Thinking back to 2008 when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was announced, I remember feeling elated. This would be it, the one thing that would help us hold on to Harry long after the novels and movie were complete. Since then, of course, there have been many things to help keep the Potter magic alive, most recently including a play about Harry’s formative years, and of course, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But, those are far off. So, for most Potter fans, the next big thing on the horizon is the expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I was lucky enough to be included in a small group of visitors to tour the construction site and get the first glimpse into Diagon Alley.
Let me start off by saying that I am not a huge fan of Hogsmeade at Universal Orlando. It’s fun to walk around while enjoying a frozen Butterbeer, but it’s not something that is going to make me want to go back to the park day after day. Even though Diagon Alley had no firm footing, scaffolding everywhere, and less than half of the storefronts completed – the exact opposite holds true. I am PSYCHED for this expansion to be complete.
As we stated in our official report, the Muggle London front along the Universal lagoon is impressive. I’ve been to London numerous times, and the structures feel authentic and look incredibly accurate. Down to the monogram medallions on the Wyndham Theatre (CW, for Charles Wyndham) to the exact style of brick used on Kings Cross. The street, Charing Cross, when viewed left to right, is meant to represent Harry’s journey from Philosopher’s Stone (Kings Cross) to Deathly Hallows (Grimmauld Place). What visitors can see above the wall is only a very small slice of the pie. Universal Creative and their team of thousands is preparing to start work on the magnificent Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain featured in Piccadilly Circus in London. It’s surely going to be a stunning feature.
Visitors will have to pass through the Leaky Cauldron entrance in order to access Diagon Alley. When we asked about how visitors would enter the magical marketplace, an answer was evaded, but actually Evanna Lynch accidentally clued us in to what could possibly be there. While discussing her visit to the site, she stated that, “[Having Muggle London] more emotionally prepares you for what’s coming. I always find it a bit jarring to be in Sinbad Adventure one minute, then in Hogsmeade the next. So I like that you have the London bit, to get ready for it, then the wall opens and boom! Wizarding World!” Does that mean that visitors will physically see a wall move upon entering Diagon Alley? Details have yet to be revealed, but we can hope!
What most struck me upon entering Diagon Alley is the scale. We were told that the alley itself is approximately the same square footage as Hogsmeade village – but it feels significantly larger. Because of the nature of Hogsmeade’s narrow, tapered rooftops, the land tends to feel small, yet open, and airy. Diagon Alley feels more like a city, with tall, flat top (or, at least, less dramatic points and tapers) buildings and a crowded, “full” atmosphere. This, to me, is actually a great thing! I get easily frustrated while walking through Hogsmeade, because I don’t want to feel crowded in, simply because it feels like a small village that wouldn’t likely be so busy. Diagon Alley feels like a working, breathing, electric city. It seems much more appropriate to be packed in, working your way through a crowd of eager shoppers. The ambience hits the nail on the head for me.
The walk up Diagon Alley, towards Gringotts, is actually quite longer than expected, and very packed full. It’s exciting to see shops and alleys that we have read about in the books being included in the design. I’m especially excited for Knockturn Alley. We didn’t get to walk through it, but we did glimpse inside, and it is seemingly going to be every bit the creepy, dark, scary place that we read about in the novels. It looked as though it was completely blocked in, even from the sun – which, of course, would completely ruin the atmosphere of the space. As far as we know, there is only meant to be one shop in Knockturn Alley, but I do hope that it expands closer to opening, or in the future.
When approaching Gringotts, which sits on the aptly named cross street, Horizont Ally (J.K. Rowling! Genius!), I was in awe of its sheer size. It currently stands around the same height as the rest of the alley, approximately 3 stories. I would estimate that it’s likely to stand around 7-8 stories high when complete, dragon and all. The ride is being housed behind the Horizont Ally facade, and glimpsing it from the back, looks HUGE. I’m imagining a very large, cavernous underground full of rich details, and lots of goblins. Of course, none of this is confirmed as Universal Creative wasn’t ready to share details with us, but a gal can dream.
One of my favorite features of Diagon Alley isn’t the shops or the windows (which are surely to be as spectacular as the current ones in Hogsmeade), but the advertisements found on the side of buildings and shops. These ads, which again adds to the city vibe, are all very funny and so colorful. Ads for Pumpkin Juice or family sized broomsticks live near billboard sized plaques for Weasley Wizard Wheezes and broomstick wax. Not only are they fun to look at it, but they’re beautiful! Everything is Diagon Alley is going to catch the visitors eye. I could’ve spent hours there and it’s not even complete. I think that truly speaks to the amazing work that is being done by Universal Creative.
There has been a lot of talk about the intention of building Diagon Alley. That it’s only for the money, to get visitors to buy tickets to both parks – and that’s not wrong, but it’s not fully true either. Universal is a business, and their business is to provide fully immersive experiences to their visitors. Yes, they need to make money to survive. Isn’t that true of all businesses? The real difference with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, is that Universal actually cares. They have brought in most of the creative crew from the films, the art directors, set designers, painters, sculptors, to work on Diagon Alley. They easily could’ve hired a rag tag crew of nobodies to work on it, but they didn’t. Universal truly cares for the world that Harry lives in, and it shows more so than ever in Diagon Alley.
It’s time that we let go of the money aspect, and realize that we are the luckiest fans in the world. J.K. Rowling has created a world that is so rich in detail that we get to not only enjoy it on paper, but can walk down its streets, stroll through its shops, and partake in its wonders. If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.