Harry Potter's magic continues at Universal park

jmorreale@bradenton.comJune 19, 2014 

ORLANDO -- Walking into Diagon Alley, Universal Studios' newest Harry Potter-themed adventure land, guests are transported into another world filled with magical delights.

A new student at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft Wizardry would be able to find everything needed for the school year -- robes, wands, maybe even an owl of your very own.

If you're looking to have a little fun, purchase an Extendable Ear or a love potion from Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes.

Wander the cobblestone streets in search of a sweet treat and don't miss the Butterbeer ice cream at Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour. If you are looking for something more substantial, head to the Leaky Cauldron for a pint and some bangers and mash.

Beware though.

There is a 60-foot fire-breathing dragon on top of Gringotts Bank.

And, if you take a wrong turn, you could end up in Knockturn Alley, a place where skeletons and skulls can be had for a price at Borgin and Burkes.

The experience officially opens to the public July 8, but members of the media from around the world got a chance Thursday to talk with the creators of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley at a special VIP preview at Universal Orlando.

Actors from the Harry Potter films were on hand to talk about their roles in creating the new attraction and their first impressions of the experience.

Gathered in the Leaky Cauldron, the creative team explained the process of taking on such an exciting challenge.

The concept for Diagon Alley is a bit different from Hogsmeade, the first Harry Potter adventure land, which opened four years ago at Universal Studios.

Instead of focusing on everything Potter, Diagon Al

ley relates to a specific time in Book 7 ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows") where Harry, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger break into Gringotts Bank in search of a horcrux in the vault of Bellatrix Lestrange. A horcrux, for non-Potter aficionados, is an object a dark wizard uses in an attempt to attain immortality.

"It's a tricky piece of business, you know, to recreate a slice of time ... to be in the exact moment where Harry, Ron and Hermione are breaking

into Gringotts," said Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative.

The team worked closely with the filmmakers and Potter author J.K. Rowling to get the details as authentic as possible.

"This was a dream come true for the filmmakers," said Thierry Coupe, senior vice president of Universal Creative. "When you get on a film

set, there is no ceiling. No complete sets. Here we've built the real thing."

Woodbury described three "moments of brilliance" during the brainstorming process:

• The Hogwarts Express, which transports guests from Hogsmeade to London/Diagon Alley

• Having Bellatrix Lestrange and Lord Voldemort play a major role in Escape From Gringotts ride and

• The 60-foot fire-breathing dragon on top of the bank.

"The dragon was the easiest 'yes' of the creative process," said Woodbury. "And the hardest to accomplish."

Actor Warrick Davis, who played Professor Flitwick and a Gringotts bank teller in the Potter films, got one of the first looks at Diagon Alley.

"People embrace Harry Potter and want more of it. Here we are sitting in something that came from J.K.'s (Rowling) imagination and that's incredible. It's a huge honor to be part of the ride," he said.

Thankfully, there is much more to Diagon Alley than just the ride, Escape to Gringotts, which broke down during Wednesday night's red-carpet preview and was not in operation at Thursday's media event. Event organizers said glitches were to be expected and the ride will be fixed by opening day.

"I've been here wandering around for six to seven hours and I still haven't scratched the surface," said Tom Felton, who portrays Slytherin baddie Draco Malfoy in the movies.

Diagon Alley aims to be a completely interactive and authentic representation of a London village. Guests can use interactive wands to cast a spell and make magical acts happen.

An obvious highlight is the ride on Hogwarts Express, which is recreated in painstaking detail. The Potter world really comes alive as you ride in a comfy compartment.

The "windows" show a view of the London countryside as you travel to Hogwarts. Hagrid, his magical flying beast, Buckbeak, and the Weasley twins all make an appearance.

But the real drama is outside in the corridor where you can see (almost) Harry, Ron and Hermione battle dementors (the window freezes when the dementors touch it!)

Chocolate frogs and sticky spiders get in on the act as well.

A two-park pass is required to ride the train.

Another cool new experience is a performance of "The Tales of Beedle the Bard," a new stage show featuring a troupe from the Wizarding Academy of Dramatic Arts who perform a trunk show using stylized scenic pieces, props and puppetry to recreate the tale of the three brothers and the Deathly Hallows.

Diagon Alley may not be the final chapter in the Potter adventure land at Universal.

"We're not finished. There are many, many stories to tell," said Bill Davis, president and chief operating officer of Universal Orlando.

Jana Morreale, features editor, can be reached at 941-745-7059. Follow her on Twitter: @janamorreale.

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