Even today, the land is just as dazzling, and its centerpiece attraction—Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey—remains one of the most accomplished theme park rides in the world. (Universal Studios Japan has a version of the ride under construction, set to open later this year, presumably with way more Japanese).
But as amazing as the Hogsmeade section of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was, from a storytelling standpoint, it wasn't quite right. Yes, Hogwarts is where Harry, Hermione, Ron and the rest of their friends and foes attended school, and Hogsmeade is the nearby village where a number of high-profile events from the books and movies take place. But the books and movies don't start here.
Skipping over all of the muggle stuff—because, really, who wants to see an attraction where young Harry is locked in a cupboard underneath the stairs of his adoptive parents—the beginning of Harry's magical journey is actually Diagon Alley, where he first encounters magical creatures of both darkness and light, gets his first wand and understands the enormous scope of the world he's just entered into.
Well, that's all about to change when the Diagon Alley expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens on July 8. Now, visitors are able to travel through Harry Potter's magical world in the order that he did, complete with a trip on the Hogwarts Express (select that link for our preview of that ride). And what can you expect to find in Diagon Alley? Well, pick up your wand, say the magic incantation, and, okay, I'll just tell you instead. That work?
Since Diagon Alley is where every young wizard, warlock and witch gathers his or her tools for the school year at Hogwarts (and, on a more practical level, this land is located inside a corporate owned and operated theme park), it should not surprise you that a majority of the Diagon Alley experience revolves around you buying stuff.
This atmosphere adds a lot to the sense of time and place; everything feels worn in and battered (in the best possible way). It was enough to wonder, though, how thousands of tourists would navigate the relatively narrow cobblestone streets (there isn't nearly as much open room as there is in Hogsmeade).
There's a new Ollivander's wand shop, which is now double the size of the Hogsmeade location (and more in keeping with the J.K. Rowling-originated mythology), an outpost for potions (which you mix into your own gilly water) and, of course, the Leaky Caldron, which sells theme park approximations of actual British food. It's really not that bad, especially compared to something like the Krusty Burger across the lagoon in the Simpsons-themed land.
But my favorite feature in all of Diagon Alley had to be in Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlor: the one and only place in the entire world where you can get… Butterbeer ice cream. Good lord it was good. It's much better than regular Butterbeer because it doesn't overdo the melted butterscotch flavor. Instead that flavor acts as a ribbon through the soft serve vanilla ice cream. It's just rich enough. And unlike a wand at Ollivanders, it won't set you back $50.
One of the first things you notice about Diagon Alley is how dark it is—and not just moody dark; actual dark. As opposed to the Hogsmeade section of the park, which is bright and open (and made even more-so by the snow-capped buildings, brilliantly reflecting the Florida sun), there are whole sections of Diagon Alley that are fully enclosed, like the terrifically terrifying Knockturn Alley (where the Death Eaters buy their nefarious gear) or at least partially covered by overhangs or slings.
This atmosphere adds a lot to the sense of time and place; everything feels worn in and battered (in the best possible way). It was enough to wonder, though, how thousands of tourists would navigate the relatively narrow cobblestone streets (there isn't nearly as much open room as there is in Hogsmeade), considering it was getting a little tight with a couple hundred members of the media when I visited. As a prominent theme park blogger snarked on the ride to the park one day, "This is what happens when you let Hollywood production designers build a theme park."
One of the biggest and most engaging aspects of Diagon Alley is that you can actually cast spells (outside of Ollivander's).
When you first enter Diagon Alley, in a niftily zigzag archway that is supposed to replicate the scene from the film where Hagrid opens up the doorway to the magical realm, you're given a map. On this map are a series of symbols that denote a place where you can cast a spell. If you find one of these symbols in the actual street (you'll notice them by a metal marker in the cobblestone), then you know it's somewhere you can cast a spell. By flicking your newly purchased wand, which has a small sensor at the tip (these are very different than the wands you've undoubtedly already purchased in Hogsmeade), in the desired pattern, then things in shop windows will come to life or start to chirp or do something incredible and unexpected.
A hot tip from this wizened wizard: keep your arm absolutely still and just flick your wrist. For some reason the magical sensors find this motion easier to pick up. And don't be dissuaded if your spell doesn't work the first time—every wizard, warlock and witch has to start somewhere.
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is supposed to rival, in terms of thrills and technical complexity, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Does it? That merits an article of its own, coming later this morning.