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November 25, 2014

A Disney fan's first impressions of Harry Potter's Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando

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In Orlando, not all magic is pixie dust.

As most Harry Potter fans (and Central Florida tourists) know, Muggles now have a rare opportunity to step into Diagon Alley, the shopping district of wizards, right here in Orlando. Although regular people normally are not able to see what wizards do, Universal Orlando Resort has made that possible with its second themed area in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The much-anticipated Diagon Alley opened this summer, and my son and I just visited it this past weekend. Like so many others, he is a huge Harry Potter fan, so this was the perfect birthday present. We bought park-to-park passes, which are necessary if you want to experience both parts of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Hogsmeade is at Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley is at Universal Studios). There also is a new train -- Howarts Express -- that runs between the parks and is an attraction in itself. You must have the park-to-park tickets to ride the train, as well.

We began our day as Harry did in the first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," by entering Diagon Alley. At Universal, the entrance to the themed area is not what we've come to expect in Orlando with arches proclaiming it a new "land" of the theme park. Instead, visitors walk to nearly the back of Universal Studios and come upon what looks like a street of buildings from London, including King's Cross Station, a record store, a traditional red telephone booth and walk-up flats. Behind the unmarked facade is a nondescript entrance to Diagon Alley that is meant to replicate the hidden way wizards enter their secret parts of the city, while ordinary people are unaware.

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Just as its creators intended, walking into Diagon Alley is like stepping into another world. The buildings are tall enough that you cannot see the rest of the theme park, and the experience is so immersive that you really do feel as if the setting from the story has been brought to life.

The Leaky Caldron restaurant, which has a secret entrance to Diagon Alley in the series, is located immediately to the left when you enter the section. It's the only restaurant in Diagon Alley and it serves traditional British fare, such as bangers and mash, fish and chips or cottage pie for lunch and dinner, as well as English and American favorites for breakfast. The Leaky Caldron is a quick-service restaurant, where you stand in line to order before being seated, and then, your food is brought to your table. Prices range from about $10 to $15 per entree.

In addition to the food, the restaurant serves a rainbow selection of specialty drinks, including the park's famous Butterbeer, which is a non-alcoholic drink. In Diagon Alley, guests can choose to drink their Butterbeer cold, frozen or warm (during the winter season). During our day, we revisited the frozen Butterbeer, but we also sampled the warm version for the first time. The warmed drink was our favorite of the three, hands down. (You can even get Butterbeer ice cream at Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour!) We both tried the Pumpkin Juice again, which I enjoyed, but my absolute favorite was Otter's Fizzy Orange Drink. Be prepared: It can be messy because of the sugar affixed to the rim, but Otter's Fizzy Orange Drink truly is delicious.

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The centerpiece of Diagon Alley is, of course, the ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The attraction immediately is visible from the entrance with the vault-guarding dragon. (The dragon breathes fire at seemingly random times during the day and is beautifully bathed in blue and purple lights at night.) In the books, Harry must go to the Gringotts Bank to take out the inheritance that his parents left for him, but it is a process of overcoming many obstacles. The attraction at Universal mimics Harry's harrowing struggles with a 3D ride that is part simulator, part roller coaster. Waiting in an hours-long queue for the ride has become the norm because of its popularity, but many park-goers will tell you it's well-worth the time invested.

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Next to the attraction is Gringotts Money Exchange. In here, visitors can exchange Muggle Money (U.S. currency) for $10 and $20 Gringotts Bank Notes that can be used throughout Universal Orlando -- or kept as a souvenir. When we visited, my son was able to purchase a set of Collector's Coins for $35. A goblin who sits at the desk interacts with visitors by answering their questions.

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Everywhere you look in Diagon Alley, you are sure to see guests attempting magic with their new wands. That's because Universal introduced interactive wands with the opening of Diagon Alley. These wands come with a map of 20 places in the marketplace where young wizards can perform magic. They also work at Hogsmeade village at Islands of Adventure, too. This reminded me a lot of the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game at Walt Disney World. But at Universal, we found team members near almost every spot we visited, willing to show apprentices how to cast their spells. Their participation surely headed off any frustration from the wizards in training.

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Interactive wands cost about $45, and "Originals" -- which do not work with the interactive locations and are merely replicas -- are priced at $35. Both can be purchased at Ollivanders Wand Shop. Ollivanders has a small branch in Hogsmeade, but the main store now is located at Diagon Alley. Because of the overwhelming popularity of the Hogsmeade location, the Diagon Alley was designed to be much larger with three showrooms and the shopping area.

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What draws many guests to the store is what takes place in each showroom -- a short show in which a wand is made to choose a wizard. It's clever, it's fun, and it has guests attending multiple wand shows to see if they will be chosen. My son and I were no exceptions this past weekend. He *really* wanted to picked. Fortunately, it only took us two attempts, before a Holly wand chose him. We purchased the wand after the ceremony, and he thoroughly enjoyed the interactive experiences for the rest of the day.

There are quite a few other shops that we enjoyed browsing, including Quality Quidditch Supplies. Among the most unique, however, were Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, which is full of Fred and George's pranks from the films, and Magical Menagerie, which has plush versions of all the crazy animals in the movies. My son's birthday money bought him a chocolate frog, a phoenix and a dragon.

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For those brave enough to see where followers of the Darks Arts go shopping, Knockturn Alley is tucked away in a corner of Diagon Alley. Give your eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness of this section, and be prepared for a lot of skulls and skeletons. There is one store, Borgin and Burkes, but a lot to see.

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Finally, we headed out to King's Cross Station for a ride over to Hogsmeade village on Hogwarts Express. Although the train is a viable way to get from park-to-park, it really is an attraction itself and one that is worth your time. Be prepared for a lot of stairs at both stations, though an elevator is easily accessible for those who request it. A fun special effect allows you to run through a wall at Platform 9 3/4, just as wizards do in the series. Seeing the train enter King's Cross is a sensory experience with the steam, bright colors and loud noises. But once it stops and guests exit, new visitors are boarded in their assigned cabins for a smooth and quiet experience. I don't want to spoil what happens on the train, but it is not frightening for children and should be a fun experience for the whole family.

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Diagon Alley is an area with so many layers of rich detail that I'm certain my son and I only experienced a fraction of what is offered. This article is merely meant to introduce Disney fans to another Orlando experience that is as immersive as what they've come to expect at Walt Disney World. My son and I look forward to future visits at Diagon Alley, and all the special magic it offers.



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January 9, 2014

A Disney fan's first impressions of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

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Though The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort opened to the public more than three years ago, I only recently discovered how unique it is, thanks to my 10-year-old son's love of the books and my recent role as a chaperone for his school's field trip to the park. If you're a fan of the popular stories from J.K. Rowling and are planning a visit yourself, I hope these observations and tips gleaned from my first visit will help you make the most of your experience.

My son and I found ourselves at Islands of Adventure on the Friday before Christmas. It's not uncommon for Orlando school chorus groups to perform in the theme parks, especially during the holidays, and I volunteered to help chaperone my son's group. Despite our frequent trips to other Orlando theme parks, we had not been to this one, primarily because my son does not enjoy big rides or roller coasters.

Still, he was very excited to go because he's reading the "Harry Potter" books and could not wait to see Hogsmeade come to life in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We both did a little research before our trip, but we could not plan everything the way we would have if it were to be just he and I. As a chaperone, I would be responsible for other students and we would have to allow for their interests, as well. Plus, we would arrive at the theme park just as the majority of guests do -- between 10 and 10:30 a.m. -- so beating the holiday crowds would be difficult.

Luckily for us, the other boys in our group were happy to start our day immersed in the story of Harry Potter. We walked quickly through the park, stopping briefly at the entrance to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for a few photos. Already the area was jam-packed with guests marveling at the detailed village. They must not have been daredevils, though, because the line for Dragon Challenge was only 10 minutes.

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Our group moved quickly to that queue, which largely is inside a small castle and is themed to events in the movie adaptation of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." The ride features two roller coasters, which twist, turn, invert and are launched in a staggered pattern to supposedly chase each other, like Harry being chased by the Hungarian Horntail in the Triwizard Tournament. In fact, the blue track is called the Hungarian Horntail, while the red is the Chinese Fireball.

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My son and I offered to hold backpacks and bags while the more adventurous students in our group prepared for the thrill ride. (If everyone in your party wants to ride, however, all personal belongings must be stored in the free lockers available at the start of the queue.) Guests who choose not to ride might enjoy wandering down the same trail they raced up to join the line. Take time to notice the perfect view of Hogwarts Castle -- a great photo opportunity -- and the blue car that is Ron's wrecked vehicle actually used in the movie production.

When riders exit Dragon Challenge, they end up near a stage in Hogsmeade Village, where they can view the Frog Choir, comprised of Hogwarts students and their large croaking frogs, and the Triwizard Spirit Rally, a colorful procession of Hogwarts, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students.

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Across the village roadway is the imposing Hogwarts Castle, which houses the Forbidden Journey attraction. This ride is not a roller coaster, but rather more of a moving dark ride with drops and turns. Vehicles are lifted above the track by a robotic arm -- the technology is similar to that used on the Sum of All Thrills at Epcot -- and passengers wear shoulder bars for safety. I'm told Forbidden Journey can be frightening, though the special effects are amazing as guests "fly" around the castle, come face-to-face with the Whomping Willow and a horde of Dementors, and witness a Quidditch match.

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If, like me, you can't ride Forbidden Journey for health reasons, don't discount seeing the castle. Touring the inside is just as much of an attraction as the ride itself. The details here are layered and continuous through the queue. My son recognized item after item and exclaimed with excitement at seeing reproductions from the books and movies come to life before his eyes. Islands of Adventure no longer offers a separate tour-only line for Hogwarts Castle, so you'll need to join the ride queue. The line moves quickly inside the castle, so if you want to linger, invite other guests to step in front of you.

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A few tips for riding Forbidden Journey: This, too, is an attraction on which you cannot take personal belongings, so if you want to take photos inside the castle, don't plan on riding at that time. You will cut down on your wait time if you choose the single-rider line.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter includes a third ride, Flight of the Hippogriff. In this attraction, Hagrid is teaching wizards how to fly a Hippogriff before allowing a test flight over the Forbidden Forest and Hagrid's Hut. This mild attraction is much like The Barnstormer at the Magic Kingdom with gentle drops and turns. Perhaps the most exciting aspect is being able to see all of The Wizarding World from the top of the lift.

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After taking in all the rides, it was time for lunch! Three Broomsticks is the only restaurant in the Harry Potter area, and it serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's a quick-service location, meaning you will order, pick up your food and then be seated. We found the service to be efficient and the team members patient when we asked a *lot* of questions.

The menu offers traditional British foods, such as Shepherd's Pie, Fish and Chips, and Cornish Pasties, though you also will find a theme-park favorite -- the smoked turkey leg -- and soup and salad. Lunch prices range from $7.99 to $13.99. There also is a children's menu with meals priced at $4.99. The food was decent, but not anything I would rave about. What is amazing, though, is the design of the restaurant and the attention to detail (again) in its decor. Supposedly, it was so well done that Three Broomsticks was incorporated in the "Harry Potter" films after it was built at Islands of Adventure.

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My son and I were surprised to find that no carbonated beverages were sold at Three Broomsticks. (After a bus ride with the fifth-grade chorus and the morning at a theme park, I was definitely looking forward to a well-caffeinated Diet Coke.) Instead, we opted to try the non-alcoholic Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice. The famous Butterbeer is sold frozen or not and with or without a souvenir mug. Although we didn't dislike the Butterbeer, we preferred the Pumpkin Juice, which tastes like apple cider.

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Attached to Three Broomsticks is Hog's Head pub, which also serves Butterbeer, a limited selection of real beer and some mixed drinks. Nearby are large bathrooms, which Moaning Myrtle haunts. The kids in our group thought that was hilarious!

After lunch, it was time to shop. We had heard about Ollivander's, the wand shop that can command hours-long lines. For just that reason, we were not able to experience this store. If you get there early or do decide to wait in the queue, though, you will be allowed into the shop in groups of 25. (Hence, the slow-moving line.) Once inside, a guest -- usually a child -- will be picked for the show, in which a wand chooses the child. It's quintessential Harry Potter, I'm told.

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My son really wanted to see and select a wand, so we went next door to The Owlery. Even with the crowds, we were able to talk with one of the shopkeeps about the various types of wands that are categorized by birthdate and story character. My son decided to purchase a Christmas wand since that was the season of our visit. Wands are all priced at about $35. The Owlery also has a large selection of its namesake stuffed animals and a variety of other merchandise.

In the village you also will find shops from the "Harry Potter" stories, such as Zonko's Joke Shop, Honeydukes Sweetshop, Dervish & Banges and Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods. They all sell the items you have read about. Imagine taking home chocolate frogs, Muggle Magic juggling balls, the Master Book of Monsters or a Hogwarts House robe!

It was tough to leave such an immersive experience, but my son and I are looking forward to going back when the new Diagon Alley section opens at Universal Studios this summer. Guests will be able to ride the Hogwarts Express train between the two parks at Universal Orlando to experience both collections of Harry Potter attractions.

Just as Disneyland and Walt Disney World famously set the standards for themed attractions that could transport guests into other worlds, Universal Orlando Resort has done the same with its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And the attraction offers a powerful allure that goes beyond the simple thrill of a roller coaster or dark ride, as my son's experience will attest.

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