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Universal Orlando's Hogwarts Express Opens Today: All Aboard

Part of the Diagon Alley expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, new ride debuts July 8
by Drew Taylor Posted Jul 8th 2014 9:09a.m.
A features editor, critic and columnist for The Playlist/Indiewire, Drew's also a contributor to Moviefone, NBC Universal and MTV. Follow him on Google+ and Twitter.

Sometimes they can be wild (like the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, also at Disneyland), sometimes they can be pokey (like the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride in Universal's Islands of Adventure). But unlike the actual public transportation systems that they whimsically mimic, these trains engage riders on both a practical and entertainment level. If only riding the subway to work everyday was this much fun.

The Hogwarts Express train attraction, which opened on July 8 as part of Universal Orlando's new Diagon Alley expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, is a theme park train unlike any you've experienced. It's a wild, revolutionary experience that whisks you in between parks (and sections of Harry Potter land) in a wholly immersive that is, well, downright magical. (You can read our thoughts on the rest of the new Diagon Alley here.)

Where is it?

You can board the Hogwarts Express at either Hogsmeade, in Islands of Adventure, or the new Diagon Alley expansion in Universal Studios proper—the two halves that currently make up the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Diagon Alley is where the Amity section of the park, devoted to "Jaws," used to be, right across the lagoon from the "Simpsons" section of the park, and a few paces away from the "Men in Black" attraction.)

Hogwarts Express is the first interconnected e-ticket ride that joins both theme parks, which is both revolutionary on a storytelling level and deviously clever on a commercial level as well, as you have to have a park hopper ticket to be able to ride the train at all. The ride is a different experience depending on what direction you travel in: it doesn't loop, like a traditional train attraction, but rather travels in one direction (so that it ends up backing up into Diagon Alley).

Considering how short a distance the train actually travels in real, physical space, it doesn't seem outside of the realm of possibility that, at some point, the track could be expanded, with the track branching out into other, as-yet-unannounced expansion pads for the Wizarding World.

What is it?

When you board the Hogwarts Express (yes, there's a nifty 9 3/4 gag in the line at Diagon Alley, and it involves mirrors), you're ushered into a private carriage. A conductor then closes you in the compartment, which looks out onto a steamy view of the station. It’s not a window though; it's a monitor. Your entire cabin is enclosed. When the train starts to move, images on the monitor simulate speed and a progression of distance.

When you leave Diagon Alley, you see magical creatures and some familiar characters zoom by you, on your way to Hogwarts (and its majestic, steeped towers). When you're going the other direction, you see the magical world give way to bustling London traffic (and, of course, the Knight Bus).

But that's only half of the experience.

The Hogwarts Express train attraction, set to open on July 8 as part of Universal Orlando's new Diagon Alley expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, is a theme park train unlike any you've experienced. It's a wild, revolutionary experience that whisks you in between parks (and sections of Harry Potter land) in a wholly immersive that is, well, downright magical.

If you turn your other way, to the opaque doors that enclose your compartment, scenes from the films that involve the characters on the train will act out in front of you, with the shadowy shapes of Ron, Harry and Hermione outrunning Dementors (the room turns chillier) or unleashing hopping chocolate frogs that stick up against the door with a rubbery thunk. It's uncanny, and unexpected, and honestly I'm not quite sure how they pulled it off.

One thing that is hard not to notice, though: Emma Watson seems to have not returned to lend her voice to Hermione. It's distracting and weird. What's up with that Emma? (Yes, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint came back; fret not.)    

Is it worth it?

While waiting for the train one night, a conductor told us that at Diagon Alley's gorgeous Kings Cross station, which is really where you should get on the train, there was two miles of queue. That's a whole lot of waiting for what essentially is something meant to get you from point A to point B (where you can then spend tons of money on Butterbeer and wands and whatever else your little muggle heart desires).

But I can't express what a truly unique and magical experience this ride is. It will transport you, in every meaning of the word. The next-level technology that is at work here is staggering, but it's really the storytelling that Universal Orlando, J.K. Rowling and the team of behind-the-scenes elves have cobbled together that makes the attraction so special.

The first time I rode it, after a very long night of revelry and too many complementary samples of Butterbeer ice cream, my heart nearly leapt out of my chest. Like one of those chocolate frogs that Harry and the gang just can't seem to get their hands on.        

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View our slideshow of Hogwarts Express
View our slideshow of Hogwarts Express
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