Visitors to the new "Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley" area at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida will find two new rides, "Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts" and "The Hogwarts Express." They'll also discover eight shops offering wizarding paraphernalia (think plush stuffed owls, feather quills), a restaurant and an ice-cream parlor.
Diagon Alley has been four years in the making, an area of about 20 acres that doubles the size of the Harry Potter offerings at Universal. The opening date hasn't been disclosed, but a VIP-media unveiling is scheduled for June 16, and the area likely will open soon after.
"Diagon Alley" joins Universal's original "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Hogsmeade," which opened at the amusement mecca's "Islands of Adventure" park in 2010 and has become its most popular draw. The new area is in a separate nearby park, Universal Studios Florida, and sits on the site of the former JAWS! attraction. The creators aren't saying how much Diagon Alley cost, but Hogsmeade reportedly cost $265 million to build.
The two areas will be connected by the "Hogwarts Express," named for the train in the Potter books and movies. "It's a full-scale train; it's the real deal," says Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative.
Visitors can begin in either area and travel back and forth via the Hogwarts Express, which will billow steam and sound its whistle. Parkgoers sit in cabins as young wizards Harry, Ron and Hermione did on their way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or back to London. During the six-minute trip, riders will see sophisticated video out their windows showing the redheaded Weasley twins riding broomsticks; black, ghostlike dementors; Hagrid on his flying motorbike; and the comical Knight Bus that whips wizards through London traffic.
"The train itself is a ride experience as well as a transportation experience," Woodbury says. When riders board at London's Kings Cross station, they'll actually pass through the fictional brick wall at Platform 9¾. "You'll be able to see the folks in front of you pass through the wall."
The centerpiece of Diagon Alley is the new ride "Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts," Gringotts being the wizards' bank of choice to store gold and valuables. It's run by goblins and protected by a 60-foot fire-breathing dragon perched atop the building.
Visitors enter the imposing marble great hall of Gringotts, with its enormous crystal chandeliers. Animatronic goblin tellers go about their jobs weighing coins and keeping the books. The head goblin, seated at a large desk, will help riders open an account and shepherd them though the corridors to board the mine carts that take them into the labyrinth of underground vaults.
At that very moment, Harry, Ron and Hermione have entered Gringotts in a daring attempt to steal a magical item the trio needs to thwart the evil Lord Voldemort's plot to take control of the wizarding world. When they set off a security breach, trolls are sent out into the labyrinths to find them, and guests get pulled into the action.
The motion-based ride uses high-definition, original 3-D footage filmed with some of the Potter movie actors especially for the six-minute ride, Woodbury says.
Riders will come face-to- face with Voldemort, who will use the powerful, forbidden Avada Kedavra killing curse on them. "You won't only see it, but you'll feel it," Woodbury hints, declining to elaborate. "Just when you think all hope is lost, you'll be rescued."
Besides the train and Gringotts rides, lures of Diagon Alley include wizarding shops reminiscent of the books and movies. Scribbulus sells feather quills, parchment paper and seals. Quality Quidditch Supplies offers Golden Snitches, bludgers and bludger bats used for the wizarding sport. Wiseacres Wizarding Equipment stocks compasses and hourglasses. Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions has Hogwarts school uniforms and character costumes. The Magical Menagerie offers plush magical-creature stuffed animals such as owls and hippogriffs.
Weasley's Wizard Wheezes features magical jokes and toys. And Ollivander's, Makers of Fine Wands Since 382 BC, offers different experiences than the branch in the Hogsmeade section of the resort. When it's time to eat, the Leaky Cauldron's menu includes bangers and mash, Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour sells frozen treats with flavors including Clotted Cream and Sticky Toffee, and, of course, there's always butterbeer.
Fans of Voldemort's dark arts will be happy to know the sinister Knockturn Alley also will be portrayed -- visitors turn a corner and find themselves at Borgin and Burkes, purveyor of death-eater masks and skulls.
"It's just mind-boggling," Woodbury says, "how much material and context is in the environment for fans to explore."
If you go
Universal Orlando Resort: Visiting both "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Hogsmeade" and "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley" on the same day requires a park-to-park pass. A one-day, park-to-park ticket is $136 per adult, $130 per child ages 3 to 9 and free for children younger than 3. A one-day, one-park ticket is $96 per adult and $90 per child.
Cabana Bay Beach Resort: Cabana Bay Beach Resort is Universal Orlando Resort's first moderately priced hotel -- and its first lodgings with an on-site bowling alley (open now) and a "lazy river" water ride (opening in mid-June).
Prices range from $93 to $119 for standard guest rooms and $134 to $174 for family suites that sleep up to six. The least-expensive room at Universal's three other hotels on property is about $259. Guests at Cabana Bay are not entitled to an Express Pass to bypass lines, but the option can be added for an additional fee.
The hotel, which opened March 31, was created to cater to families that have told Universal, "I'd love to stay on property, but I can't afford the price," says Russ Dagon, a Universal Creative vice president. The 1,800-room property is modeled after a 1950s and '60s beach resort, with designs inspired by Wildwood, New Jersey, and other seaside areas, he says. For reservations, call 407-363- 8000, or go to universalorlando.com. A special summer deal starts at $155 per adult per night, tax included, for a four-night stay and includes multi-day park-to-park tickets. It ends Aug. 16; book by July 31.
What the new hotel doesn't have is a restaurant with waiter service -- it features food-court fare. But families can walk to the resort's nearby downtown-style CityWalk for more choices. Eight new venues are opening in 2014, including Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food, now open; the Hot Dog Hall of Fame, which offers traditional regional hot dogs from across the country and is scheduled to open at the end of June, and The Cowfish for sushi and burgers, slated to begin serving at the end of the summer.