Doublecheck you’ve got a park-to-park ticket
Universal Studios has been very cunning with the placement of Diagon Alley in relation to Hogsmeade. Ask any member of staff how to walk between the two parks and the resulting roundabout directions make it seem like traveling from Kalamazoo to Timbuktu. It might as well be that; Diagon Alley is about as removed from Hogsmeade as possible, so much so that it’s even located in a different amusement park.
In order to visit both parts of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter you absolutely must must must be holding the Park-to-Park Pass. Priced from $136 per adult and $130 per child (that's for one day--view other options online), it's not cheap. With this, you’ll be allowed to travel the 2.5-minute ride of the Hogwarts Express train, which connects Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure park with Diagon Alley in the Universal Studios flagship park.
Ride first, shop later
Ride the "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts" ride before you've shopped and when you're carrying the least. This is because the experience requires you to deposit all of your possessions into small lockers. The lockers will fit a messenger bag or backpack, or a purse and a couple wand boxes. They are also easy to use and secure with fingerprint recognition, and they're free during the time you ride. If however you want to store stuff in them all day, you'll be paying up to $20 for the pleasure.
Be realistic about your time
For example, we spent four hours in Diagon Alley on our first visit, and that was during the press preview with no lines. We then returned to spend another half-day before heading over to Hogsmeade. It’s simply such an intoxicating, intricately outfitted environment.
A visitor with absolutely no interest in or knowledge of Harry Potter will still spend at least an hour just walking around. A family of Harry Potter fans should budget a full day to visit both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. An intense “Potterhead," however, may want to spread just Diagon Alley across two days. We recommend taking care of the Gringotts ride, shopping, and picture-taking on the first day, then return the second in robe and other Potter finery, simply to enjoy.
Bet on buying a robe
Perhaps the most exciting new retail addition to come within Diagon Alley is Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions. The space is large, sumptuous and, worst of all, completely beguiling. Even visitors who wouldn’t consider themselves “Potterheads” will be tempted to try a robe from one of the four Hogwarts housesGryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, Slytherinand even spring to buy one for $109 each.
This desire intensifies at dusk, when the Orlando sun sets and the glow of Diagon Alley’s faux oil lamps make for the most cinematic atmosphere.
If you’re going to buy a cape, be prepared to first fall in love with the romantic idea of cape-wearing, then to be surprised by the good quality of the capes at Madam Malkin’s (they’re even outfitted with an inner wand pocket). Alas, the sizing does not favor adults with broad shoulders or women with chests. Be prepared to size up simply in order to close the toggle.
The emptier your luggage, the better
Leave room in your luggage for souvenirs. A wand box can easily be as tall as your carry-on, and pumpkin juice bottles and Butterbeer mugs take up more space than magnets and keychains. Then there's the matter of the robes from Madam Malkin's...
Find the other branch of Gringotts Bank
While the fire-spewing dragon may sit above the towering Gringotts bank at the foot of Diagon Alley, there is another branch of the wizarding world’s financial institution over in Carkitt Market, and each offer a unique experience.
The flagship Gringotts is wholly given over to the dark ride experience, “Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts,” including a visit to the main banking hall and face-to-face interaction with the Gringotts Goblins. Ring a teller’s bell to have him look up from his paperwork and acknowledge you, but you won’t be able to buy any Gringotts money here.
The Gringotts branch in Carkitt Market is a small shop with two purposes: 1) to sell some Gringotts-branded souvenirs like chocolate coins and 2) to exchange your real US Dollars for Gringotts Wizarding Bank Notes. Available in denominations of $10 or $20, these Notes are the Wizarding World’s currency, but they are also legal tender throughout all of Universal Orlando. No refunds will be given on the exchange, and change for purchases will be come back in Dollars. Don’t think of counterfeiting them either; the certificates are as thoroughly detailed and themed as the rest of the experience.
Use mysterious alleys for photo ops
Diagon Alley is filled with nooks, crannies, and walkways which seem to lead to nowhere. Of course every nook has its purpose, and we've found these places to be best for scoring photos from unique angles. Some area even reward with hidden detail you wouldn't have found otherwise; check out the exquisite hats in a shop window up the dead-end stairway to the left of Gringotts, for example.
Spend some time in the shade with special-edition beer
While the kids enjoy nonalcoholic Butterbeer (or our favorites, “Fishy Green Ale” and “Tongue-Tying Lemon Squash), adults may imbibe in specially brewed alcoholic options at three watering holes in Diagon Alley. The Leaky Cauldron is the full-service restaurant, which only allows one alcoholic drink per ID during dining.
Head over to The Hopping Pot in Carkitt Market for another, and The Fountain of Fair Fortune in Horizont Alley (directly to the left of the entrance to Knockturn Alley) for yet another. Skip the usual options to try the two beers unique to Diagon Alley: “Wizard’s Brew” and “Dragon Scale.”
Take your time in King’s Cross Station
A long line is actually a blessing in disguise of the rides of the Harry Potter parks, thanks to Universal’s obsessive dedication to detail; the waiting spaces are actually an important part of the experience, and this goes for King’s Cross Station as much as it does for the Gringotts or Hogwarts rides.
Watch the train departure boards; they’re naming trains which would actually be in service at the real King’s Cross in London. Those ads on the walls? They’re spotted in the Harry Potter films. And even the magical passing through the station’s brick wall to reach Platform 9 3/4 is represented; let’s just say to pay special attention to the dark hallway of porter carts which comes just before emerging into the daylight of the Hogwarts Express platform.
Don't overlook Quality Quidditch Supplies
After passing through the brick wall to enter Diagon Alley, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement and crowd flow. Many will continue straight ahead, fixated as they are on the Gringotts dragon and ride, while others may go left to grab a meal at The Leaky Cauldron. We advise making a 90-degree turn right, or you'll overlook the "Quality Quidditch Supplies" shop, which actually boasts some of the most wearable souvenirs.
Better get that Butterbeer
If you're just champing at the bit to try Butterbeer, the shortest line for it will likely be at the "Fountain of Fair Fortune" near the entrance to Knockturn Alley. Another alternative is simply to order it with your meal at The Leaky Cauldron, and decide which version you'd prefer: frozen or not.
Last but not least...
Check out our Survival Guide to Hogsmeade and flip through our original photo galleries and reports from inside the opening days of Diagon Alley:
· 75 Original Photos of Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express, at Universal Orlando
· How Universal Orlando's New Diagon Alley Gets It Very, Very Right
· The Six Awesomest Details of Universal Studios' Brand New Diagon Alley
We were 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]