As the world eagerly awaits the debut of the Diagon Alley expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a phenomenon since its 2010 debut, this week Universal Orlando offered a walk behind the construction walls to see the grandeur of what they are building. It’s an uncommon move for them, rarely inviting the press to see their projects before their show is ready. But when it comes to Potter, no news is as big or as highly anticipated.
I was primarily there to write an article for FoxNews.com, alongside a select few other national outlets. But after a day full of conversations with “Harry Potter” film stars and the creative talent behind it all, I left with more information than I could possibly fit into a single piece. So, after you read that article, continue below for an even closer look at the impressive sights that are found behind the expansion’s walls.
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Video: Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley artwork and preview
Naturally, no photography or video recording was allowed during the construction tour. Diagon Alley is definitely nowhere near complete. But the pieces are quickly falling into place, with many finishing touches now being applied to a few of the buildings within.
The inspiration to build such a monumental addition to the already successful Wizarding World of Harry Potter came immediately after the first one opened 3.5 years ago. Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury calls the original “tight, intricate, alluring” and added that it was so “well-received” that very few adjustments needed to be made after opening.
The next step was to think about building more. “We started thinking about Diagon Alley,” said Woodbury. “Not only is it a great place to go, but we knew that it was a considerable distance from Hogsmeade and Hogwarts and it is really only accessible by a couple means: train and broom. And we thought the train would be a cool idea.”
NBCUniversal’s parent company Comcast has made it clear in recent months that they intend to act quickly to follow up the Wizarding World’s popularity with an influx of investments into their theme parks, which Coup welcomes as a dream for himself and his fellow themed entertainment designers. It’s allowing them to build an even better adventure into the “Harry Potter” stories, one bigger and more immersive than the original – which has already floored fans for four years.
“We think the experience is really exponential,” stated Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury. “It’s not just one and one is two. In this case, one and one is six.”
To make it happen, Universal brought back its creative team from Hogsmeade Village, including Senior Vice President of Universal Creative Thierry Coup, art director Alan Gilmore, and production designer Stuart Craig, the latter two having worked extensively on the “Harry Potter” films.
Riding on the success of Hogsmeade Village, the team knew they had already hit a high mark that would be difficult to match, but their aim was to surpass it. Their sights were soon set on constructing a huge London facade for the “Muggle” side of the story, hiding the “wizard” side of Diagon Alley behind.
“Hogsmeade is a much simpler place,” said Gilmore. “It’s a Scottish village – very traditional looking buildings. Here you’ve got the big city – much more layered, more historical, for a greater time period.”
Architectural styles spanning hundreds of years exist side-by-side throughout the expansion, evoking a sense of history while telling a new story. Along the London embankment (which is inspired by similar locations along the River Thames) guests will find detailed facades of Charing Cross Road, Grimmauld Place, Leicester Square Station for the London Underground, and Wyndham’s Theatre. They call it a “full London experience.”
And indeed it is. Taking just a few steps behind the construction wall immediately reveals the sheer scale of the facades being built. Universal has other cities of the world throughout the park – New York, San Francisco, even Springfield from “The Simpsons.” The towering structures forming the London facades are quite complex, offering depth and detail worth peering at for a while. In itself, London adds a new scenic element to the park that wasn’t present when the Jaws ride formerly occupied that same space.
Though Universal isn’t ready to give out all the details of the many magical elements found throughout this expansion, Woodbury reluctantly revealed that a shrunken head within the Knight Bus parked out front would be the only obviously enchanted element outside of the London facades, interacting with guests in the area.
Getting guests from the original Wizarding World in the Islands of Adventure theme park over to the expansion in Universal Studios Florida would be no simple task. But once the “train” option was indeed decided upon, the immediate goal was to bring an authentic experience to all who ride it. Woodbury describes a trip aboard the Hogwarts Express as a “fully immersive, really dramatic experience that’s accepted by everyone. Anyone can get on the train, just as kids did in the movie, and have that adventure.”
In Hogsmeade Village, the existing train station and stationary Hogwarts Express photo op will remain, acting as an annex for the bigger, working train station sitting just outside the area’s entrance. The new building mirrors the architectural style of the current station, complete with snow on top.
Guests will be required to purchase a park-to-park ticket to ride the Hogwarts Express, providing access to both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. It will be a seamless transition between the two, never leaving the theme of “Harry Potter at any time during the journey.
Stepping inside the Hogwarts Express, guests will encounter train cars that are of an “authentic” size. That’s the buzzword Universal is emphasizing when discussing the size of everything they are building. It’s not scaled up to accommodate large theme park crowds, instead of making sure each passenger feels they are riding the real Hogwarts Express, not a simulation.
Since real windows would only offer views of backstage areas between the two parks, digital virtual windows will provide views of London and the British countryside, mixed in with surprise appearances by characters and creatures from the “Harry Potter” tales. Passengers will sit on benches in small train cabins, just as the characters of the films did, peering “outside” to see the approach of Hogwarts Castle or King’s Cross Station in London, depending on which direction they are traveling.
Whether entering Diagon Alley from King’s Cross via platform 9 3/4 or through the main entrance from the London embankment, it takes a bit of magic to pass from the Muggle world to the Wizarding World. Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood in the films, calls this important transition a “right of passage” for all wizards. “It more emotionally prepares you for what’s coming.”
From the outside, there will be no easy view into Diagon Alley. The open passageway from London will feature a brick wall effect inspired by how Hagrid first lets Harry Potter into the area. Once guests wind through jagged-edged, layered walls, they will meet the expansion’s “wow” moment.
Stepping into Diagon Alley for the first time is very different than the first look into Hogsmeade Village. Hogsmeade offers an incredibly scenic view, layered in fantasy and a sense of wonderment. Diagon Alley impresses with realism, expansiveness, and – yes – authenticity. While Hogsmeade Village is a gorgeous theme land, Diagon Alley is being built as a city experience, completely hiding any hints of being in a theme park. There are no visible roller coasters or stadiums, instead of reaching tall enough heights and wide enough paths to achieve a 360-degree believable environment.
“It’s as true as the films, but even further,” said Gilmore. “People can touch the buildings and look at every part of the whole design and extract the fiction. We’ve been very rigorous. We’ve trained all the artisans on the architecture of London and the architecture of the Harry Potter world.”
The most striking feature of Diagon Alley is its height. Every facade is at least 3 stories tall on the outside, some towering even higher. It’s a feast for the eyes as architectural styles spanning hundreds of years work together, but are each interesting.
Up and down the street, familiar and unfamiliar shops and dining opportunities are mixed in with facades that have the potential of being filled with surprises and covered in plenty of amusing details. From front to back on the left side of the street, guests will find the Leaky Cauldron restaurant, an entrance to Knockturn Alley (more on that below), Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, and Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour. On the right side is Quality Quidditch Supplies, Weasley’s Wizard Wheases, Flourish and Blotts, the Daily Prophet, and Ollivanders.
The Ice Cream Parlour is what Lynch is most looking forward to, a big “Harry Potter” fan herself. “I just remember that from the third book when Harry was in Diagon Alley and he used to go every day. I just imagine there being a friendly ice cream man and I hope he’s there. He always gave Harry free ice cream, so hopefully, he’ll do the same for me.”
During this construction tour, no interior locations were ready to be seen, but the exteriors are coming together. One bright purple wall of Weasley’s Wizard Wheases is essentially complete, adorned with vibrant advertisements for joke products inside: Screaming Yo-Yo, Dung Bombs, Decoy Detinator, Jinx-Off, and Instant Darkness Powder. Paint and detail work is beginning to be applied to each of the facades, little by little. Flourish and Blotts already reads as such, as does Ollivanders with its instantly recognizable dark window frames.
Once open, these shops will retain the same intimate scale as those in Hogsmeade Village. But why? “That was definitely something that would be unconventional in this business,” explained Woodbury. “Normally you’d want a retail store to be just as big as you want a retail store to be, but in order to be true to the fiction and true to the architecture it demands that you design these spaces the way they would have been. So that creates a certain amount of excitement, if you will, in terms of the size of the space. We think it all worked out quite well.”
Knockturn Alley wasn’t accessible during the tour but was explained to always be dark, not only in tone and theme but also quite literally dark. Sunlight will not enter this creepy back passage, home of the more sinister side of magic. It’s a small passage that will surely be a bit difficult to navigate on the busiest of days ahead, but exciting nonetheless.
At the end of Diagon Alley is a cross street, now dubbed Horizont Alley by JK Rowling. It’s here that guests will approach Gringotts Bank, the centerpiece of the expansion. Standing at the entrance of Gringotts and looking up is an awe-inspiring sight – even while still covered by scaffolding. Ultimately it will be the tallest point in Diagon Alley, over 100 feet high, topped off by a fire-breathing animated dragon. Yes, it will be a real fire.
The creative team challenged themselves to create a ride even more exciting and groundbreaking than Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. “You can imagine what we accomplished with Forbidden Journey, the daunting task of meeting or exceeding that,” said Woodbury. “It’s at an unprecedented scale of experience.” That ride is called Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.
Walking into Gringotts Bank will put guests into the marble-lined lobby exactly as seen in the films, with rows of goblin tellers hard at work.
From there, a complete tour of the bank will unfold in a walkthrough that’s even more extensive than that of Hogwarts Castle, ultimately leading guests onto a wild mine car ride down into the vaults. It’ll be thrilling, but less intense than Forbidden Journey, accepting a wider audience. Characters seen in the original Wizarding World will show up again, as will characters new to the theme park experience. The Phelps brothers are returning as Fred and George Weasley. Robbie Coltrain is back as Hagrid. Warwick Davis is once again playing Filius Flitwick. And the main stars are back too, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. Surprisingly, one of the main stars of the ride will be the other Weasley brother, Bill. But not much else is ready to be revealed just yet.
Looking down Horizont Alley to the left is currently a maze of construction, featuring surprises that are being kept for the future. It’s a bit of a mystery. But the surprise revealed to the right is the biggest eye-opener.
An entire second street runs parallel to Diagon Alley, equally as large and full of unspoken details. There’s a patina statue of a house-elf high atop a stone wall. Nearby, the facade for House Elf Placement is one of few visible amidst the construction. Dr. Filibuster’s Fabulous Wet-Start, No-Heat Fireworks makes an appearance as well.
But most of this open area is covered as part of something new, an area called Carkitt Market, also named by JK Rowling. It’s completely hidden from view when first stepping into Diagon Alley, but after rounding a corner either by Gringotts or by Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes it all comes into view.
“This is where all the wizards would gather and trade,” explained Gilmore. “So you have your selling of food and product. It’s really a gathering place within the wizarding world.” Expect a bustle of activity, including some form of live entertainment. It has an appearance similar to Leadenhall Market in London, but mashing up Victorian and modern architectural styles.
The scale of this Diagon Alley expansion is so large that everything described above is merely half – perhaps less – of what will be included in the overall experience. Once complete, guests will easily be able to spend hours looking up and down the many tall buildings throughout the multiple winding streets within this new area.
Those missing the former Jaws ride will be able to seek out a few hidden tributes in the area, though Universal is definitely not saying what they are yet. But walking down Diagon Alley is the same as passing over the former lagoon and standing in front of Gringotts Bank is more or less the equivalent of standing on Amity Island somewhat near Chief Brody’s house.
After taking a similar construction tour, the “Harry Potter” cast is most impressed by how much more real this theme park environment feels than it did when being on set for the films. “There are roofs,” Lynch pointed out. “We look up and there are actually things there. […] It does create more of the world. You can kind of lose yourself easier these than film sets.”
“It’s incredible actually,” added Matthew Lewis, who played Neville Longbottom in the films. “A lot of our sets and things were half of a room or a full wall for the cameras and the crew. But these are completely immersive. You go in there and it’s an actual fully operational shop. It’s a fully working train. It’s quite hard to get my head around it sometimes. This is more realistic than what we did.”
And James Phelps is simply awe-struck. “It is mind-blowing. They set the bar very high with the one in 2010. This is even higher. It’s amazing.”
When the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, Phelps hid behind the stationary Hogwarts Express to watch excited fans come pouring in. He says he intends to do the same when Diagon Alley opens this summer, eager to see park guests impressed by the incredible achievements Universal has accomplished with this new area. Much as they did with Hogsmeade Village, Universal Orlando has created the ultimate in theme park experiences in Diagon Alley – a rich, believable environment that’s enchanted with magical elements just a few months away from opening.