Universal Orlando Resort rocketed from an also-ran pair of theme parks in a town dominated by Disney to a must-see spectacle when Islands of Adventure opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010. And now the June opening of Diagon Alley at Universal Studios is conjuring similar excitement for muggles eager for more movie-quality magic.
Though Universal has yet to announce an official opening date, the big media VIP preview is scheduled June 17-20, and opening day is expected to follow.
The expansion, estimated by industry analysts at $400 million, will link jolly old London and its wizarding shopping district of Diagon Alley with Harry's school town of Hogsmeade via the Hogwarts Express, a train that will connect Universal's two parks, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. But it also brings a new thrill ride and lots of shopping and dining aimed at casting a spell over the most avid Potter fans.
The Harry Potter storyline goes that the London waterfront created at Universal Studios for this expansion is the outside of Diagon Alley. The London buildings are "hiding" the wizarding world behind it. The Knight Bus — the purple triple-decker that stranded wizards could call on — is set up as a photo op parked next to King's Cross Station. Once you step inside, it turns into Diagon Alley, the wizard business district of London.
n Hogwarts Express: The train that was just a prop in Hogsmeade in 2010 is now a real locomotive. And just like Harry, visitors will find it in London's King's Cross Station at Platform 9¾ — where you will run through a brick wall to board, just like J.K. Rowling first imagined it in her books. How do they do that? Universal brass won't say. "You have to experience it," said Universal's vice president of corporate communications, Tom Schroder. "But you'll see people transition through the wall … as you go to the platform."
Maybe we should remember Mrs. Weasley's advice: "Best to do it at a bit of a run if you're nervous."
The train seats about 200 guests on its trip to Hogsmeade (this is the only ride that requires a two-park ticket). You will sit in your cabin and see London passing by and out into the countryside headed to Scotland.
The cabin size, paint, materials and even the whistle are all movie accurate. You'll see and overhear Harry and Hermione. Look out the window and you'll see the Weasley twins fly by and keep an eye out for the evil Dementors.
The trip from London (Universal Studios) to Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure) will have a different view out the window from the return trip.
, Escape from Gringotts: The setting for the thrill ride is Gringotts Wizarding Bank and the chase scene when Harry, Ron and Hermione break in to steal one of Voldemort's horcruxes from Bellatrix Lestrange's vault. They narrowly escape a throng of angry goblins by fleeing on the back of a dragon.
The ride welcomes visitors with a 60-foot, fire-breathing Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon perched atop Gringotts Wizarding Bank.
The bonus, like Hogwarts Castle for the Forbidden Journey ride, is a queue filled with stunning details and about 30 minutes of narrative. The bank's enormous marble hall looks identical to the movies with a ceiling some 50 feet high with massive chandeliers (something that was CGI-created for the movies, never real). Everything from the ancient marble floor to audio-animatronic goblins working the counters looks just as it did when we first saw it in the Sorcerer's Stone movie.
Two cars carrying 12 passengers each will sail underground on tracks that twist and turn, speeding past customers' bank vaults. Once inside the caverns, you'll find that Voldemort and Bellatrix don't particularly care for the idea of muggles using a wizarding bank, so it will be a race to get out while dodging all sorts of magical mischief.
Some of the new innovations on this ride include 360-degree themed sets, 4K digital high-definition animation (like the IMAX films), state-of-the-art 3-D Infitec projection systems and live special effects.
Actors from the movies were brought in to film fight scenes just for this ride, said Eric Hunt, the creative producer for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley.
"I don't think that there's another experience like it out there that has all the physical effects," Hunt said. "The wind, heat, fire, story and even dialogue, to put you in the story."
Shopping and eating
One of this theme park's most powerful spells is unlocking wallets. When Hogsmeade opened in 2010 tourists simply had to have souvenirs and mugs of Butterbeer that can be found only in the park. That exclusivity has kept demand high — by 2012 more than 5 million Butterbeers had been sold — and there's more to come in Diagon Alley.
Stuart Craig, the production designer for the Harry Potter films, consulted on the design of Diagon Alley, so expect the Leaky Cauldron wizarding pub and the Weasley twins' joke shop, where they sell nose-biting teacups, to match their movie counterparts.
Some of the ways the theme park plans to make your money disappear:
• You can go to a goblin teller at Gringotts Bank to "exchange" your muggle money for gold bars and wizardly Galleons, Sickles and Knuts.
• Ollivander's had an outpost in Hogsmeade but everybody knows Harry bought his wand in Diagon Alley so all is right with the wizarding world. Universal has been quiet about whether there will be changes to the wands, so this may end up being one of the big surprises.
• The Leaky Cauldron will serve British fare such as fish and chips, bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes), meat pies and Scotch eggs, as well as desserts.
• Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlor, like the one in Rowling's books, will have unique flavors like strawberry-peanut butter and chocolate chili. Sundaes will be served in a collectible dish.
• Dark wizards have shops too, in a business district called Knockturn Alley. Borgin & Burkes' sinister stock includes Death Eater supplies.
The hunger for information on Diagon Alley is ravenous. For months, we have seen muggles smuggle pictures on Twitter showing the area under construction and an Orlando TV station even sent a chopper over the construction wall to snap pictures earlier this month of the nearly complete Diagon Alley and London's King's Cross station.
But it's no wonder there's a frenzy with one of the most successful movie franchises of all time tied to a book series that has sold 450 million copies.
Thanks to Potter mania, all four Disney theme parks and SeaWorld have lost market share to Universal since 2010, though Disney still holds the lion's share of the market at 71.3 percent in 2012, according to reports by Themed Entertainment Association, a market research firm for the theme park industry.
The original Potter incarnation set such a high standard, said Dennis Spiegel, president of the trade group International Theme Park Services. "If they deliver the experience they promise, I think you're going to see an incredible increase in attendance at the front gate again."