Exclusive first look at Diagon Alley


By Sarah Sekula; Published on usatoday.com

ORLANDO — It’s a peculiar feeling, locking eyes with a goblin. Especially one sporting a custom-tailored suit complete with tarnished-brass cuff links.

On one hand, you feel in awe of the craftsmanship. Bushy eyebrows dominate the deep crags of his forehead. Gray nose hairs peek out like periscopes. On the other hand, it’s quite unsettling. Although his black eyes are animatronic, they’re quite lifelike.

And he’s not alone. In all, there are nine animatronic goblins that greet guests at the start of Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the marquee attraction at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.

They look every bit like the goblins from the Harry Potter movies. And it’s no wonder.

“We worked with the film team,” says Thierry Coup, Universal Creative’s senior vice president. “And we actually took the mold of the goblins from the film.”

In fact, “I spent about 2 1/2 years working on these guys,” adds Eric Hunt, creative producer with Universal Creative.

Last week, USA TODAY was the first to tour the 20-acre themed land, which is scheduled to open this summer. Not only is it jampacked with a high-tech train ride, elaborate shops and dining experiences, “everything is totally true to what was in the films or the books,” Coup says.

‘Way beyond’ a coaster

Plus, there are plenty of bonuses not originally part of the series. For instance, inside Gringotts bank, after guests pass through the grand lobby, there’s a hallway with magical portraits and armor fit for goblins and trolls.

Turn the corner, and you realize you are in the office of Bill Weasley, who greets you in a similar way that Dumbledore does in Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure. Then, you board souped-up elevators that make you feel as if you are going deep into the cavernous vaults.

Once you exit, there are massive stalactites above and 12-person ride vehicles, each with its own steam-pumping chimney. That is impressive in itself, but what about the ride?

“Is it part roller coaster, part 3-D-motion-based ride?” I ask.

Not exactly.

“It would be a real understatement to call it a roller coaster, because it does so much more,” Coup says. “It’s way beyond that.”

Here’s how it works: Riders put on 3-D glasses and race through a labyrinth of underground vaults, where they encounter the villainous Bellatrix Lestrange and Lord Voldermort, Harry’s archrival.

At one point, “a troll grabs the vehicle and starts shaking it,” Coup says. At another point, hot lava surrounds guests just as the villains reappear in a full, 360-degree scene. It’s all thanks to 4K digital high-definition animation, state-of-the-art 3-D Infitec projection systems and live special effects.

It’s clearly very different from Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a wildly popular ride at Hogsmeade. The distinguishing factor: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts “is thrilling and dynamic, but not as dynamic as Forbidden Journey because we wanted everyone to be able to ride it.”

After all, Harry Potter’s fan base is broad, from bespectacled 8-year-olds to wand-wielding tweens to soccer moms and dads. A huge chunk of the fan base, of course, is the young-adult crowd.

“People my age are the ones who literally grew up alongside Harry,” says Kara Brown, 21, a St. Petersburg, Fla., college student, who plans to visit on opening day. “So it is kind of like going back and visiting your elementary school again when you are older. I just can’t wait to see all of it.”

Which is music to Stuart Craig’s ears. As the production designer for the Potter films, creating Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley were dream projects.

Craig and the team set out to knock the socks off of Potter fans in every way possible, with theming that begins even before you enter. For starters, the parklike area in front of the London facade houses the three-story Knight Bus from the films. And, yes, there’s a shrunken head that talks with onlookers.

Then, in true Potter fashion, you must transition from the real world to the magical world by traveling through the brick wall at King’s Cross station.

“It’s a very cool trick,” Gilmore says. “One at a time, you do your run. It’s basically so insane. Everybody’s going to want to do it many times.”

Cruise down Diagon alley

Inside, to your left is the Leaky Cauldron, a sit-down restaurant that will serve British favorites such as fish and chips and bangers and mash. Just steps past that is Knockturn Alley, a dark and menacing place with dancing skeletons, a ceiling lit like a foreboding night sky and more wisecracking shrunken heads.

The entrance to Gringotts is farther down, along with The Magical Menagerie, which offers plush toys including ravens and chubby, white rabbits that transform into silk top hats. Nearby is Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, which serves unusual flavors such as Earl Grey and lavender, sticky toffee, and clotted cream.

In a final stroke of brilliance, there’s the Hogwarts Express, which transports parkgoers from Hogsmeade Station to London’s King’s Cross Station and back.

As you trundle along, you are treated to a four-minute Harry Potter movie made for this ride. Each carriage is “basically your own little audio theater,” Gilmore says. “The characters are all around you in this experience.”

Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, is intrigued. “I can’t think of a theme-park project I’ve ever been more excited to see for myself than this one,” he says. Author J.K. Rowling “is the queen of back story … creating an imaginative world that practically begged to be re-created in film and, now, theme parks.”

Indeed. As I sat in a train carriage on the Hogwarts Express, with the sound of the engine rumbling and smoke bellowing outside, I started to feel less like a Muggle and more like a wizard.

If you go

Cost: Single-park admission to Universal Studios Florida is $96 for adults, $90 for children. Park-to-park admission is $136 for adults and $130 for children.

Height requirement for Gringotts: 42 inches

For more info: UniversalOrlando.com/WizardingWorld