When Universal opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure, it created a paradigm shift in the Disney–Universal theme park rivalry. Not only did Universal trot out some groundbreaking ride technology, but it also demonstrated that it could trump Disney’s most distinctive competence: the creation of infinitely detailed and totally immersive themed areas. To say that The Wizarding World was a game changer is an understatement of the first order.

It was immediately obvious that Universal would build on its Potter franchise success—but how and where? Universal’s not sitting on 27,000-plus acres like Disney, so real estate was at a premium. If Potterville was going to grow, something else had to go. Conventional wisdom suggested The Wizarding World expansion would gobble up The Lost Continent section of Islands of Adventure, and that may happen yet. But looking at the ledger, it was clear that the older Universal Studios Florida theme park could use a boost.

It just so happened that a substantial chunk of turf at USF was occupied by the aging JAWS ride and its contiguous themed area. The space would allow for substantial development; plus, its isolated location—in the most remote corner of the park—was conducive to creating a totally self-contained area where Potter themes could be executed absent any distraction from neighboring attractions. In short, it was perfect.

So how would the new Potter area tie in to the original at IOA? And what Harry Potter literary icons could be exploited? It was pretty clear that a new suburb of Hogsmeade wasn’t going to cut it. Turns out that the answer was virtually shouting from the pages of the Harry Potter novels, which observe a clear dichotomy of place—plots originate in London and then unfold at distant Hogwarts.

Two London sites that figure prominently in the Potter saga brim with attraction possibilities: Diagon Alley, a secret part of London that is a sort of sorcerers’ shopping mall; and the King’s Cross railroad station, where wizarding students embark for the train trip to Hogwarts.

Following much deliberation and consultation with Warner Bros. and author J. K. Rowling, the final design called for a London-waterfront street scene flanking Universal Studios Lagoon. The detailed facades, anchored by the King’s Cross railroad station on the left and including Grimmauld Place and Wyndham’s Theatre, recall West London scenes from the books and movies. Diagon Alley, secreted behind the London street scene, is accessed through a secluded entrance in the middle of the facade. Like Hogsmeade at IOA, Diagon Alley features shops and restaurants in addition to three attractions and live entertainment.

Diagon Alley covers 20 acres—about the same area as the Hogsmeade original—but offers about two-and-a-half times the pedestrian space because it doesn’t have space- (and people-) eating outdoor roller coasters. With just one high-capacity ride (Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts), along with an enlarged version of the Ollivanders wand-shop experience in Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts Express train connecting the two Wizarding Worlds, the new area’s increased elbow room is somewhat offset by a relatively reduced hourly capacity of the attractions, making Diagon Alley’s maximum capacity approximately 8,000, about double Hogsmeade’s occupancy limit.

In the attraction department, Universal once again came out swinging for the fences. As before with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the headliner attraction for the expansion is high-tech and cutting-edge—and once again a dark ride, but this time of the roller coaster genre. The labyrinthine passages and caverns of Gringotts Wizarding Bank are the setting of this plot-driven 3-D dark ride–coaster.

Though Gringotts is Diagon Alley’s headliner, we think that the most creative element in the two-park Potter domain is the Hogwarts Express, which recreates the train trip from London to Hogwarts and vice versa. Serving as both an attraction and transportation between USF and IOA, the Express unifies the two disparately located Wizarding Worlds.

"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 ($44.95) to the parks, supplementing the nonfunctional replica wands ($36.95) that continue to be sold at Ollivanders and in the smaller selection at Wands by Gregorovitch. Interactive wands are available in 13 “Ollivanders Original” styles inspired by the Celtic calendar; interactive wands modeled after those wielded by a variety of characters (including Harry, Hermione, Dumbledore, Sirius Black, and Luna Lovegood) are also available. The widest selection of wands is found in the two Ollivanders shops. Stores outside of the Wizarding World at the entrance of each park, as well as CityWalk's Universal Studios store and gift shops at each hotel, carry a limited variety of interactive and non-interactive wands. Wands can also be ordered from Universal Orlando's merchandise website.

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 another in the Slug & Jiggers storefront.) Look at your map under the UV lights in Knockturn Alley for another surprise.

Note that the price of the interactive wands includes unlimited activations of the hidden effects; you don't have to pay to "recharge" your wand on subsequent visits, or even replace a battery. If you encounter a spell-casting location with a sign saying it “currently has an anti-jinx in place,” just move along to the next one; that's Potter-speak for “it's broken.”

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 ($69.95 in a souvenir case, or $49.95 with a Photo Connect Star Card package); 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.

When early park admission is offered USF admits eligible on-site resort guests one hour before the general public, 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 visiting on an early park admission day, Diagon Alley will already be packed when you arrive.

When Universal Studios Florida doesn't offer early park admission, guests may enter Diagon Alley from Universal Studios Florida's front gates, or via the Hogwarts Express from Islands of Adventure, up to 30 minutes before USF's opening time, though Escape from Gringotts doesn't begin operating until shortly before official opening time.

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.

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