A whole community of neighborhoods
Above: inside Knockturn Alley
It's something you won't notice until you're physically in the mix of Diagon Alley, but the area is actually divided up into five zones: The Embankment, Diagon Alley, Horizont Alley, Knockturn Alley, and Carkitt Market (all named by Rowling). The entrance is through the faux London facade of The Embankment, which leads directly into Diagon Alley. Turn right to enter the sheltered Carkitt Market zone, or continue straight to Gringotts and turn left to Horizont Alley. Just off Horizont Alley to the left is the entrance to Knockturn Alley, which is roofed and made to feel to though it exists in perpetual nighttime. Take Horizont Alley to the right, however, and you're in the other end of Carkitt Market.
The five zones work out to be an easy loop, which alleviates congestion and makes for a natural crowd flow while offering fresh discovery around each bend. In contrast, Hogsmeade is one long street which dead-ends at Hogwarts Castle. Visitors travel up and down this street in all directions, including crossing from store to store, and there is no quick way through the bustle. A busy day at the park can quickly turn Hogsmeade into a shuffling mass of sweaty people walking every which way.
Space for everyone
Above: The queue next to Weasley's Wizard Wheezes
Nine new shops, did we say? Yes, that's a huge amount of fresh shopping options for Harry Potter merchandise, but Universal Orlando has carefully orchestrated every centimeter of space to present shops as both retail and entertainment. For example, each store is now larger than those of Hogsmeade, and stuffed with items taken straight from the Harry Potter books and films. Looking around to notice "easter eggs" (like containers of Floo Powder at Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, the original Vanishing Cabinet within Borgin & Burkes, or Professor McGonagall's outfit at Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions) is part of the fun, no purchase necessary.
Still, aside from making the shops more spacious and the streets wider than those of Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley will have to control crowds anxious to spend precious time soaking it all in. For this, they've installed queues next to the shops, but out of the way of the best photo angles. Smart. Queuing space wasn't built into Hogsmeade, and a busy day in the park can see wait lines for the shops extending into the main thoroughfare; Diagon Alley won't have that problem.
The new shops are: Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions (basic robe is $109), Borgin and Burkes, Quality Quidditch Supplies, Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment (our personal favorite), Magical Menagerie, Scribbulus Writing Implements, a second branch of Ollivander's Wand Shop, and a London-theme kiosk at The Embankment, near the entrance to King's Cross Station.
Above: a sign at The Leaky Cauldron
Florida's state law does not prohibit open container enjoyment of alcoholic beverages in public. You know what that means, right? When you buy a beer at Diagon Alley, you're free to walk around with it. The park finally understands that adults enjoy Harry Potter too, and Diagon Alley not only includes more hangout zones, but also options for alcoholic beverages.
Instead of waiting to imbibe during a meal at The Leaky Cauldron, you may visit two other "bars" for booze. There's the casual Carkitt Market watering hole called "The Hopping Pot" (non-alcoholic drinks, plus Wizard's Brew, Dragon Scale and draught beer) and Horizont Alley's splendidly mirrored pourhouse called "The Fountain of Fair Fortune" (non-alcoholic drinks, plus Wizard's Brew, Dragon Scale, Fuller's London Pride, Amstel Light, Strongbow). Beers are $8.50, while all other non-alcoholic drinks are between $4-5.
Shelter from weather
Above: part of Carkitt Market
As we mentioned above, two of the five zones are sheltered. Carkitt Market's arches evoke the classic cast-iron and glass roofs above real-life London locations like Leadenhall Market, Old Spitalfields Market, and St. Pancras International railway station. Knockturn Alley's interior location keeps the zone both eerily dark and protected from weather. That's two areas where crowds may gather for a break from the sun or during storms, which best love to arrive during the high tourist season summer months.
Hogsmeade, however, offers no shelter or shade aside from a small sitting area under the roof of The Owl Post. Should a downpour send you running, the options are slim: cram under this awning with hundreds of sweaty, damp others, or head into the Three Broomsticks restaurant for what will likely be a long wait for a table.
The best ride ever
Above: Hogwarts Express at King's Cross Station
When Hogsmeade opened in 2010, the flagship experience of "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" marked a new era in thrill rides. Its use of "robocoaster" technology combined with an immersive, cinematic visual experience was unlike any other ride to date. Diagon Alley is piggybacking on that success with its new ride, "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts," but it's the Hogwarts Express train we're naming as the most attractive new ride in the park.
Not only is the ride a fully fashioned train, complete with "steam" locomotive and Pullman-style passenger cars, but it's such a comfortable, delightful experience for all ages and all abilities that it's actually become our favorite attraction of all at Universal Orlando. Beyond the true-to-theme design of the train, it beats all other rides for comfort, coolness, function, and novelty.
Upon entering the train, riders are directed to sit within compartments, each seating eight. The seats themselves are padded, without annoying or restrictive harnesses, and there's a storage shelf above for stowing bags, to free up space. The train is air conditioned, quiet, smooth, and envelops the rider in the story of Harry Potter's journeys to and from Hogwarts on all sides. You see, the windows to both the outside and indoor corridor are opaque screens which play a video experience (with scenery combinations to create around 400 different ride narratives) along the 2.5-minute trip between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley parks.
Size of the compartments means large families or groups may travel together easier, and the comfort means both passengers of size and those with special needs will travel just as anyone else. It's truly an all-ages, all-sorts ride, with the added bonus of actually serving a purpose. It also has the ability to expose children to a form of historic transportation they wouldn't necessary see or experience otherwise; your child may develop a love of trains due to a ride on the Hogwarts Express!
Above: inside a Hogwarts Express compartment
We're in Orlando attending the preview of Diagon Alley as a guest of Universal Orlando, but all opinions are completely our own.
[Photos: Steven Drescher for Jaunted]