with all other forms of obsession and adulation, there comes a dark side to such heart-palpitation-inducing happiness – and while, in this case, it might not involve stalking or black Valentines, it does nonetheless include a rather sobering realization that should be sure to give all themed enthusiasts a pause: what if Universal can never make me fall in love like this ever again?
What if it can never top Diagon Alley?
Why Diagon Alley might not ever be (fully) replicated
Not being able to top Harry Potter’s newest digs is one thing, and it’s a significant one; theme parks operate like any other enterprise of business or art, with the desire to make the next big ride or themed land or custom hotel even more impressive or expansive or immersive than all the ones that have come before it. The first Wizarding World, after all, wouldn’t have been nearly as captivating or game-defining if it had simply stuck to the script that Disney had introduced all the way back in 1955 with the debut of the first modern park, Disneyland – and it certainly wouldn’t have included that most wonderful of all themed developments, butterbeer.
But not being able to even meet the same exacting standards as Diagon is another thing entirely, one much more serious to contemplate and fear-inducing to Universal’s future plans. Having several more Diagon Alleys go up all around the two existing parks and the future, proposed ones would ultimately prove to be satisfactory to all and sundry, I’m sure, but having all these new eventual lands just fall short of its standards is downright depressing.
Here’s how this might just become a reality:
The single most powerful element of the second Wizarding World – yes, even above and beyond its exceptional attention to even the smallest of details – is its complete and utter isolation from the rest of Universal Studios Florida. It’s easy to believe you really have stepped foot in wizarding London when the other lands don’t bleed in, either in terms of sightlines or in aural carryovers, and it’s even better when you have a transitional barrier that you must go through in order to leave all that other stuff behind.
Universal really lucked out in this regard with the source material, and it’s hard to see how the likes of, say, Nintendo Land or, especially, Volcano Bay (with its tall water slides and its next-door location to busy roads, it’s hard to see how the company can at all salvage sight-lines) can come anywhere close to such total physical immersion.
Layout of the land
The buildings of Diagon Alley are covered in signage, weathered age, and dozens of Easter eggs, but what truly makes them remarkable, from a purely design perspective, is their sheer height: they stretch anywhere from three to five stories above you, and they only add to the physical isolation by helping to completely surround and submerge guests in Harry Potter; anywhere you look, all you see is the magical underbelly of London. It’s a subtle but overwhelmingly powerful effect.
The various games that comprise Nintendo’s vast library certainly possess locations that can similarly be made into all-encompassing metropolises – the castles of Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. and the futuristic cityscapes of Metroid and F-Zero instantly come to mind – but it’s extremely doubtful that Universal would choose any of them to concentrate upon like Diagon Alley, and few have any comparably in-depth depictions to choose from. The books and movies of Harry Potter presented one continuous world for Universal to mine; Nintendo’s titles offer more snapshots to peruse, and the ability to weld them all together into one continuous, contiguous string is, quite honestly, questionable at this point.
Beyond the physical layout of Diagon Alley that the Potter source material establishes and the various sights and sounds that can populate it, there is so much more ready-made to be transported and adapted to the theme park environment. John Williams’s legendary score? Check. Tons of delectable dishes, from snacks to dinners to those oh-so-wonderful desserts? Check. More than enough narrative elements to mine for rides, attractions, and shows? Check. Butterbeer? Oh, yes!
Neither Fast & Furious nor The Tonight Show, which are the two big openings currently scheduled for next summer at Universal Studios Florida, can even remotely touch the breadth or depth of this lineup. Not even King Kong’s Skull Island can muster more than a single (top-notch and potentially-even-better-than-Escape-from-Gringotts) ride and two attached kiosks, although, admittedly, the lack of available land to work with in Islands of Adventure surely has something to do with this relatively constrained lineup. (This will certainly also be an issue for Nintendo Land over at USF, which is rumored to go in the area currently inhabited by Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone, but it should be [relatively] rectified by whatever goes in the third theme park, located in all that new land down by the Orange County Convention Center.)
Does it even matter?
I am confident in the substance of these points, and in the enjoyment behind their exploration in articles and discussion forums amongst my theme-park nerd peers, but, ultimately, one single, simple question has to be asked in regard to them: does it even matter?
Let’s switch up the mediums and use musicians as a convenient (and fun!) placeholder. Most bands reach a zenith of musical and lyrical perfection, but rarely do these ever arrive at the very end of a career; in point of fact, these peaks usually occur either in the middle or, inexplicably, at the very beginning of a group’s discography. Does the fact that, say, 311 hasn’t produced anything substantive in nearly 20 years stop them from touring or fans from continuing to sample their music?
It may very well be that themed audiences will look longingly back at Diagon Alley not as the beginning of a slow decline in immersion but, rather, as one of the best times of their theme-park lives – and this will be more than good enough to satiate them as they continue on with all the other, lesser experiences, whether newer or older.
Such are the ways of the world.