I was absolutely certain that I hated Harry Potter, and his terrible books. They looked like something for children, and I of course, was no longer a child. I was thirteen. This was in 2000, when the fourth installment of the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, had just hit shelves a week after my birthday. I didn’t get it at all. There was no way a series about a boy wizard could be nearly as good as the tales I’d read about Narnia, or (I’m only slightly ashamed to admit this) even the Animorphs.
Still, there was no escaping the media attention Mr. Potter was getting even then. Everyone in my class had been reading them nonstop, and so one day with very little fanfare indeed, I picked up the first book from my school’s library. When I finished it three days later I found the second, and the third… and then bought the fourth in hardcover because the library didn’t have it yet. From then on it was midnight release or bust. I still remember reading the seventh and final book in my car in the Barnes and Noble parking lot, only to return home and continue reading until about five in the morning, desperate to know what happened to Harry and his friends, right through the semi-disappointing epilogue.
All this is meant to say that I’m now a Harry Potter fanatic, so when I heard about the plans Universal and Disney pitched to JK Rowling for her creative property, I was actually glad when Universal, promising a full blown world of Harry Potter, won the day. It still hurts me to say that, as a Disney-lifer.
I was there within months of the opening of the Wizarding World, now rebranded as Hogsmeade, and actually there before the opening of Diagon Alley when we were lucky enough to get a sneak peak of the new attractions and shops. I’ve been back a few times since then, made some hefty deposits in to the Universal branch of Gringott’s Bank, and so Scott has been kind enough to ask me to share some thoughts on the area. What follows will be a detailed overview, so if you’re the type who likes to know all the ‘little details’, the things that make these parks so special, come with me down the floo network. If you’d like it to remain a surprise upon your first trip to the new expansion, you’re welcome to take either Platform Nine or Ten.
Upon entering London, you’ll come across the first of many great touches in the new expansion, as you walk down Grimmauld Place. Look for the darker building, number twelve of course, where Kreacher can be seen occasionally peeking out a window. This is an easy detail to miss, although there will likely always be a few muggles in line for a photo, because all of the attention is immediately drawn to the famous Knight Bus in the center of the area. Stan Shunpike isn’t to be found, in line with Rowling’s stance on characters in the park, but his friendly shrunken head is, and a substitute driver. This moment should really be captured on video, not just a plain photo, because the interactions are always hilarious.
When you’re finally ready to make your way in to Diagon Alley, you’ll pass by a brick wall, around a corner, and find yourself standing in the entryway of what amounts to the shopping capital of the wizarding world. The view is simply breathtaking. In front of you, a dragon looms atop Gringott’s Bank, spewing fire every fifteen minutes or so. The adventure within is impressive, but a word to the wise: wait until the late afternoon or early evening before getting in line, when it will be much more manageable. Even then, know that once you’re in the bowels of the bank the line gets very congested and claustrophobic at times, as the ride has broken down often. Instead, take your time to walk around and soak in the details of this completely immersive world that Universal has gifted us with
Immediately to the left is the Leaky Cauldron (the sign out front features an actual leaky cauldron, if you’re sharp enough to spot it). Inside, the larger cauldron, the namesake of the establishment which was part of Harry’s introduction to wizard life, awaits. The food selections here are well thought out and loyal to the books. You can also buy very expensive bottles of water here labeled as Gilly Water, which can have different potions added to them, purchased separately.
After filling your stomachs, it’s important that you buy your school supplies. After all, every witch or wizard needs the proper supplies. First, a wand. Diagon Alley boasts the two finest wandmakers in the world, Ollivander and Gregorovitch, but only with Ollivander do you get the show (the same one at Hogsmeade, though there are more rooms and therefore the line moves a bit quicker here) where a wand chooses a wizard. Please note that if you purchased a wand before the expansion, you may bring it, with box or receipt, to any wand location for a ‘tuning up’, for just $10. This will allow you to use the wand at the interactive spell locations located throughout Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley which let you make your own magic with a flick and a swish.
After you’ve got your wand, the next important thing is of course, fun and games. These are in high supply at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes and Quality Quidditch Supplies, located on your right as you enter the park. The Weasley brothers’ joke shop has every prank and wizard game you can dream of, and some you can’t. ‘Look up’ is a common phrase heard in many of the shops, but nowhere is it more apparent than here, where glancing up shows you a myriad of fun items, some not for purchase. See if you can spot the Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder that’s completely blacked out one of the shelves. Next door in the Quidditch shop, new gear is available for every house and even some of the professional teams, whether it be shirts, sweaters, shorts or sweatpants. Universal has done a great job catering not only to the Gryffindor and Slytherin crowd, but us Ravenclaws, and even the Hufflepuffs, as well.
Like a famous doctor’s blue box, Diagon Alley appears to be ‘bigger on the inside’ from the moment you enter. There are two long lanes to stroll down featuring a number of minute details and new items for sale, as well as an outdoor stage which performs two different shows on the half hour. The first features wizard crooner Celestina Warbeck singing some of her hit songs, while the other is a troupe of actors telling tales of Beedle the Bard. Both are entertaining, though the actors are my preference.
Wandering along the streets, there are a number of things to look at in every single window display. Some of my favorites are the Daily Prophet office, which if you stand close enough will give you an earful of Rita Skeeter, the House Elf Placement Agency (Hermione would cringe), and the Eeylops Owl Emporium, which is fun to walk through, though with all those birds you may want to cover your head. Some folks have even heard whispers about a certain Order planning meetings when getting close enough to some doors.
Some of the other shops in Diagon Alley include the Magical Menagerie that houses a famed (and until now believed to be mythical) Crumple-Horned Snorkack. Just outside the pet shop is a very famous, very large snake that you’ll hear hissing through the glass, or is it speaking parseltongue? Listen closely and you may be surprised! Across the way are a couple more excellent snack options, especially Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor, which specializes in odd flavors such as Peanut Butter and Jelly, Earl Grey Tea, and even Chocolate Chili. Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment and Madame Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions will help you fill out all your first year student needs, although the mirrors in the latter store can be quite harsh about your muggle appearance. Finally, Scribbulus has all your quill and parchment needs, as well as the ability to create your own seal or buy a commemorative ticket for the Hogwarts Express (not required to ride).
The final stop to make in Diagon Alley is the bank exchange. Located near the actual bank, in here you can look at Gringott’s merchandise as well as come face to face with a goblin who will actually answer all your questions. Just don’t ask him if he’s a house elf! On your way out, walk straight ahead, past the bank (minding the dragon of course) and look for a dark corridor, where you’ll find in my opinion, the best part of the new Diagon Alley expansion: Knockturn Alley.
Knockturn Alley has no business with good wizards and witches. It’s home to the famous shop Borgin and Burkes, where you can find the vanishing cabinet used in evil plots, as well as a number of new death eater products. There are lots of new shirts here, many featuring Bellatrix and Voldemort, as well as expensive death eater robes and artifacts, including many of Voldemort’s horcruxes. As you wander through the area, take the time again to ‘look up’ and notice the sky has suddenly changed to night, the wanted posters are moving, and the shrunken heads are singing (songs from Jaws no less, an homage to the previous attraction in this space). Before exiting, take the time to check out the magical tattoo parlor, which we can only hope will be a real thing someday, that features moving tattoo artwork.
As you come to the end of your tour of Diagon Alley, exiting back in to London, there is still more to do. The red phone booth on the sidewalk is in fact the very same one used to transport witches and wizards to the Ministry of Magic. If you’re the cleverest witch of your age (and the phone is not broken as it was on my most recent trip) you can use the numbers on the pad to dial the word ‘MAGIC’ and be connected straight to the Ministry through the headset. After this liaison, take your time to say goodbye, and make your way to platform nine and three-quarters for the trip to Hogsmeade. In the line, if a conductor asks you where your going, honesty will provide quite the odd glance as they ask you what a Hogsmeade is. It’s easy to forget you’re back in London at this point. The station has been recreated perfectly, right down to the effect of walking through the wall to reach the train, a surprise I’ll leave you to discover in person. Once you’re through to the station, you’ll see Hedwig waiting to join you on the train, sitting atop Harry’s luggage. The ride is short but enjoyable, and different on the return trip, so make sure to take it both ways.
All in all, Universal’s growth and experience in theme park design and layout has vastly improved, first with the opening of Islands of Adventure, and now with the two fantastic Harry Potter expansions. Even the greatest of Universal cynics, upon entering Diagon Alley for the first time will, and rightfully should, have their breath taken away. And for fans of the series, especially the die-hards like myself, it’s nirvana. A place where for an hour or two at least, you can feel as though you are the boy under the stairs at #4 Privet Drive, who has finally received his letter of invitation to enter a new and exciting world.
Contributor: Brian Keese Jr.