In honor of this week's opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Orlando, I am sharing my 10 favorite things about the new attraction. I attended the media opening of Diagon Alley a few weeks ago, even though I was disappointed that the Escape from Gringotts ride wasn't operating, there was plenty to be enchanted by.
The members of Universal Creative have faithfully recreated the scenery of J.K. Rowling's books and the blockbuster movies. You won't find anything from the outside world in Diagon Alley -- you can't get a Coke or a hot dog and chips. You can even exchange your Muggle money for bank notes at Gringotts Money Exchange, where an intimidating animatronic goblin will answer your questions. A word of caution: If you are planning to go this summer, plan to wait in line. On opening day, wait times for the Escape to Gringotts ride reached up to eight hours.
1. Hogwarts Express
The Hogwarts Express, which transports guests from Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure) to London/Diagon Alley (Universal Studios), is such an engaging experience. As you travel along in a train compartment, you see the London countryside go by out your "window." Various people fly by, including Hagrid on his flying motorbike and the Weasely twins on their brooms. Cooler than that is what happens just outside the compartment's frosted windows as the sky turns stormy as the dementors arrive. The windows turn icy with skeletal handprints. Chilling. Thankfully, Harry, Ron and Hermoine are just outside in the passageway to cast a patronus spell. In a brilliant plan by the folks at Universal, a two-park pass is required to ride the train. Travelers get a different experience on the way to and from the parks.
Tip: Sit next to the doors of your compartment if you can.
2. Running through the wall at King's Cross Station
Muggles may be waiting to board the train at King's Cross Station in London, but if you are headed to the magical world of Hogsmeade, you need to run through the wall at Platform 9 3/4. I was very curious how this was going to be accomplished. While waiting in line, you can see riders disappear though the wall. To be fair, you can run or walk through it. I won't give away the magic trick here, but it's a pretty cool experience.
Tip: Make sure someone is behind you taking a photo as you run through.
There is so much to see and do in Diagon Alley itself. The cobblestone streets are lined with shops offering wizarding wear, top-notch food and drinks, stage shows and more. But let's focus on the shopping. Stores include Ollivanders -- Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC, Weasly's Wizard Wheezes, Borgin and Burkes, Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions, Magical Menagerie, Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment, Quality Quidditch Supplies, Wands by Gregorovitch and Scribbulus. My favorites were the colorful Weasly's Wizard Wheezes, where you can purchase fun keepsakes like extendable ears or puking pastilles -- which were tested by my coworkers and don't make you puke, thankfully. I also liked Borgin and Burkes in Knockturn Alley, where you can purchase Death Eater masks, skulls and sinister apparel. There's a cool shirt with the wanted poster for Sirius Black that I coveted.
Tip: Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes, cobblestones are not for weak ankles and, if you are going this summer, the lines are sure to be long at the rides.
4. The Leaky Cauldron
The Leaky Cauldron, the popular (and only) wizarding pub and inn, offers traditional British dishes such as bangers and mash (roasted sausages with creamy mashed potatoes), fisherman's pie (salmon, shrimp and cod baked together under a potato crust), Toad in the Hole (sausage baked into a Yorkshire pudding and served with onion gravy), fish and chips and the Ploughman's platter -- a large platter containing English cheese, crusty bread, cornichon pickles, apple beet salad, Branston pickle and a Scotch egg. The folks at Universal did a lot of research when it came to the new menu at Diagon Alley.
During the media preview, Rick Florell, senior vice president of revenue operations, pulled out his weathered copy of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" littered with post-it notes marking where food is mentioned in the books. It's his job to make sure they come to life at Diagon Alley. "We are prideful in our food and ice cream. That's what makes this place so special," he said.
He noted that his team took a lot of time to source out the proper ingredients for an authentic experience. In fact, the cheese for the Ploughman's platter and other items are imported from Great Britain. New draught beers were created exclusively for the land -- Wizard's Brew and Dragon Scale -- as well as new beverages like Fishy Green Ale and Tongue Tying Lemon Squash.
Guests filter through a shaded queue (thankfully), then dine family-style in a hall furnished with heavy wooden tables.
I sampled the bangers and mash and was impressed by the delicate flavor and texture of the sausages. The dish was served with the traditional sides of peas and mashed potatoes and gravy. It easily surpassed many bangers I've had at "English" pubs in Florida and beyond. I also enjoyed the Scotch egg, a hard-boiled egg encased in a thin layer of sausage and fried. They were served with a creamy, tangy mustard sauce.
Tip: Order the sticky toffee pudding at the Leaky Cauldron. It's a
delightfully sweet, but not too sweet, warm gooey cake topped with vanilla ice cream.
5. Sweet treats
Farther down Diagon Alley is Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour, the same ice-cream shop where Hagrid bought Harry a chocolate and raspberry ice cream with chopped nuts in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." The shop offers more than 20 unique ice-cream flavors including Earl Grey and lavender, sticky toffee pudding, chocolate chili, clotted cream, salted caramel blondie, apple crumble, strawberry and peanut butter, orange marmalade and even a soft-serve ice-cream flavor of butterbeer. I sampled the butterscotchy-marshmallowy butterbeer, but really loved the chocolate chili, which starts out chocolately but ends with a spicy kick.
I didn't get to sample elixirs from Eternelle's Elixir of Refreshment, but they sound like fun. The available elixir selection at this cart includes Draught of Peace, Babbling Beverage, Elixir to Induce Euphoria and Fire Protection Potion. By adding these magical elixirs to Gillywater, guests will see their drink transform before their eyes and experience flavor surprises.
6. The Knight Bus conductor/shrunken head
If you wander outside of Diagon Alley and onto the London streets, you'll find 12 Grimmauld Place, the ancestral home of the Black family and later home to the Order of the Phoenix. It's worth waiting outside for a bit to see the house elf, Kreacher, peaking out of the window. It's also where you can check out the triple-decker Knight Bus, the magical transport usually invisible to Muggles, but at Universal Orlando you can have a fun conversation with the Knight Bus conductor and his shrunken head friend.
7. The Tale of the Three Brothers
Another cool new experience is a performance taken from "The Tales of Beedle the Bard," the companion book of magical fables written by J.K. Rowling. It's a stage show featuring a troupe from the Wizarding Academy of Dramatic Arts who perform using stylized scenic pieces, props and puppetry to recreate the tale of the three brothers and the Deathly Hallows.
8. Interactive wands
Purchase a new wand ($45) at Ollivanders and it will allow you to cast magical spells at 25 different spots within Diagon Alley. The wands come with a map that leads you to instructional markers. Guests can use the wand to cast a spell, such as "Wingardium leviOsa," and, if performed correctly, will make an object levitate, vanish, spit water, etc.
Tip: If you have an old wand and still have the original box and receipt, you can exchange it for an interactive wand.
9. Gringotts Bank
The focal piece of Diagon Alley is Gringotts Bank, which houses the new state-of-the-art Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride. A 60-foot fire-breathing dragon perches atop the bank breathing fire every 15 minutes or so. The fire is so hot you can feel it from the entrance of the attraction, and it's a great photo op if you are patient. The inside of the bank is spectacular, featuring a 20-foot-tall chandelier, marble floors and animated goblins to direct you through the ride.
10. The air-conditioning in Knockturn Alley
Last, but not least, take a stroll down Knockturn Alley. It's dark and creepy and the most air-conditioned place in Universal Studios. I guess it pays to practice the Dark Arts.
Jana Morreale, features editor, can be reached at 941-745-7059. Follow her on Twitter:@janamorreale.