My Disney Top 5 - Reasons to Spend a Day Over at Diagon Alleyby Chris Barry, contributing writer
It's hard for me to advocate actually leaving Disney property when you're visiting Walt Disney World in Florida. I've always been a major proponent of staying inside the Disney bubble. I will always stay on property in a Disney resort. I don't rent a car. I don't want to go to the supermarket or to the outlets or to the mall. Not happening. Once I cross through the archway, I'm staying there. I've escaped the real world and I'm not leaving. I know there are other attractions and things to see and do, but the honest truth is nothing really has the appeal to me that Walt Disney World does, so why leave?
That changed in the summer of 2010 shortly after the original Harry Potter area opened at the Universal Orlando Resort. My daughter, like so many others her age, grew up with the novels and the films, and couldn't wait to actually set foot in Hogsmeade and to walk the halls of Hogwarts. I still didn't want to leave Disney, so we booked a few nights at Universal's Royal Pacific Hotel first and then made our way over to The Polynesian to cap off our trip the proper way—surrounded by Disney magic.
However, the magic they have going on over there in The Wizarding World is pretty amazing. We were incredibly impressed with this new magical place. The Wizarding World was incredibly done, beautifully themed and was a total immersive experience. My daughter flipped for it and Mr. Potter received two new fans in my wife and myself. At that point we had only seen the first three films and each had read the first book. I instantly wanted more and upon return made it a point to finally watch all the remaining movies in the saga. I've been a major Potter fan ever since. We had an amazing few days there and vowed to someday return. Once the announcement was made that they were going to expand the Wizarding World, we knew it was only a matter of time before we would once again find ourselves back in Harry's world.
There were many reasons we wanted to give Universal another shot. It really is a wonderful resort to spend a few days in. Everything is so close and walkable. There's plenty to see and do and eat. Staying at one of the three Universal resorts that come with their full time version of Fastpass, Universal Express, is certainly a game changer. No lines to wait on for just about all of the attractions? Yes, please.
Truthfully, the main reason to head back was to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter's latest addition, Diagon Alley. Granted, we were a little late. Diagon Alley has been open since 2014, but this was our first opportunity to really carve out some extra time on a Disney trip and finally see this new expanded version of Potter author J.K. Rowling's world brought to life. We were also traveling with three of my daughter's best friends who happen to all be "Potterheads," so the time was certainly right.
We decided that two full days would be given over to Universal and then capped off our trip with six park days at Walt Disney World. Once again, we booked Universal's Royal Pacific Hotel. We thoroughly enjoyed our last visit to this resort and quite frankly, the other two Universal resorts that come with Universal Express, The Hard Rock and Portofino Bay, don't really appeal to us. The Royal Pacific has a fantastic pool, a beautiful tropical theme, great restaurant choices and it's a close walk or boat ride to everything.
If you're unfamiliar with Universal Orlando, there are two theme parks: Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios, the original park. There are Harry Potter lands in each of the two parks and they are connected by the Hogwart's Express train ride. We planned on spending two days bouncing back and forth between the two parks and therefore purchased two-day park-to-park tickets for everyone. This is Universal's version of the Park Hopper and is really essential to experiencing everything that the Wizarding World has to offer.
Islands of Adventure is where the original Wizarding World first opened and contains the majestic Hogwarts Castle with the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction inside. Right outside the castle are two Harry Potter-themed roller coasters. One is small and relatively timid—think Goofy's Barnstormer—and one big and crazy, think... well there's nothing like it in Walt Disney World, so just think big and crazy. The snow-covered village of Hogsmeade unfolds just adjacent to the castle and contains a restaurant and a number of shops all perfectly themed to the book and the films. The train depot is a recent addition to this land that will bring you over to Universal Studios and the newest Wizarding World land, Diagon Alley.
If you're unfamiliar with the books or the films, Diagon Alley hides amongst the streets of London and is only accessible by magical folk. This is where the students of Hogwarts buy their books, robes, magical wands, pets, and anything else they need before they board the train to be whisked off to Hogwarts, their magical boarding school hidden in the hills of Scotland. Universal's version of Diagon Alley contains a number of shops, places to eat, and Gringotts bank, which houses the Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts attraction. Several different streets make up the whole of Diagon Alley and the massive King's Cross station, where you can board the train to Hogwarts, is right next door.
Did Diagon Alley live up to my expectations? Was it everything we hoped and waited for? The answer to both questions is an overwhelming, enthusiastic, and explosive yes. Universal's Diagon Alley is extraordinary. In this writer's opinion—and all those traveling with me concurred—it's the best theme park land I've ever seen. What's so great about it? I'll try my best to justify my opinions. Let's take a look at my Top 5 reasons to spend a day over at Diagon Alley.
5 – Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
As you enter Diagon Alley through a very unique "doorway" cut out of a brick wall, you are struck by many things. One of these is the massive Gringotts Bank building at the end of the street with a fire-breathing dragon perched on top. Inside this building is the Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts attraction. Loosely based on events from the final film, Gringotts is quite a fantastic attraction. In my eyes, it's the total experience and not one specific thing that make this attraction great.
The interior of the bank itself is remarkable. As you walk through the queue, the animatronic goblins eyeball you as they go about their business under incredible crystal chandeliers; you will feel like you've walked onto the set of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. The ride has two different pre-show areas. One featuring Bill Weasley (who has more lines in this ride then he had in the whole film series) and a goblin. The other is a "moving" elevator that may remind some of Disney's Haunted Mansion. After that, it's part coaster, part 4D, and part projection/virtual reality ride.
It's not as hectic as the original Forbidden Journey ride over at Islands of Adventure which should make it more open to the squeamish and more kid friendly, but that doesn't make it any less fun. Most of Universal's attractions are this "projection screen surrounded by physical set pieces" type of ride but this is truly one of the best they have and should be a thrill to both the casual and die-hard Potter fan.
4 – The cast
As can be experienced throughout Walt Disney World, the cast members make all the difference. Here in The Wizarding World, the cast was just exceptional. When I laid my credit card down on the counter of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, a joke shop where I regrettably purchased a pair of screaming yo-yos for my sons, and the person behind the register said, "Ah, Muggle plastic," I knew that we weren't in Kansas anymore. When she told me the price of the toys, $13.95, and then told me, "Plus 98 cents Ministry tax," I was sold.
When we first arrived at King's Cross Station and were preparing to walk through and eventually board the Hogwarts Express, my daughter was approached by a porter. He asked her if he could help her find anything. Samantha played right into the show and said, "Platform 9 ¾." Without breaking a sweat in his best London accent he said, "9 ¾, some sort of joke? Where are you looking to travel to luv?" She replied, "We're going to Hogsmeade." Almost annoyed, he shot back, "Hogsmeade? Never heard of any place called Hogsmeade. Move along now! Platforms 9 and 10 are straight away!" So convincing and so awesome. The detail and the total immersion that exists in Diagon Alley is unbelievable, but it's the cast that completely sells it.
3 – Knockturn Alley
In the books and films, Knockturn Alley is where the bad witches and wizards can be found hanging around. It's not the main drag for sure but is rather unseemly and off the beaten path as any shady place should be. Universal's Knockturn Alley is just that. It's not immediately apparent. You kind of have to look for it, but when you find it, you realize that you've really entered a whole other world. It's dark and creepy with several storefronts and the wickedly wonderful shop Borgin and Burkes, whose shelves are chock full of a combination of dark souvenirs, props from the films, and just downright creepy, evil stuff. It's a masterpiece when it comes to a themed shop. Knockturn Alley is a great example of something that they didn't have to include, but once you find it, you're so glad they did.
2 – Platform 9 ¾
Perhaps one of the most iconic moments from the Harry Potter films is when Harry and the Weasley family run straight into a brick wall to unearth the magical train platform 9 ¾ in the very first film, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone. It's so iconic that the film series ends there in the final moments of the final film's epilogue. As you enter King's Cross Station in the rear corner of Universal Studios, you feel as if you're in a real London train station. There are luggage carts, ticket booths, and porters. There are London travel posters on the walls. There's a snack stand selling snacks and drinks that are obviously straight out of England and decidedly not straight out of Florida. There was even a street musician playing guitar like one might find in any city's train stations. When we rode a second time, a violinist was there in place of the guitarist. It feels real.
As you approach the pillar that theoretically separates platforms 9 and 10, you see one of the coolest effects in any theme park attraction as guests are indeed disappearing through the wall. As you make it there yourself you are faced with a dark corridor and you hear a nice whooshing sound as you "pass through" the bricks.
When you turn the corner, you are transported to a very different place. You see Harry's owl Hedwig in his cage atop of luggage that is stamped with the initials H.P. and up above you is the famous sign for Hogwarts Express 9 ¾. You have now officially entered The Wizarding World. It’s a very cool moment for sure.
Keep in mind that you must have a park to park ticket to experience this part of The Wizarding World. You are leaving one theme park and traveling to another. As I mentioned above, if you don't purchase a park to park ticket you are missing out on a quintessential Wizarding World experience. The train ride is wonderful and is different each way. Don't miss it.
1 – It's the most immersive theme park land I've ever seen
Granted, I haven't been everywhere. Unfortunately I haven't seen some of the newest Disney themed lands that apparently have a high level of immersion like Cars Land out in Disneyland, for example. All I can tell you is that when I walked through that broken brick wall and Diagon Alley was there in front of my eyes, I stopped in my tracks, almost too awestruck to move. I definitely feel transported when I'm in Morocco at Epcot, when I'm walking through Asia in Animal Kingdom, or when I emerge from underneath the train tunnel into the Magic Kingdom, but this was something different.
I walked right into a movie when I walked into Diagon Alley, just the way that Walt himself imagined you were doing when you walked into Disneyland, except that this was a movie I had specifically seen and now here I was walking through it. The level of detail and immersion is simply astonishing. Hogsmeade set a very high bar when it opened years ago. Diagon Alley cleared that bar and smashed right through it. It's huge and it's spread out and it's full of nooks and crannies to explore. The shops are wonderful. The Leaky Cauldron restaurant looks exactly like it does in the films. I might as well have been a wizard myself sitting there drinking butterbeer and chowing down on a toad in the hole, which sounds pretty gross but was actually quite delicious. I could have spent an entire day just in Diagon Alley and felt like I'd gotten more than my money's worth.
Since I've gotten to be such a fan of the eight films in the Harry Potter series, I've long said that if I could live in a world from the movies, it would definitely be The Wizarding World depicted in the films. Living in the Star Wars universe is a mighty close second, but there's something about the world that J.K. Rowling created that really strikes a chord with me. I think living in a world where magic was possible would be pretty amazing. Walking into Diagon Alley on this past trip was like making that thought as real as anyone can ever get. Even more so than the actors in the actual films. They were surrounded by crew members and film equipment and eventually someone yelled, "Cut," and broke the illusion. Essentially what they have created over at Universal Orlando is a living, breathing version of what was depicted in the films, and it's really a fantastic thing to behold.
In the end, I'm not abandoning Walt Disney World to head over to visit Harry Potter, but I will definitely head back there again and get lost in The Wizarding World for a while; I hope I get to do it often. I've found yet another bubble to disappear into. I emphatically encourage you readers out there to do the same. If you're a Disney fan, you already believe in magic. This is just a slightly different kind, but, in my opinion, it's equally as heartwarming and transformative.
What I really hope is that the Imagineers have toured Diagon Alley, and they consider the challenge accepted. That way when the time comes to open the Star Wars lands, they create as wonderful and as immersive a land as Universal and J.K. Rowling have created over at Diagon Alley. I better start saving now because when those two lands are open at the same time, it's going to be awfully hard to keep me away. I see myself happily going from one magic land to the next for many years to come.