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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


 

After stuffing yourself silly on stinky cheese and Scotch eggs in the Leaky Cauldron, exit Diagon Alley into the London waterfront (home to the triple-decker Knight Bus, with live conductor and chatty shrunken head) to enter King’s Cross train station for a journey aboard the Hogwarts Express to the other park, provided you purchased multi-park admission. You’ll see commuters before you vanish through the wall at Platform 9 3/4 –the clever Pepper’s Ghost gag just looks like a dark corridor when crossing through yourself –before boarding the series’iconic steam train. Just seeing the lovingly re-created locomotive up close made me misty, and the four-minute journey uses jaw-dropping digital “windows”to make it seem like your favorite characters are in the next compartment.

After all this raving, I was shocked to discover that the signature Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts E-ticket attraction wasn’t immediately my favorite element of Diagon Alley. I was the first member of the media inside after Warwick Davis declared Gringotts open, but my first ride on the cutting edge was curtailed mid-climax. I was only stuck for 10 minutes (making me luckier than many that night) and my second run was completed successfully, though with some unsatisfying glitches. Fortunately, I’ve since experienced the ride twice as intended, upgrading my initial “antici-pointed” assessment to a solid five stars. 

Most rides recapitulate movie plots with guests as omniscient observers (Peter Pan), or cast riders as protagonists in a new adventure (Star Tours). Gringotts drops visitors directly into the crucial horcrux robbery sequence from Deathly Hallows Part 2, playing secondary characters inserted into the established timeline. It’s an ambitious plot, with some clever winks to the bending of canon, and is skillfully explicated via the exquisitely convoluted queue’s multiple pre-shows, including a simulated elevator (shades of Epcot’s old Hydrolators) that is an attraction in itself. 

The roller-coaster/simulator hybrid itself is relatively tame, falling between Flight of the Hippogriff and Revenge of the Mummy on the thrill meter, with one short-but-unusual drop and a fun finale launch. You travel through a mix of massive sculptural sets and towering 3-D screens featuring Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes as Bellatrix and Voldemort; Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson had “other commitments” and were replaced with CGI and dodgy voice doubles. The visuals aren’t quite as vibrant as Transformers’, and I lament the lack of actual pyrotechnics or animatronics. But even if Gringotts isn’t quite the “best ride ever” I’d hoped for, it’s still tremendously thrilling and joins Universal’s Forbidden Journey and Spider-Man among my top five all-time favorites. With Disney down the road, three out of five ain’t bad.

Of course, the freebie-fueled fever dream of media week, with only a few hundred guests inside Diagon Alley, will be a distant memory once thousands of Potter fans descend upon the park next month. It may be fall (of 2015?) before you can even get into the area without a return time ticket and a ton of patience, but based on what I’ve experienced it will be well worth your wait.

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