Rachel diMonda, 20, stood at a medallion in the ground labeled “Meteolojinx” and waved her wand left, then right.
Like magic — or more like an extremely savvy feat of theme park planning — an umbrella extending from the side of the building in front of her produced thunder and rain.
Thanks to technology that lets new wands interact with window displays and other fixtures around the Universal Orlando parks, such scenes are repeated throughout the Wizarding World of Harry Potter these days, ever since the new Diagon Alley section opened in early July.
While the expanded world at Universal Studios offers just one new ride and a train linking it to Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure, there’s plenty to thrill would-be wizards. It helps that the new ride, Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, is a doozy. It boasts a fire-breathing dragon, quick drops and turns and an appearance from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Based on J.K. Rowling’s popular series about the young wizard Harry Potter, the first part of the Wizarding World arrived at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 2010. It features a pair of intense roller coasters, a family-friendly coaster and a technology-enhanced ride inside Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It also includes more opportunities to spend money, with a restaurant, butterbeer brought to sweet, foamy life and several retail outlets.
The Hogwarts Express train links that land to the new and, while it’s not a thrill ride, the experience is engrossing and packed with entertaining details. (It’s also pricey: To ride the train, theme park guests must buy a two-park ticket, which costs $136.) Real steam rises from between the train’s cars at either Hogsmeade or King’s Cross Station. The interior feels charmingly old-fashioned, segmented into compartments that can hold about eight people each.
During the ride, the outside “window” opens onto a screen that shows scenery and characters as the train moves along the track. But there’s a show on the frosted inside panel as silhouettes of favorite characters — and some creepy-crawly types — pass by.
Fittingly, the London-to-Hogsmeade train station is the most intriguing. Passengers heading to Platform 9 ¾ appear to walk through a brick wall between 9 and 10. The illusion requires attention. It’s easy to miss.
Those arriving from Islands of Adventure spill out into a London streetscape, complete with red phone booth and a kiosk selling Union Jack-emblazoned items.
A 3-D thriller
Entrances to Diagon Alley are so nondescript that they would be hard to find if it weren’t for the crowds pouring in. To find the blockbuster attraction, Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, look for the giant fire-breathing dragon perched on the roof — and the giant line. On a recent Monday, the wait ranged from just over two hours to a full three hours. Luckily, there’s a lot to look at. The inside queue starts in the ornate lobby of Gringotts bank before it heads deeper toward the underground vaults.
The 3-D ride mixes roller coaster action with virtual interaction. A lightning-shooting Bellatrix Lestrange sends the two 12-person carts on a thrilling plunge. While the carts frequently shoot riders forward, it also slows down so they can watch some on-screen action. Harry Potter and his gang, Voldemort and other evildoers and the fire-breathing dragon all show up and send the cart in new directions. Fun and exhilarating but manageable even for those who aren’t big roller coaster fans, Escape From Gringotts is a crowd-pleaser. The ride can be glitchy; it stopped working during an early press preview, and has gotten some attention since for needing repairs.
The ride’s exit is through a gift shop: Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, which sells everything from themed earbuds to mugs and magnifying glasses. The bulk of Diagon Alley is devoted to consumerism. One can buy a robe for $110 at Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions; a light-up broom for $35 at Quality Quidditch Supplies or Hogwarts parchment for $13 at Scribbulus.
Wands choose their wizards (and those wizards wait in long lines for the opportunity) at Ollivanders, while those who want a less showy experience can wait in a slightly shorter line at Wands by Gregorovitch. (Regular wands cost $35, while the new interactive versions are $45.)
Relief from the heat
On hot days especially, the dark-magic-themed Knockturn Alley will be a relief for parkgoers who need a cool respite from the sun. An animated “Wanted” poster of Bellatrix Lestrange should also provoke a laugh.
Diagon Alley introduces two new beers, a few new nonalcoholic choices and the can’t-miss addition of soft-serve butterbeer ice cream.
Like most things in this part of the park, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour draws huge waits even to get inside. But for those who just want the butterbeer kind and don’t mind forgoing the choice of chocolate chili, Earl Gray and lavender, or apple crumble, the neighboring, less-crowded Fountain of Fair Fortune sells the soft-serve in a cup.
Mark Adamson, wife Andrea and teenage sons Josh and Joel walked out of Diagon Alley recently, each clutching their own ice cream. The family is from the northwest part of England, and Adamson said Universal’s version of London “has similarities” to the real thing.
While he said he was somewhat disappointed with the main ride, he didn’t have many complaints.
“The rest of it is brilliant,” Adamson said.
That word comes to mind for the new interactive areas — 24 in Diagon Alley and nine in Hogsmeade that were retroactively added to coincide with the opening of the new section — that turn otherwise inanimate space into a full-time mini-show. Look for a medallion on the ground and a guest with a wand and the surroundings will never be boring.
For DiMonda, the 20-year-old guest who made rainfall, the feature was enough to prompt her to buy a wand.