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Arts & Culture

Universal’s Diagon Alley truly earns the “alternate universe” label

Opening July 8, the magical shopping mall sets a new gold standard

Photo: PHOTO COURTESY OF Universal Orlando Resort, License: N/A

PHOTO COURTESY OF Universal Orlando Resort

“Immersive” is a buzzword that gets thrown around Orlando often, but vanishingly few attractions around the world actually feel like an alternate universe instead of an artificial amusement. On that tiny list, you can now place The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida at the very top. Four years and a day after Islands of Adventure’s original Potter area opened, journalists got our first look inside the anticipated sequel ahead of its July 8 public premiere, squeezing inside J.K. Rowling’s magical shopping mall for a star-studded party within the new gold standard in themed environments. 

Standing in the shadow of a giant fire-breathing dragon while interviewing Today Show co-hosts Natalie Morales and Willie Geist (Kathy Lee and Hoda didn't attend because they “found out Butterbeer was non-alcoholic,”Morales quipped) and rubbing elbows with Robbie Coltrane was certainly surreal, but not nearly as deliciously disorienting as the world Universal designers Alan Gilmore, Mark Woodbury and Thierry Coup have wrought. After closely following the new expansion's development since its inception, I thought I already knew every secret hiding behind the magical moving wall (which doesn't actually move, thanks to safety concerns) but even after a dozen hours inside I was still discovering new surprises. 

The highest compliment I can pay to Diagon Alley is to say it reminds me of Disneyland’s New Orleans Square and Epcot’s Morocco Pavilion (both organic places you can truly feel lost in), only on an infinitely grander scale. Like the first Wizarding World’s Hogsmeade Village, Diagon Alley’s windows overflow with whimsical animated displays, but they aren’t merely shallow facades: You can enter these storefronts’ prop-laden interiors. Better yet, new $45 interactive wands (which I shared spoilers about in earlier columns) allow spell-casters to activate effects with a swish and flick, becoming participants instead of passive tourists.

Said shops, which include Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions and Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes, sell unique souvenirs, from Scottish wool sweaters to Skiving Snackboxes. You can exchange your Muggle money for Gringotts banknotes (Universal’s take on Disney Dollars) that are accepted around the resort while chatting with an interactive animatronic goblin teller. Save some galleons for a snack – like butterbeer soft-serve or chocolate-chili ice cream (it has quite a bite) from Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor, or some Gillywater with “euphoric” pineapple-mint elixir – and watch a live performance under Carkitt Market’s vast canopy. The jazzy Celestina Warbeck musical revue and Tales of Beedle the Bard storytellers (with gorgeous Michael Curry-designed puppets) are first-rate examples of smart theme park shows, as is all the entertainment assembled by a team of local talent led by director Mike Aiello, with Anitra Pritchard, Jason Horne, Patrick Braillard and other familiar area actors.

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