Two Parks. Two Lands. One Potter Experience.
The introduction of the original Wizarding World of Potter at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park in 2010 proved so popular that the resort is building a massive expansion that will essentially double its size. The highly anticipated new area will open summer 2014.
To get a general overview of the new land, see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley Expansion. To learn more about the original area, go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade.
In a bold move, Universal is developing the new land at the resort's other theme park, Universal Studios Florida. In the photo above, see the building spires way off in the distance? That's Hogwarts Castle in Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. In the foreground is the new Diagon Alley area, which is being built on what used to be the park's Amity village, home of the (now demolished) Jaws ride.
Fans of the Harry Potter books and films know that Diagon Alley is a mythical area located in London. Only wizards can access it, although "muggles" (non-wizard humans) will be able to enter the magical place when it opens at Universal Studios.
Note the height of the buildings in the rendering. Guests visiting Diagon Alley will be enveloped by the structures and will not be able to see the rest of the park or the surrounding Orlando area. By shielding them from any visual interruptions, Universal's designers will be able to immerse them completely in the Potter mythology.
Next up: Hogsmeade Station
All Aboard at Hogsmeade Station
The two parks and the two Potter lands will be connected, as they are in the films and books, by the Hogwarts Express, a magical train heretofore only known to the wizards in J.K. Rowling's mythical universe.
Guests will have two ways of entering Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida: by walking in from the concourse at the park or by taking the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure.
When the original land opened, there was a Hogsmeade Station facade and a stationary locomotive. It added to the ambiance of the land and provided a great backdrop for photos, but it served no practical purpose. It will be removed and replaced with an actual station and working train that will shuttle back and forth between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.
Note that in order to board the train, guests will need a two-park ticket. It's a brilliant move on Universal's part (although it will likely create confusion, disappointment, and perhaps even anger at guests who will have to part with more of their hard-earned cash to get the full Potter experience). It will drive ticket sales, encourage guests to extend their stays at the resort, generate on-property hotel stays, and bring additional business to the resort's restaurants, shops, and other venues.
Next up: Hogwarts Express
In addition to transporting guests to and from Diagon Alley, the Hogwarts Express will be an attraction in its own right.
As can be seen in this still from a preview video posted by the resort and featuring Universal Creative's Thierry Coup, one of the principal designers of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the interior of the train will be anything but pedestrian. Like the Hogwarts Express in the films, it will be lavishly appointed and will feature individual passenger compartments that appear to accommodate about eight guests.
The small spaces will offer controlled environments in which the attraction's creators will be able to incorporate media and other theme park gimmickry to simulate the journey between the mythical lands. Instead of the mundane backstage area through with the train will actually be riding, guests will see the British countryside (as well as otherworldly sights I'd imagine) in the tricked-out windows of their passenger compartments.
Universal has said that there will be multiple story lines on the train that will play randomly so that visitors who re-board the ride may get different experiences. Disney incorporated a similar feature into its wonderful reboot of Star Tours- The Adventures Continue.
Next up: King's Cross Station
King's Cross Station
The first thing guests will see at the London side of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter when they arrive via the Hogwarts Express will be King's Cross Station. The new area at Universal Studios Florida will mix reproductions of actual London locales, such as the bustling King's Cross train station, with whimsical places found only in the Potter universe, such as Diagon Alley.
While the station will resemble its real-world counterpart, it will include one significant difference: platform 9 3/4. The fanciful, interstitial passageway, known only to wizards, is the gateway to the Hogwarts Express. Universal has not announced whether it will incorporate any effects to help guests make the transition in or out of the magical platform -- although it is a theme park moment begging to be created.
Next up: London Embankment
Hogwarts Express passengers exiting King's Cross Station and Universal Studios Florida visitors entering the new land will first encounter the London Embankment. Modeled after the actual place, guests will see familiar sights such as Wyndham’s Theatre, a London Underground subway entrance, and a double-decker Knight Bus. The park's lagoon stands in for the River Thames.
To reach Diagon Alley, visitors will pass through the brick wall archway made famous in the Potter films.
Next up: Diagon Alley Streetscape
Diagon Alley Streetscape
Upon entering Diagon Alley, guests will be encompassed in the wizards-only place fashioned by J.K. Rowling in her books and depicted in the films. There will be shops, places to dine, and, if it is anything like the original Wizarding World at Islands of Adventure (which it surely will), loads of idiosyncratic and delightful details that will charm both ardent and casual Potter fans.
At the end of the street will be Gringott's Bank, the wizards' primary financial institution and home of the land's featured ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Note the fire-breathing dragon that will sit atop the bank. Yowsa!
Next up: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Not much has been revealed about Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the featured ride at Diagon Alley. Like Universal's wonderful Revenge of the Mummy, it will be a coaster and dark ride hybrid attraction.
Unlike the relatively aggressive Mummy ride, the coaster thrills on Gringotts may be somewhat toned down, because Universal's honchos have said that the new attraction would be accessible to most family members. They may be referring to psychological thrills, however. One of the knocks against Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the signature ride at the original Wizarding World - Hogsmeade (which I consider to be the best theme park attraction), is that its effects and imagery are too intense for young children. Also, its ride system has a 48-inch height requirement. Perhaps the new ride will have a more forgiving 44-inch height requirement like Disney's Space Mountain.
What little we do know about the Gringotts attraction is that its vehicles will be single-car trains (note the concept art above). It is rumored, but not confirmed, that it will include a section of track that will free fall down, a feature that has been used in other rides, including Verbolten at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.
Whatever it will include, it is likely that it won't be derivative, and that it will be groundbreaking. Look for Universal to introduce new breakthroughs and/or incorporate existing elements in novel ways. Universal's creative director, Mark Woodbury, has promised that Escape from Gringotts would surpass the lofty bar his team established with Forbidden Journey. That's a high bar indeed, but one that Universal has demonstrated they are capable of shattering.
Next up: Ollivanders
Ollivanders Wand Shop
The featured shop at Diagon Alley will be Ollivanders. Its official, highfalutin name will be Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC. (That's one old shop!) As at the Ollivanders at the original Wizarding World (which will likely remain, since it so popular), it will be both a retail shop selling wands to muggles and a brief show experience in which "the wand chooses the wizard."
Next to butterbeer, the sugary, intoxicating drink that is generating enough sales and revenue to keep the bankers at Gringott's busy until the next millennium, wands have proven to be an extraordinarily hot commodity at the park. While Potter has driven ticket sales and attendance at Universal to near-Disney levels, the per-capita spending by guests on tchotchkes, has been off the charts.
Guests will probably experience a similarly small shop like the one at Hogsmeade. Everything at the Wizarding World, including the wand shop, is built to the scale that one would expect to find in the "real" Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Reportedly, maintaining an intimate scale rather than building the lands to accommodate large theme park crowds was one of the stipulations negotiated by J.K. Rowling for the use of her intellectual properties.
Unlike the Islands of Adventure wand shop, the new location will probably be disguised with multiple rooms. If that is the case, the Diagon Alley Ollivanders would be able to handle many more visitors, but guests would probably not be aware of the additional rooms.
Next up: Dining at Diagon Alley
Dining at Diagon Alley
Of course, there will be places to eat at Diagon Alley. The featured restaurant will be the Leaky Cauldron, a British pub and dining room that will offer local favorites such as bangers and mash, fish and chips, and pints of butterbeer.
As depicted above, visitors will also be able to purchase some treats at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour. The shop will feature unusual flavors, um, flavours, as featured in the Potter books and films.
If the Thames River don't rise and the good Hagrid's willing, I'm hoping to be at Universal Orlando for the grand opening of Diagon Alley. Check back for a full review.