July 7, 2014

A wizard’s wonderland opens at Universal Orlando Resort

Diagon Alley opens this week, doubling its Harry Potter fun (and shopping).

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Universal Orlando Resort opens its new, richly detailed “Harry Potter”-themed area to media and other travel industry insiders this week.

The new park zone, called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley and inspired by the fictional London location famous for wizarding supplies, is likely to delight fans of the hit book and movie series with its marquee ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, among other things.

But Diagon Alley is also heavy on experiential retail, with stores so entertaining and visually stimulating that you almost forget you’re shopping.

Doubling the size of the “Harry Potter” footprint on Universal’s property, Diagon Alley features a train called the Hogwarts Express that connects the new area to the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction, called Hogsmeade, which opened in 2010 on the other side of the theme park at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

If fans want to see both Harry Potter areas, a two-park ticket is required. For adults, a two-park ticket for one day costs $136; for children, it’s $130.

Here are five first impressions:

Window shopping

The level of detail in Diagon Alley is amazing, and nowhere are the features more fun and true to the novels and movies than in shop windows. There are lots of things for sale, but others are simply great decorations. Books play a central role in the decor; window-shoppers will see animatronic versions of The Monster Book of Monsters, a tome with teeth, along with self-knitting needles and Harry Potter’s snowy owl, Hedwig.

Unique gifts

With seven shops in Diagon Alley, there’s plenty to buy. (There are five shops in Universal’s Hogsmeade.) Among the offerings: Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes (chattering teeth, expandable ears), Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions ($250 for a wizard’s robe), Quality Quidditch Supplies (everything for playing the real-life sport based on the game in the series) and Scribbulus (implements for paper, pen and ink lovers).

Magical Menagerie sells cute stuffed animals (pygmy puffs are popular), while Borgin and Burkes — located off Diagon Alley in the book, on Knockturn Alley — is a “dark arts” shop that sells skulls, black T-shirts and Death Eater masks. Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment sells telescopes and binoculars.

Interactive wands

For $35, guests can buy interactive wands at Ollivanders Wand Shop, located in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. When wand-wielding guests see a medallion symbol in either area, they can wave the wand and cast spells. The wands make trolls dance, light lamps and chandeliers, and silence some shrunken heads, among other things. Maps of the medallion areas are available, but Universal says there are also some hidden spell areas for guests to discover.

Wizard wardrobes

In addition to robes, fans can buy capes and preppy button-down cardigans inspired by the four houses where Harry and his fellow students lived at Hogwarts school.

Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions also has on display a wedding dress and two costumes that aren’t for sale: an intimidating black-beaded cape ensemble worn in a promo for the new attraction, and a costume worn by Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets movie.

The wedding dress is white with white feathers at the hem and softly twinkling lights within the skirt.

Photo ops

As you enter Diagon Alley, look toward Gringotts Bank — which is the entrance to the centerpiece thrill ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. A dragon is perched atop the bank, and it breathes fire — for an instant Facebook photo or Instagram snap. Once you enter the bank, while in queue for the ride, don’t miss the three enormous glass chandeliers.

Finally, find 12 Grimmauld Place, where Kreacher the House Elf peers eerily from a window.

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