The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley adds a London component to the immersive realm started in 2010 with the fabulously successful Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade at the adjacent Islands of Adventure theme park.
Guests approach the Wizarding World's London Waterfront from either the San Francisco or World Expo areas of Universal Studios, at the opposite end of the park from the front entrance. Wrought iron fencing surround the park-like promenade (complete with snack and souvenir stands, and a towering statue-topped fountain) with a shoreline sidewalk along the embankment bypassing the area. Guests access London through the gateway closest to the Fear Factor Live stadium, and exit towards Disaster!
Having arrived at the London area, take a moment to spot Kreacher (the house elf regularly peers from a second-story window above 12 Grimmauld Place); dial “MAGIC” (62442) in the red phone booth; poke your head in the back door of the triple-decker purple Knight Bus; and chat with the Knight Bus conductor and his Caribbean-accented shrunken head. For some Easter eggs from the attraction designers -- including the first of several tributes to Jaws, the original occupant of this area -- inspect the record albums in the music store window.
Now enter Diagon Alley next to the Leicester Square marquee in the approximate center of the building facades. As in the books and films, the unmarked portal is concealed within a magical brick wall (which unfortunately does not actually move, due to safety concerns) that is ordinarily reserved for wizards and the like. However, the endless queue of Muggles (plain old humans) in shorts and flip-flops will leave little doubt where that entryway is, and just in case you're completely clueless, Universal positions attendants outside to obtrusively point the way.
Once inside, look down the alley to the rounded facade of Gringotts Wizarding Bank, where a forty-foot fire-breathing Ukranian Ironbelly dragon (as seen in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) perches atop the dome. The dragon doesn't move, but every 10 or 15 minutes he unleashes a jet of flame; get your camera ready when you hear him growl. To your left is the Leaky Cauldron, the area’s flagship restaurant, serving authentically hearty British pub fare like bangers and mash, cottage pie, toad in the hole, Guinness stew, and a ploughman's platter for two of scotch eggs and imported cheeses. Meals are ordered and drinks received at a counter; then you are seated with a candle which helps servers deliver food direct to your table. You can top off your meal with potted chocolate and sticky toffee pudding for dessert, or step around the corner to Florean Fortescue's for Butterbeer soft-serve (the newest variation of the cult-favorite beverage) or unusual hard-pack flavors like clotted cream, Earl Grey & lavender, and chocolate chili. If all that eating makes you thirsty, a variety of new novelty drinks are poured at The Hopping Pot and Fountain of Fair Fortune, both alcoholic -- Wizard's Brew (a heavy porter) and Dragon Scale (a hoppy amber) -- and virgin, like Fishy Green Ale (mint boba tea with balls of blueberry juice) and Gillywater, which can be spiked with four different flavored elixirs, alongside ever-popular Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice.
Intersecting Diagon Alley near the Leaky Cauldron is Knockturn Alley, a labyrinth of twisting passageways where the Harry Potter bad guys hang out. A covered walk-through area with a projected "sky" creating perpetual night, it features spooky special effects in the faux shop windows -- don't miss the creeping tattoos and crawling spiders! Finally, to the right of Escape from Gringotts is Carkitt Market, a canopy-covered plaza where short live shows are staged every half-hour or so. All the sections of Diagon Alley are crammed with elaborate signage, animated window displays, and endless hidden details to discover.
"Discover" is an important word in Diagon Alley, because this overwhelmingly intricate area actually feels like a place you can explore and get "lost" in, much like Epcot's Morocco pavilion or Disneyland's New Orleans Square. It can't be overstated how seamlessly Diagon's designers have rendered the illusion of a living word, topping even Disney California Adventure's Cars Land. Immersion is an often-overworked buzzword in themed entertainment, but the new Wizarding World exemplifies it, enveloping fans in Potter's world to a degree that far exceeds Hogsmeade's high standards. And even if you aren't a follower of the franchise, you may find yourself falling for the fictional universal after experiencing Universal's incarnation.
Interactive Wands and Spell Casting Locations
With the opening of Diagon Alley, Universal also introduced interactive wands ($45) to the parks, supplementing the nonfunctional replica wands ($35) that continue to be sold at Ollivanders and in the smaller selection at Wands by Gregorovitch. Medallions embedded in the ground designate a couple dozen locations spilt between the two Wizarding Worlds, where hidden cameras in storefront windows can detect the waving of these special wands and respond to the correct motions with special effects both projected and practical. You might use the swish-and-flick of Wingardium Leviosa to levitate one object or the figure-four Locomotor spell to animate another. It’s a much more thematically satisfying form of interactivity than the gimmicky games found at the Magic Kingdom, but it can take some practice to get the hang of spell-casting; wizards will supposedly be stationed at windows to coach novices and supply loaner wands, but it’s easy to imagine how demand for the experience may prove unmagically unmanageable at peak times. A map provided with each wand purchase details the location and movement for most effects, but there are some secret ones to discover on your own. (Hint: one is in Scribbulus' window, and two more in the Slug & Jiggers storefront.) Look at your map under the UV lights in Knockturn Alley for another surprise.
Shopping in Diagon Alley
Shopping is a major component of Diagon Alley in Potter lore; while Hogsmeade visitors went wild for the few wizardy shops there, Diagon Alley is the planet’s wackiest mall, with vastly expanded array of enchanted tchotchkes to declare bankruptcy over. Shops include Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, a joke shop with many of the toys previously found in Hogsmeade's Zonko's, plus new gags like Skiving Snackboxes and Decoy Detonators; look up through the three-story store's "glass" ceiling for fireworks. Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, which sits at the exit of Gringotts, sells crystal balls, compasses, and hourglasses. Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions stocks school uniforms, Scottish knitted wool sweaters, and dress robes for wizards and witches. Adopt a plush cat, rat, owl, or hippogriff from the Magical Menagerie, greeting the animated animals in its windows. Shutterbutton's will film your family in front of a green screen and insert your into a DVD of Potter scenes (about $70); Quality Quidditch Supplies sells golden snitches and jerseys for your favorite teams; and Scribbulus carries quills, notebooks, and similar school supplies. Borgin and Burkes in Knockturn Alley sells objects from the dark side of magic to discover -- just watch out for the mummified hand!
You can pay for all this loot in Gringotts bank notes, which you can purchase inside a money exchange overseen by an imperious interactive animatronic goblin, and then spend anywhere within the Universal resort (think Disney Dollars). In general, Diagon Alley’s stores are larger and more plentiful than the tiny shops over in Hogsmeade, with carefully-planned external and internal queues to corral waiting customers.
Diagon Alley Touring Tips
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Diagon Alley is the queen of the hop in the theme park world in 2015 and beyond. Because of the crowds, experiencing Diagon Alley without interminable waits is a challenge—if you visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Hogsmeade during its first three years at IOA, you know of which we speak. Hogsmeade opened with three rides and Ollivanders; now it has four rides plus the wand shop. Diagon Alley has another upsized Ollivanders and only two rides, one of which, Hogwarts Express, it shares with Hogsmeade in IOA. Because only half of each day’s total train passengers can board at the Studios station, Diagon Alley in essence has only one-and-a-half rides, plus Ollivanders and the various shops, to entertain the expected masses.
In other words, it’s crazy, y’all.
Unlike IOA, which currently offers early entry only during peak periods, USF admits eligible on-site resort guests one hour before the general public every day, with the turnstiles opening up to 90 minutes before the official opening time. Early entry is a tremendous perk if you’re staying on-property, but you’ll still be competing with thousands of other resort guests, so arrive at least 30 minutes before early entry starts; during peak season, showing up on the very first boat or bus from your hotel is recommended. . If you’re a day guest, Diagon Alley will already be packed when you arrive.
Universal has multiple operational options for allowing guests into USF's Wizarding World. On low to moderate attendance days, you'll be able to stroll in and out of Diagon Alley without restriction. On days of heavy attendance, barricades will limit access to the London waterfront, forcing guest to queue near Fear Factor Live and enter Diagon Alley at controlled pace, exiting only towards San Francisco. If the park is so busy that Diagon Alley reaches maximum capacity, timed-entry return tickets specifying when you can visit will be distributed from touchscreen kiosks located between Men In Black and Fear Factor Live. Guests are given a selection of one-hour return windows, assuming any are still available. Once your time comes, report to the gates at the end of London near Fear Factor Live. On the busiest days, standby queues may snake from Fear Factor Live behind MEN IN BLACK towards Simpsons, but waiting in these is strongly discouraged; by late afternoon you should almost always be able to waltz right into Diagon Alley without a wait. (Gringotts itself is of course another story.).
Circling the lagoon clockwise to the waterfront is the shortest route to the Hogwarts Express, but it’s also the route that about 70% of guests take. Hustling to the waterfront counterclockwise through the Simpsons area is the most direct path to the ticket kiosks.
On the upside, the rush to Diagon Alley diminishes crowds and waits at other attractions. The downside to that upside: Those who can’t enter Diagon Alley right away spread to nearby attractions, particularly Disaster!, Men in Black Alien Attack, and to a lesser extent The Simpsons Ride and Revenge of the Mummy. Diagon Alley spillover affects wait times at these attractions all day, so experience them as early as possible.