Monday, 23 June 2014

Universal Studios opens Harry Potter's Diagon Alley: Review of the place by's Adam Chitwood

People, note that this is not my view on the place because i've never been there before but i read this review and i was impressed.
To Enter Diagon Alley, You First Pass Through London

Diagon Alley currently stands in what was once the Amityville section of Universal Studios, which housed the Jaws ride.  However, you won’t seen an inch of Diagon Alley from the street.  The folks at the theme park have built a lovely London façade that serves as the entrance to the area, which is fitting given that in the books, Diagon Alley is tucked away behind a magical brick wall in the English capital.  You’ll find a traditional London square, complete with an elaborate fountain, a small record shop, and one item that should feel mighty familiar to Harry Potter fans: the Knight Bus.
Yes, the bus that picks Harry up in Prisoner of Azkaban sits just outside the entrance to Diagon Alley, and it’s interactive as well.  You’ll notice the shrunken head in the front window of the bus, and he’ll speak to you if you approach.  Moreover, the Knight Bus attendant will be posted up as well, though he and the head have a bit of a contentious relationship.  At the far end of the London square, you’ll find the working King’s Cross station, which of course leads to the fabled Hogwarts Express.

The Hogwarts Express Turns Traveling Into an Adventure

Anyone who’s read the Harry Potter books has surely fantasized about riding the Hogwarts Express, and now the dream has become a reality.  Attendees with tickets to both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios can catch a ride on the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley, or vice versa.  The train serves two purposes: it’s not only practical in connecting both theme parks, but it’s a ride in and of itself.
Ticket holders in Diagon Alley are able to board the Hogwarts Express from King’s Cross Station, which is recreated in the London façade that acts as an entry to Diagon Alley.  It genuinely feels like you’re walking through the tube tunnels in London as you make your way up to Platform 9 ¾, where you’ll be greeted by conductors that board you on the train.
Once on the train, you’re taken into your own traveling compartment (just like in the books/movies), and during the ride, the “window” is actually a state-of-the-art video screen that projects various sights as you head towards Hogwarts.  Dementors and the Weasley Twins are definitely highlights, but just opposite the window, your compartment door is also interactive, as it shows the shadows of Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they pass by your train compartment and bicker amongst themselves.
The most exciting part of the Hogwarts Express ride is that it’s actually a different ride each way.  The journey from King’s Cross to Hogsmeade is an entirely different experience than the journey from Hogsmeade to King’s Cross.  Moreover, the train stations in both areas are very distinct in appearance.
The Hogwarts Express train is on the tame end of the scale as far as theme park rides go, but youngsters are sure to light up when they realize they’re actually living out an experience they’ve seen so many times in their heads.

In Diagon Alley, Your Wand Actually Works

One of the most remarkable aspects of Diagon Alley is how incredibly immersive the entire experience is.  Universal has upped its game considerably in the wand department, as the streets of Diagon Alley are filled with hidden markers that indicate areas where your wand (purchased at Ollivander’s, of course) can actually perform magic.
The new wands at Universal are now outfitted with technology that triggers reactions across Diagon Alley.  Embossed markers on the ground indicate certain spells and the wand motions that are necessary to cast them, and if you stand on the marker and move your wand in the indicated fashion, magic unfolds in front of your eyes.  Use the “reparo” spell in front of a pile of armor, and it puts itself back together.  Use a spell in front of a window full of shrunken heads, and they’ll sing at your command.  There’s even a spell that makes an umbrella hanging over the street start to rain a considerable amount of water, which will come in handy in the humid heat of Orlando.
There are dozens of these spell areas all throughout Diagon Alley—some more hidden than others—and as a full-grown adult even I wasn’t immune to the thrill of performing magic with a wand.  The witches and wizards standing outside the various shops are happy to give you hints with regards to these spell areas, though those found in Knockturn Alley are a bit tougher to crack.  Speaking of which…

Enter Knockturn Alley to Find Borgin and Burkes 

You’ll remember from Harry Potter lore that there’s an area of Diagon Alley that is frequented by some of the darker folks from the magical realm, Knockturn Alley.  You can peruse this area yourself in the Wizarding World extension.  Just off the main street, an alleyway leads to the real Knockturn Alley, which is appropriately dark and cool (the air conditioning is a nice reprieve from the summer heat).  It’s not a massive area, but it is home to Borgin and Burkes, which you’re able to explore at your leisure.
As one of many, many shops in the Diagon Alley area, Borgin and Burkes caters to the Death Eater and dark wizard crowd with its merchandise.  It’s also home to a real vanishing cabinet, and a number of skulls and skeletons.  Outside the shop, you’ll find a few “wanted” posters for folks like Bellatrix Lestrange and Fenrir Grayback, which are move just like in the films.
Knockturn Alley is also home to a concentrated number of spell areas, for use with your new technology-enhanced wands.  One of the highlights is a window that houses a skeleton on a video screen.  If you perform the correct spell with your wand, the skeleton will mimic your own movements.  The Imperius Curse is a dark spell, yes, but isn’t a dancing skeleton worth it?

Butterbeer Ice Cream Will Be Your New Obsession 

When the first Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction opened, the big draw was the Butterbeer drink.  It’s still a massive seller for the park, but Diagon Alley takes things to the next level by introducing Butterbeer ice cream.  I was initially just as skeptical as you probably are right now, but after the first sample, I was smitten.
The ice cream comes in soft serve form, and it has just the right amount of sweetness to keep things from getting too rich.  I find the Butterbeer drink to be a tad too sweet for my taste, but the vanilla in the soft serve makes for a nice counterbalance, concocting what just might be the most perfect ice cream flavor in history.  Seriously, this thing is addictive.
The Butterbeer ice cream is sold at Flourean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour, which is sure to be one of the most popular shops at Diagon Alley.  Once you’ve had your seventh or eight serving of Butterbeer ice cream and are feeling like a (temporary) change, the shop is not lacking in other flavor choices.  The Lavender and Earl Grey is surprisingly smooth, and the Salted Caramel Blondie is a must for caramel lovers.  I was dubious of the Strawberry and Peanut-Butter pairing, but the two flavors combine quite well, and there’s also the Chocolate Chili if you’re feeling daring.  You really can’t go wrong with any choice at Flourean Fortescue’s, but be warned: once you’ve had Butterbeer ice cream, all other ice creams for the rest of your life may pale in comparison.

The Leaky Cauldron Brings Traditional English Food (and Beer) to Florida 

If you’re in the mood for a real meal in Diagon Alley, The Leaky Cauldron is your destination.  The restaurant is, like everything else, a faithful recreation of the location from the films, complete with very high ceilings and loads of crooked paintings on the walls.  Since the Cauldron is “located” in London, the restaurant serves a variety of traditional English foods, including bangers and mash, scotch eggs, cottage pie, stew, fish and chips, and more.  If your kids are feeling less adventurous, the restaurant also serves macaroni and cheese and some tasty desserts, including a pretty delicious bread pudding.
I sampled the bangers and mash, fish and chips, and stew, and all three were quite good.  They’re certainly head and shoulders above your average theme park food, with the stew in particular sticking out as a personal favorite.  And if you’re thirsty, the Leaky Cauldron and other Diagon Alley locations also serve two house brewed beers: Dragon’s Scale and Wizard’s Brew.  The Dragon’s Scale is a unique lager with a malty finish, while the Wizard’s Brew is a sweet stout with a dry finish.  Having tried the latter, I can vouch for its deliciousness.
Salads and a couple of other items are available if you happen to be a vegetarian, but if you suffer from Celiac Disease or a gluten intolerance, the chef disappointingly didn’t seem to have a firm answer regarding potential gluten free options.

Gringotts Houses the Most Elaborate Goblin Bank You’ve Ever Seen 

While most of us were unable to ride the principal Diagon Alley attraction, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, we did get a look at the initial portion of the queue.  Per J.K. Rowling’s request, none of the queues in the Wizarding World extend outside the rides/attractions, and so to get on the Gringotts ride, you must first pass through Gringotts bank.  This is the first thing you see as you enter Diagon Alley, as it sits at the end of the street and features a giant dragon atop its roof.  As yet another wonderful detail of the area, the dragon actually breathes fire at regular intervals throughout the day.  When you hear a roar, look up and brace for the heat.
Just inside Gringotts is the bank lobby, which you’ll remember from the Harry Potter films.  Animatronic goblins line the side walls, all sitting at their desks, attending to business.  If you ring a bell at one of the desks, its goblin attendant will actually turn his head to look right at you.  At the end of the hallway sits the moody goblin that gave Harry, Ron, and Hermione (looking like Bellatrix Lestrange) trouble at the beginning of Deathly Hallows – Part 2.  He’ll actually speak to you and move if you stand in front of his desk.
Everything about Gringotts—the ceiling, the floors, the walls—is gorgeously elaborate, and though you may be waiting in line a while to ride the ride, you’ll certainly have much to look at.  At the beginning of the true queue for the ride, you’ll be asked to step into a booth and take a photo with your group, which you can retrieve at the end of the ride.  Then you step into the queue, which begins in a hallway lined with books, desks, and moving newspapers.  This is as far as we got before the ride broke down, but it was rather impressive nonetheless.

The Variety of Shops Cater to Every Harry Potter Whim

Though the Escape from Gringotts ride is billed as the main attraction in Diagon Alley, once you start walking around it will become abundantly clear that the shops are a close second.  There are a few stores in the Hogsmeade area, but Diagon Alley is filled to the brim with unique, charismatic stores that are certain to break your wallet.  The anticipation for the shops is so high that the designers have actually built queues just to get into some of the stores.  Presumably this will make it easier to move around each shop during peak park hours.  Step into Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes for all your joke and gag needs.  Head over to Ollivander’s to pick up a few wands.  Need some wizarding supplies?  Wiseacre’s has you covered.  There is no shortage of Harry Potter merchandise for sale.
Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions sells an assortment of finely made Hogwarts robes, and though they’ll cost you a pretty penny, they sure are neat.  Quality Quidditch Supplies carries sporting wear (think rugby uniforms), which again is of a high quality that is rarely found in your standard theme park.  Another highlight is Magical Menagerie, which sells a number of magical creatures.  From owls to spiders to a glorious phoenix, you’ll find nearly any Harry Potter (stuffed) animal you can think of in this shop.
Moreover, every single shopkeeper I encountered was as friendly as can be, eager to answer any questions I might have.  They stay in character too, so if you feel like chatting about the merits of the various Hogwarts houses, have at it.

Final Thoughts

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley really is a wholly immersive experience, and I imagine the attraction is going to be very, very popular.  Though it may not offer a multitude of rides, the feeling of simply walking the streets of Diagon Alley, perusing the offerings at Wiseacre’s, or getting lost in Knockturn Alley is a pure joy in and of itself.  The detail with which the area was crafted is stunning, and while Hogsmeade feels like a dip into the world of Harry Potter, entering Diagon Alley feels more like diving head first into the universe.  If you or your family have been mulling over a trip to Universal’s latest Harry Potter attraction, I have a feeling you won’t be disappointed.

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