1:34 am EST, June 19, 2014

Diagon Alley initial impressions: A strong sequel to Hogsmeade

By Andrew Sims | Edited by Donya Abramo

I had the pleasure of visiting Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World – Diagon Alley expansion on Wednesday night, and it lived up to expectations.

In promotional videos leading up to this day, Universal promised that they would be able to make lightning strike twice. In other words, they assured us they could make a second Potter land that is as good as the original.

Indeed, they did. The Diagon Alley expansion is an immersive, thrilling land, and I’m not using those words lightly.

“The moment”: Prior to us entering Diagon Alley, Universal told us that on the London waterfront there would be a special “moment” for the media preview which we wouldn’t want to miss. It was actually really entertaining: After several remarks from Universal and Warner Bros. big wigs, Robbie Coltrane (who played Hagrid in the films) used a pink umbrella to open Diagon Alley’s iconic brick wall. Earlier, the Knight Bus conductor warned us of the dragon within the new land, and fire around London lit up before our eyes. It was thrilling.

Now onto the things you need to know when you make a visit…

An improvement over Hogsmeade: One of the first things I noticed about Diagon Alley is that they took negative feedback about the tight walkways in the existing Hogsmeade land and applied it to this new land. Stores and several areas are wider in Diagon Alley or just more open than what you’ll see in Hogsmeade. There are also more places to walk, because the entire Diagon Alley land has several streets. In Hogsmeade, there is just one.

Knockturn Alley offers complete darkness so people can get out of the hot Orlando sun without waiting in a line, and another area off the main Diagon Alley corridor has a large covered area which should please guests while they watch new musical performers. In comparison: The Hogsmeade performances have to be viewed in the broad daylight.

There’s also the fact that all of Diagon Alley’s structures are very tall. You can’t see other areas of the Universal park while you’re in Diagon Alley, which is good news because A) higher buildings mean more shade, and B) it’s more immersive.

Shaded queues: In addition to taller structures helping you get out of the sun, we noticed that Universal created several indoor queues for the shops. The new Ollivander’s now has an indoor waiting area – unlike in Hogsmeade, where you had to wait outside (and guests baked in the heat. Have we mentioned it’s hot here?). Even one of the shops has an indoor queue themed to an owlery.

Gringotts: The iconic wizarding bank is the one and only ride in Diagon Alley (besides the Hogwarts Express). It’s really impressive.

The first thing we noticed was that the queue is a stark departure from the queue at Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade, visually. The Gringotts queue is sleek and clean, and while you’re waiting in line you’re presented with an opportunity to have a picture of you and your group taken. The group picture, and individual Gringotts bank identification cards, can be purchased and printed after you ride. Here’s ours:

gringotts-bank-photo

After a couple of impressive show elements in the queue, you board your Gringotts bank cart and head off for a journey that clocks in at about five minutes in length. The majority of the ride relies on huge (at points as large as 320-degree, by our estimate) screens where you watch much of the action.

There’s no debating this: Gringotts is a tamer ride than Forbidden Journey. It felt like the ride is intended to be more family oriented – but not in a childish type of way. There are several very exciting action sequences, including some great moments between Bellatrix and Voldemort, and two good parts where your vehicle really thrusts.

But besides a handful of fast-paced moments, don’t expect this to feel like a coaster.

The ride requires 3D glasses (though the 3D effects weren’t intense) and there are several 4D effects like water, fire, and wind. It was really fun, but we have to admit that we were expecting something more intense.

The Leaky Cauldron restaurant: The main eatery of Diagon Alley, The Leaky Cauldron feels roomier than The Three Broomsticks at Hogsmeade. There’s also more registers at the bar (that’s important for thirsty parents!). We sampled some of the food and enjoyed it, but we’re not food critics so that will best be left to other reviewers.

The dragon: Yep, it’s as cool as you’d expect. This may sound cliche to say, but the photos do not do it justice. It’s gigantic, and its roar and fire are very lifelike. The fire that it spits out will probably exceed your expectations. The dragon gives a small warning before it begins to spew the flames so you’ll have time to look up and/or get your camera out. Check out my video:

The Hogwarts Express: This experience will probably be one of the most exciting parts for longtime Harry Potter fans. Seeing the train in motion and alive with sounds and effects as you watch it waiting for you in the station is remarkable. It looks bigger than it does in the photos you’ve seen.

Your journey on the train takes about four minutes, and you will see different things depending on which direction you go.

In addition to watching things happen outside of your cabin window via a very impressive digital screen, you will also see silhouettes walking around through the entryway doors on the opposite side of the cabin. Harry, Ron, and Hermione make appearances here, but you only see Ron (Rupert Grint) as you ride towards Diagon Alley. Dan Radcliffe and Emma Watson were not available to film parts for the ride, Universal says, so they appear as silhouettes. “Harry” and “Hermione” do talk, but someone else recorded the voices.

We’re curious how the wait times for the train will look when Diagon Alley opens next month. By our calculations, each of the two trains can carry 150 people. The journey takes about 4 minutes, plus boarding and unloading, which means it will take hopefully no more than ten minutes to move 150 people (per park). We can’t say what these numbers mean for wait times, but we’re thinking you’re going to need comfortable shoes.

Interactive wands: A new feature at Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are special wands which let you cast spells to make things happen in window fronts. Although we were initially worried about how well they would work, we found them to work very easily after practicing once or twice. There are markers on the ground to show you where to cast the spells and what motion to make with your wand. Check out my experience:

Overall impressions: This is an impressive achievement by Universal. I had an interesting discussion with other members of the media, and it was hard to find a unanimous opinion on whether or not this is a better land than Hogsmeade. Both Wizarding World lands have their own strong positives and they both have their own strong negatives. For example, thrill seekers will want to focus their visit on Hogsmeade where you can enjoy Forbidden Journey and Dueling Dragons, whereas families will lean more towards Diagon Alley for Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express.

There’s also no debating this: There’s no shortage of things to purchase, which means your wallets will have to be full when you enter. From ice cream, to the Gringotts ride photo, to an “elixir” drink stand, to The Leaky Cauldron, to several beer stands, to the endless merchandise, you’ll need to arrive here mentally prepared to spend a lot. It’s not like these are all things you’ve seen at Hogsmeade before, either. A lot of the things you purchase at Diagon Alley are very different than what you found in the original Wizarding World.

Have a question about Diagon Alley? Ask in the comments and I’ll answer!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley opens July 8 at Universal Orlando.

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