It's official: Universal Studios' new Harry Potter-themed area, Diagon Alley, will open on July 8!
On May 8 and 9, I was lucky enough to be invited to one of the first—if not the first—media events to check out the new additions to Universal Studios, including a preview of Diagon Alley.
I know everyone wants to know about the new rides, but I'll give you a rundown of the weekend from start to finish. I arrived in Orlando on May 8 at the new moderately-priced resort hotel, Cabana Bay, which opened March 31 of this year.
Universal definitely hit the nail on the head with the design of this place. It's got great balance; the design definitely makes you think "throwback," but it's not so overdone that it becomes cheesy. Being in this hotel is like walking into an episode of "The Jetsons." It's got the mid-century modern aesthetic—think pointy chair legs and swooping curves—with all the comforts of the 21st century. The flat-screen television in my room was inlaid into the wall, and it knew my name.
There's a bowling alley, an arcade, a great pool with a diving platform and waterslide, gift shop, a Starbucks (thank you, modern age), a Jack LaLanne fitness center, two bars and a huge cafeteria. The food in the cafeteria is about what you'd expect: not great, but not bad. Totally standard family fare. For breakfast each morning, I could choose between a platter of meats, pancakes, yogurt and granola or a waffle with fruit. I didn't have time to check out the lunch or dinner options, but I suspect you'd find hamburgers and chicken fingers. The bar by the pool, Atomic Tonic, is very cool—check it out after dark. Just trust me.
The price of a stay here is around $140-200 a night in the high season, which is pretty decent compared to Universal's other on-site properties, which may run you over $700. It'd be a great place for families to check out.
On to what you came here for: the park. On May 9, we had to get up bright and early for a VIP tour of both parks, which entailed seeing a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff and jumping to the front of all the lines. (This is a service available to anyone—visit this site for info. I'd say it's worth it if you're not too worried about having an emotional connection with the stories of the rides, which I learned is really affected by all that stuff you see while you're waiting in line. For instance, the new 3-D Transformers ride, while exciting and cool, wasn't as fun without all the build-up.)
For lunch, we got to go into the Navigator's Club, one of those secret places only the most "I" of VIPs get to see. There, we were given a preview of the new foods and entertainment you'll see in Diagon Alley. Of course, as Diagon Alley is a place in London, it's English food.
On the menu were Scotch eggs, shepherd's pie, mint peas (surprisingly good), fisherman's pie, bangers and mash, toad in the hole and plenty more. This food should be available to the public in the Leaky Cauldron. The restaurant will be pub-style service, with a magical candlestick leading your food to your table—I assume this is similar to the technology available in Panera Bread, which tells the server where you are in the restaurant.
We also got to sample ice cream flavors being introduced at Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour: chocolate chili, Earl Grey lavender, apple crumble, sticky toffee pudding, clotted cream and raspberry chocolate. I tried three kinds, but wasn't too blown away. Everyone who tried the clotted cream loved it, but of course I didn't choose that one. However, I did try a caramel sticky bun dessert, which was definitely as good as it sounds.
There were also several new beverages to try, including two new beers: Wizard's Brew, a dark beer, and Dragonscale Lager. The beers are brewed by a brewer in Cape Canaveral, but the staff wouldn't say exactly where. Non-alcoholic beverages included Tongue Tying Lemon Squash drink, Otters Fuzzy Orange, and Fishy Green Ale. The first two were tasty, but the Fishy Green Ale was not for me. The recipes are of course guarded secrets, but there's definitely a hint of cinnamon in it, and it has blueberry-flavored "bubbles" in the bottom that burst when you bite into them (think boba tea, but the bubbles aren't tapioca—they're more like soft grapes). The flavors just didn't mesh well to me, but others enjoyed it.
After lunch and a few more rides, we were off to the main attraction: Diagon Alley. Walls were still up around the area when I was there, but they've now come down and guests can see Harry Potter's London.
Grimmauld Place is visible, complete with Harry's magical flat and a house elf peeking out from inside. The Knight Bus is a stationary accessory, but I hear the shrunken head interacts with the driver. A few shops fill out Charing Cross Rd., including a record shop and bookshop that look normal enough—but real fans know that between those is the secret location of Diagon Alley.
Firstly, however, we were led into King's Cross Station, which takes up the corner where the Jaws ride used to sit. The station feels massive, but is actually 1/4 scale. There's a real, working train sign—with those cute flipping sounds!—announcing train arrivals and departures. Guests wait in line to walk through the brick wall portal onto Platform 9-3/4 to board the Hogwarts Express.
The ride is a people-mover, yes—but no ordinary one. The Hogwarts Express, an authentic-looking (real mahogany!) train modeled after 1940s trains in England, is really a ride itself. "Things happen on board," according to my notes, but you'll have to ride it for yourself to find that out. Also, if you get on in "London" to take the train to Hogsmeade, you'll have a different experience than if you do the opposite.
"The whole experience feels like a long journey," says Thierry Coup, senior vice president of Universal Creative, one of our main tour guides through this new section of the park. "We wanted guests to experience the train journey. It's such a big part of the story."
A catch: since the Express runs between Universal Studios to Islands of Adventure, you must have a park-to-park ticket to ride. But if you don't have one, Universal will sell you an upgrade at the station (convenient and good business sense).
We then headed through the camouflaged wall into Diagon Alley.
On your left is the Leaky Cauldron (if you head in, you can sample the fare I talked about earlier, and don't forget to look up to the left into the Inn where Harry once stayed). On your right are a few shops, including Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. Most of the shops in the row will be open for business. Don't miss the window displays in any of these shops, as you'll see magical details similar to those already featured in Hogsmeade Village.
Walking past the twisted, leaning shops, including Quality Quidditch Supplies, Spindlewarps Wool Shop, Flourish & Blotts, Madam Malkins, Mullpeppers Apothecary and Sly & Jigger's Apothecary, you can see the door to the Daily Prophet (one of my personal favorites) on the right. Don't miss the view down the infamous Knockturn Alley on your left past the Leaky Cauldron. "It wouldn't be Diagon Alley without Knockturn Alley," says Coup.
The road forks into a T formation. If you head left, there are more shops to discover. On the right, past Wiseacre's, there's a stage area. Here's where Universal will feature new stage shows, built straight from the books with JK Rowling's help. Celestina Warbeck, a minor character mentioned once in the books and often called "The Singing Sorceress," performs live on Diagon Alley. Some of the 1940s-jazz-infused songs she'll be singing are "You Stole My Cauldron, But You Can't Have My Heart," and "Beat Back Those Bludgers, Boys, and Put That Quaffle Here." I'm stoked from just the titles alone.
"She'd be the Shirley Bassey or Bette Middler of the Wizarding World," says Mike Aiello, creative director for Universal Orlando Entertainment. "She's a bigger than life personality, a total wizarding diva. We worked with JK on the music and the lyrics."
The other show will off-set the huge personality of Celestina Warbeck, and is based on the Tales of Beedle the Bard—the Aesop of the Wizarding World. The show, which features "The Tale of the Three Brothers," among other stories, is performed by a troupe of four from the Wizarding Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Towering over the center of the T-shaped streets is Gringotts Bank. This is the main attraction, it's quite obvious. Walking into the Banker's Hall, look up. The giant "crystal" chandeliers are gorgeous, but even with that excellent display, I was not prepared for what I saw next.
The goblins are in the formation you might remember from the movies: each sitting at his own tall desk with the bank manager at the end. They're animatronic, but these are really good animatronics. The goblins are breathtakingly realistic. I had to look a moment longer make sure that they weren't in fact real.
You walk up to the head goblin to "open an account." He gives a little speech about how safe the bank is, and instructs you to head to Bill Weasley's office. He goes back to writing on his parchments, but looks up again to gruffly say "Move along." As you move through the line, you pass animated paintings and newspaper prints, and the offices of such notable goblins as Griphook, Ragnok and Gormuk.
Eventually, "We find ourselves right in the middle of the story," says Coup. Guests learn that Ron, Harry and Hermione (well, she sounds like Hermione—she looks very much like Bellatrix LeStrange) are in the bank. The trio are there to steal a horcrux, naturally. Bill Weasley and Mordak lead the way into an elevator which takes us deep into the cavernous vaults of Gringott's.
Amid glowing stalactites and stalagmites, riders board the Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts mine cart to take the 4-minute journey into the heart of the bank. "This ride really takes the bar a notch up. There's nothing quite like it," says Coup. "Guests will find themselves face to face with the Dark Lord and Bellatrix."
I didn't get to ride, as it wasn't yet complete when I visited. But I was told the ride is a combination of 3-D effects and physical effects. Sometimes it stops, sometimes it goes straight down. If you think that sounds similar to other 3-D rides, I thought so too. But we'll have to wait (not much longer now!) and see. If it's half as good as the build-up to it, the ride will be fantastic.
After we left Diagon Alley, the media group was treated to dinner and drinks at one of the new restaurants in Universal's CityWalk, Antojitos. This Mexican restaurant was the second venue to open in the new CityWalk expansion, and it's been open since February.
There's actually two restaurants inside the building. We went to Antojitos Up, the more intimate, fancy one, which is on the second level.
There was a parade of liquor coming to us, and I tried each drink. They even poured us tequila shots from their extensive selection, but I only sipped! Now that I'm an expert on Antojitos Up's libations, I'd recommend the Big Apple in Mexico, the Paloma and The Horse You Rode In On.
For an appetizer, you can't go wrong with the tableside-made guacamole. The Esquites Asados is also particularly good: roasted corn, jalapeno mayo, queso fresco and ancho chiles with tortilla chips. For dinner, I chose enchiladas vegetarianas—one of the best veggie enchilada dishes I've ever eaten... perhaps the best. The fresh corn made it for me. The desserts were nothing to write home about, but I don't love Mexican desserts, generally. The flan and churros were decent. There was a cake that tasted like banana bread. I recommend this place wholeheartedly.
I really can't wait to go back and see it all in action. Even though I got the grand tour, there's plenty of secrets that remain unlocked.