Tom Irwin was one of the first muggles to check out Universal Orlando’s newest attraction
We’re a funny old bunch, Harry Potter fans. One person I’d considered a good friend hasn’t spoken to me since I returned from Orlando, cursed by a jealousy spell so strong that I fear it’s going to take seriously advanced magic to break it.
I headed out for a sneak preview of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, a whole new area within Universal Orlando Resort, created after the runaway success of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, which opened at Islands of Adventure in 2010.
While I’m not quite at the level of fandom to start dressing up in a cloak and round glasses, I loved the books and was excited to see whether Universal’s latest creation lived up to the hype and my expectations. As I walked around the higgledy-piggledy shops of Diagon Alley and gazed in wonder at the enormous fire-breathing dragon perched atop Gringotts Bank, I couldn’t help but feel that they’ve pretty much nailed it.
Silver screen simulation
It doesn’t require much imagination to get swept away by it all – even despite Florida’s heat and humidity – given that Diagon Alley is a near-perfect recreation of the set from the movies. “Parks just don’t usually do this level of immersion,” explains Alan Gilmore, the attraction’s art director who also worked on several of the Potter films.
All the fans’ favourites are here, including Flourish and Blott’s, Madam Malkin’s and Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. I had the slightly surreal experience of watching Oliver and James Phelps, the actors who play the Weasley twins in the film, walk into their own shop to have a look around, apparently as delighted by the surroundings as the regular muggles walking among them.
The brothers were there as part of the media preview in June, joined by fellow stars Warwick Davies, Helena Bonham-Carter and Robbie Coltrane, who officially opened the attraction with a magical flick of his umbrella towards the wall separating Diagon Alley from the rest of London.
The rest of London? Oh yes. Universal has created a mini version of England’s capital, complete with surprisingly detailed versions of King’s Cross and Leicester Square stations, wizarding vehicle the Knight Bus, and 12 Grimmauld Place, where a glowering Kreacher can be spotted peeking miserably out from behind the curtains.
Back in Diagon Alley, those who dare can take a turn down Knockturn Alley, the shadier side of the complex, replete with ne’er-do-wells and shops dedicated to the dark arts. I made the mistake of holding a bag with Harry Potter’s face on it, which earned me a swift rebuke from one of the unsavoury character actors roaming the alley – just another touch that immerses you in the magic.
Bank on it
The centrepiece of the area is the park’s newest ride, Escape from Gringotts, described by art director Alan Gilmore as using “technology beyond anything done before”.
A 60ft stone dragon straddles the building; at sporadic intervals he roars and a huge ball of fire erupts from his mouth, delighting all around – even those who’ve seen it happen several times already. Once inside, visitors enter a glorious entrance hall and are treated to the intense stares of the incredibly lifelike animatronic goblins who work in the bank. As they queue they’ll walk past copies of the Daily Prophet newspaper, complete with magical moving pictures.
The ride itself is a slightly less extreme experience than Forbidden Journey, the ride in Hogsmeade, but it has a lower height requirement, which allows more children to be able to enjoy the experience, while the effects and clever use of 3D mean it’s still extremely exciting.
Where Forbidden Journey has you swooping around sweeping vistas, the new attraction casts the rider deep into the claustrophobic vaults of Gringotts Bank, with events taking place parallel to the actions of Harry, Ron and Hermione in the stories. Guided by Ron’s brother, George Weasley, you encounter huge armoured trolls and come face-to-face with the terrifying pair of Bellatrix Lestrange and Lord Voldemort during the ride’s finale.
A particularly cool concept that has been introduced for Diagon Alley is the option to purchase interactive wands, which allow visitors to cast spells around the site to make miraculous things occur. Spell locations are identified by medallions set into the ground, indicating where to stand and face to wave your wand, but there are a number of unmarked locations where you can also practice your magic, and searching for them is half the fun.
This interaction does come at a price – $45 as opposed to $35 for a regular wand – but if clients are planning to buy a wand anyway it’s worth shelling out the extra dollars. Visitors keen to bring back a piece of the magic are spoilt for choice, with every conceivable Potter knick-knack and keepsake you can think of available to purchase, from robes and broomsticks to joke products such as Skiving Snackboxes and Extendable Ears.
If all that shopping leaves you hungry and you’re after something heartier than a Butterbeer ice-cream from Florean Fortescue’s, you can grab a bite at the Leaky Cauldron. Here you’ll find traditional British fare such as fish and chips, cottage pie and bangers and mash, which you can wash down with a Fishy Green Ale or a Tongue Tying Lemon Squash.
One of the most fun things about Diagon Alley is getting there. From Hogsmeade Station in the original Harry Potter area, visitors step aboard the Hogwarts Express, a proper train that traverses the mile or so between the two parks. There are no boring car park views for guests here though – video screens in the windows take you on an exciting journey from the Scottish highlands, through the English countryside and finally to the aforementioned ‘London’ area of the site.
Those travelling the other way can board from Platform 93Ž4 at Kings Cross, where a trick of the eye means observers will see them ‘walk’ through a brick wall.
Even though Universal can make people walk through walls, they can’t make people disappear, and queues for the attractions are unavoidable. There are ways of minimising their effect on your client’s visit. Those who stay on-site at a Universal hotel get one-hour early-bird access, and Virgin Holidays customers have a similar benefit. Its Early Park Admission has now been extended across two days, and both areas of the Wizarding World.
Tried and tested
Cabana Bay Beach Resort
The best way to arrive at Cabana Bay would surely be in a time-travelling DeLorean. Driving up to the lobby past the Cadillacs and Pontiacs parked up outside, you certainly feel like you’ve been transported back to 1950s America.
Cabana Bay, Universal’s fourth on-site hotel, is its first ‘value’ offering and is geared towards families. Standard rooms contain two queen-size beds, a pull-out sofabed, flatscreen TVs and a kitchenette with a fridge. There are two pools, a water slide, a lazy river, a 10-lane bowling alley and a retro games arcade – plenty to keep youngsters occupied.
The food is standard American diner fare – low on vegetables but fuss-free and sensible given the family feel and retro vibe. One of my biggest hotel gripes is paid-for or inadequate Wi-Fi, but here it’s free and strong across the whole complex, so it’s easy to show off to friends back home as you laze by the pool.
A major benefit of staying at a Universal hotel is that guests get early-bird access to Diagon Alley one hour before the public. The Cabana Bay site is within walking distance of the park, but it’s not the most scenic of routes so guests should take advantage of the free shuttle buses available.
Seven nights with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick direct to Orlando departing September 8, room-only accommodation in a standard room on a twin-share basis at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort and car hire starts from £945.
Add on the Universal Orlando Three-Park Bonus Ticket (valid for Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the Wet ‘n’ Wild Orlando water park plus all-club access to the live entertainment at Universal CityWalk for up to 14 consecutive days (from the day of first use) from £237 for two adults.
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