Ed. – We’re happy to bring back our International Youth Correspondent for another kid’s eye article. We’re also grateful to the Duncan family for being so accommodating when we rang them up and asked to borrow their children for a day.
When I heard that Universal Studios Florida was to welcome Diagon Alley as a new land, and that it was to be connected to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter already existing as Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure, by the Hogwarts Express train, I was thrilled. I am a colossal Harry Potter fan and had already visited the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in London, where the eight Harry Potter movies were filmed, for an audio guided tour of the sets. I couldn’t wait to see how Universal was going to duplicate the original Diagon Alley set, replicate my home of London in general, and build the Knight Bus, Platform 9¾, and, of course, Gringotts Bank.
So when we visited Orlando this summer, my brother and I decided to adopt some American parents for the day, Len Testa and Laurel Stewart – the TouringPlans legends – to take us around the new area and attractions. Len had even concocted a back story in case someone asked how my brother and I got our English accents; we were to reply: “From our nanny, Mary Poppins.” And to do so with a perfectly straight face! I would have totally failed and was so glad we didn’t have to use this in the end.
Our aim for the day was to compare Diagon Alley to the streets of London and the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. I have to admit that I wasn’t holding out much hope that Universal could make it look anything like London, mainly due to the fact there was probably not going to be any YoSushi or Big Issue seller on every corner, nor would there be any free newspapers available at the train station (and unfortunately there weren’t). I also was not sure about little things like whether they were going to call the toilets “restrooms” or “public conveniencesm,” but I was very pleasantly surprised to find that they were called by their English names.
We arrived at Universal Studios Florida in time for Early Park Admission for hotel guests (we stayed at Cabana Bay Beach Resort for a few nights just for this privilege), and the queue (line if you are reading this in American) was already about 25 families long. This was just to enter the theme park! We had arrived at 7:15 AM, and then Team Members started letting in the hotel guests at about 7:35 AM, so we didn’t really have a long wait. Len was telling us about the Gringotts 5k – the mad rush for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts in the first hour, and I was now really hyped to see how well Diagon Alley portrayed the City of London.
LEICESTER SQUARE (Pronounced ‘lester’ not ‘lie-chester!’)
We dashed to the Leicester Square Underground Station, where the entrance to Diagon Alley is located. There seemed to be a long queue to enter, but this queue was actually for the Gringotts attraction. If you did not want to ride then you deviated from the queue once you had walked through the hole in ragged brick wall (which was a great representation of the entrance from the film) so you could explore the shopping area. While we were waiting outside, I noticed how this area was themed to be like modern day London. This was pretty impressive, actually. There was a little souvenir stall with T-shirts and other merchandise bearing “I ♥ London!”
This is very much like London, as these stalls are located everywhere. I only saw this stand from a distance, so I am not sure whether it sells picture postcards. If it does, then that would be the icing on the cake for realism (although the cake would have to be a Victoria Sponge rather than a pound or cupcake).
Oddly, another thing that interested me was the styling of the bins (trash cans). They were royal blue with gold stripes for detail, and printed in gold letters was the word, “London.” Seriously? This made me laugh so much because we do not walk around London bins looking for the word ”London” on them; I think we know where we are! We actually have very few bins in London now due to terrorist attacks on the City. I am not saying that there shouldn’t be any bins there because that would mean there wouldn’t be anywhere to dispose of your empty Butterbeer cups, but maybe something a little more realistic, like a black bin with gold writing reading “Litter.” I know it is not a massive deal; nonetheless, I really believe that if Universal is going to attempt to duplicate my home, they should at least make it authentic!
Furthermore, I really liked the fountain and the statue. There are many statues and fountains in London, as you probably know. Even though at home we would not have a purple Knight Bus just casually parked by any fountain. I have seen the original that was used in the films at the Studios, and I have to say this copy is amazing. I was extending my knowledge (and just generally browsing the photos on the Universal media site) when I came across this plan of what they intended the London Embankment to look like. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but I didn’t think this plan looked correct. That is because they have placed the Knight Bus on the opposite side. Look…
You might also enjoy this wonderful Saturday Six by Derek called, “Why to Love the London Waterfront.”
My honest first impression was simply, “Wow (or awesome), this seems so real!” I actually thought I had walked into the movie set, except it was bigger, much bigger than I was expecting, considering all I had previously seen of the Wizarding World was the Hogsmeade area over in Universal’s Island of Adventure, which is noticeably smaller in area.
The road/street/path was wider, as well, which made it feel a lot less cramped. I don’t know if this is just my feeling, or if anyone else liked the fact it felt squashed over in Hogsmeade, as that is how it is described in the books and recreated in the films. This also would have made it feel more like home as walking through London you are often trod on by tourists or knocked over by hurried businessmen late for a meeting. But I can understand why Universal chose to do this. The buildings looked nothing like a typical London street (and to be fair why should it this is not an Epcot World Showcase for London), but it looked like a perfect Wizarding shopping mall. I was impressed by how many of the shops were open and not just for decoration, compared to Hogsmeade where there are many deceiving shops doors that actually had nothing inside. The Studio Tour’s Diagon Alley was stunning, but it was just a set, and like Hogsmeade none of the fascias led to real shops or stores.
The queue we were in reared over to the right, past Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes and towards the Eternelle’s potion stand (where I definitely recommend the blue or green drink mix). We then walked in the direction of Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The posted wait time was 60 minutes, so we decided to ride then because it was only going to get longer. The first 30 minutes were outside, which was annoying because it was getting hotter, and I really fancied some air conditioning. There was little to see in this section of the line other than scattered advice posters and noticeboards that were quite amusing to read.
Sadly there wasn’t a representation of Gringotts Bank on the Studio Tour, but my English real Mum (Mom) used to work in a City bank, so I have seen pictures of the grand halls and vaults. It’s a shame now that most of the London banks are trendy restaurants and wine bars that, of course, I have never been in but that both my borrowed American Mom and real Mum would love! On entering the Bank, the first few things I saw were the tall marble pillars, giant chandeliers that cost around $1,000,000 each, very realistic animatronic goblins, and these wheelie carts filled with gold blocks. Again this was, wow! Honestly, I could not have imagined it to be any more real. It was a perfect imitation of the films. The goblins looked fantastic; their movements were subtle but effective as they sorted through various papers on their desks. As I said, there was not a Gringotts Bank at the Studios, nor one in London, but there are other banks in London, and I can promise you that they are not run by goblins!
In the next area the Team Members directed us over to a photographer who took our photo using a rather bright flash. These pictures were later used as our security photos because there was no on-ride photography available.
Walking further through, past the photo cubicles, there were desks with The Daily Prophet newspaper displayed. The front pages featured a video (Yes! Not a photo if you were wondering, just remember we are supposed to be in the Wizarding World!) of the person or thing involved in the front page headline article. These were very clever and looked as authentic as the films. I am sad to say we don’t have moving newspapers at home, but they were a very cool effect, nonetheless. Next, there was a very dark pre-show featuring some of the characters. I definitely recommend watching the films before your visit if you do not know anything about Harry Potter, because I think you would be very confused otherwise. (*cough* *cough* Len Testa *cough* cough*)
The second pre-show, where you are in an creepy elevator, reminded me a bit of Disney’s Haunted Mansion when you are in the stretching room, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. After exiting here you pick up your 3D glasses and proceed to the boarding chamber. It is still very dark, so mind your step when walking up the stairs. There are two staircases spiralling parallel around the edge of the room. This created a pretty optical effect. Basically, you are then allocated your seat on the attraction train vehicle. You are not allowed to take ANYTHING on board. It has to all be in lockers. My brother had his water bottle confiscated, naughty boy.
Although the screens are very realistic (and I do I admit that I even had to take my glasses off at one point because I thought there was a real dragon coming for me), most of the rides at Universal are themed to screen rides where they take a film, book, or other form of fictional character and create an attraction where you move in a vehicle from screen to screen. I would have liked to maybe have seen a different type of attraction, especially knowing what an exciting part of the film the trip to Gringotts was. An awesome coaster with effects would have been more like the film, but that is what J.K. Rowling and Universal’s creative team came up with. It’s still a great ride but just feels a little like a repeated formula. It seems as though Universal either builds a thrill roller coaster or a themes to screen, whereas, in my view, Disney has more variety and creativity.
This attraction’s story is based on the part of the series where Harry, Ron and Hermione break into Gringotts to try and steal the horcrux from Bellatrix’s vault. If you don’t have a clue what I am talking about (*cough* *cough* Len Testa *cough* cough*), this is why you should see the films. If you have read the series, too, then great. If not, don’t worry because you still benefit from having something visual to compare to Diagon Alley, Gringotts, the Hogwarts Express, and Hogsmeade.
After experiencing Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, we had a quick look around the shops. While the merchandise was expensive and overpriced (on par with Disney, I suppose), it was authentic to the movies, which I guess is what you are paying for. The wands are absolutely brilliant.
We had the pleasure of trying out the interactive ones, even though there is a $10 difference in price between these costing $44.95 and the original character or birth month wands, which are $34.95 (plus tax). Ask a Team Member inside Olivanders to show you where the interactive ones are because even though they are slightly more expensive, I felt they were great fun!
Once purchased, you receive a map showing you where the interactive wand points are. We did not even really use these as the huddle of people and the marking on the floor were enough to tell us something was going on. It was very clever. The marking and the map each showed you what wand action to do, and then something happened in various shop windows. It was basically a better but not free version of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. One of the best ones that Kieran and I did was the one in Knockturn Alley, located down a passage way opposite the public conveniences near the ice cream parlour; here, I moved my wand in the shape of the number four, and it made a miniature chimney sweep climb the chimney, referencing old England and reminding me of my nanny, Mary Poppins. The trick is to do big movements, slow and clear, while pointing the wand at the little sensor with red lights on it.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the Studio Tour in London are the only real places to get official Harry Potter merchandise (although Cabana Bay Beach Resort did have some wands for sale in its gift shop), including proper wands. I have owned a fake wand of Hermione Granger’s, and I can tell you it was no substitute.
We decided to exit Diagon Alley and head to King’s Cross Station. The Station’s facade was amazing! The only thing that was missing was the national rail sign that is present on all train stations. This again would have made the station feel more realistic. Anyway, we carried on and encountered the ticket machines. I was a bit disappointed that they were not remotely like the English ones.
But the Team Members wore appropriate uniforms. Although they were not spot on, you could still easily see that the inspiration had come from National Rail, the UK train operators. Continuing on, we walked past the buggy (stroller) parking lots and joked that they should have been rental “Borris bikes.” We later saw a perfume advert displayed across one wall. Kieran and I burst out laughing at this because it seems liked Universal was “taking the mick” out of us English folk.
Kieran then got a tad upset because there was a pile of Hogwarts style trunks all packed and ready, and he thought that they were trying to imitate old English suitcases and got quite offended; bless him. The signs were very authentic, too, especially the little picture diagram of the customer service attendant.
It is very hard to explain the next part, so I thought it would be more beneficial to insert a YouTube clip by ithemepark. This video will show you how easy it is to walk through the wall to reach Platform 9¾. This does work best when it’s busy, though.
The Hogwarts Express was amazing. It featured parts from the various films pieced together to form a video that is played in your window, making it seem you are looking out on the action. Make sure you look both ways in your carriage because occasionally there are shadows cast upon your compartment door. The train compartments sat eight and looked nothing remotely like the normal English train I ride to school, but I was impressed to find it was a near perfect duplicate of the Hogwarts Express from the films. However, I was very upset to find that the voices that you hear of Harry, Ron, and Hermione were not so real. Disappointingly, it was not Hermione’s voice. I don’t want to spoil the train ride for you, so I have decided not to insert a clip. Sorry! You will just have to visit for yourself.
Once the Hogwarts Express came to a complete stop we stood up and began exiting the train. Again, I was a little bit disappointed to find that the train was completely level with the platform, I was expecting a little gap like back home with the accompanying announcement, “Please mind the gap.” However, I completely understand why it’s level, as Universal probably does not want to be sued if somebody trips.
We dawdled around Hogsmeade for a while. I hadn’t experienced Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey since before the slight upgrade. I definitely noticed a difference in the quality of the higher definition video screens; they felt less like a screen and more like a scene. Also, we only waited 16.5 minutes (we timed it using Lines) because most of the crowds were over in Diagon Alley, contrary of the posted wait being 45 minutes. We then decided to ride Dragon Challenge because the posted wait was only ten minutes. Ten minute wait? More like a ten minute walk to reach the boarding zone! The roller coaster was good all the same.
I was honestly amazed at how detailed the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was. I really think you can spend a whole day in just Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. There was plenty to snack on, too, from pancakes (Breakfast Menu) or Toad in the Hole (Lunch and Dinner menu) at the Leaky Cauldron to Butterbeer soft serve ice cream or Sticky Toffee Pudding scoop at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour – which we definitely enjoyed! Kieran I also wanted to say a huge thank you to our adopted American parents, Len and Laurel, for a brilliant day. We had one of the best trips ever, so thank you for taking us and looking after us.
Thank you for reading my second blog, and please share your thoughts in the comments!