It's something Harry Potter fans are used to waiting for: the sequel. After a much-anticipated opening date and a national teaser campaign by Jimmy Fallon, Al Roker and the cast of "Harry Potter and the Dealthy Hallows," Universal Orlando Resort finally opened the doors to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley on July 8. I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek.
It's been three years since the last movie was released and four years since the opening of Hogsmeade at Universal's Islands of Adventure, leading to a lot of pent-up demand by fans ready to get their Potter on.
The new land inside Universal Studios, estimated to have cost half-a-billion dollars, starts with a London streetscape. Visitors will discover 12 Grimmauld Place, home to the oldest family of wizards in Brittain; the triple-decker Knight bus; Wyndham's Theatre; Leicester Square Tube Station; King's Cross; and an iconic red phone booth that actually plays a special message if you dial M-A-G-I-C. (You'll notice Universal's design team has spared no expense including the most intricate details to make the land simultaneously as magical and as realistic as possible.)
Inside a nondescript entrance behind this London facade is Diagon Alley. Shops line the enchanted alleyway, including everything from stores selling quidditch supplies and invisibility cloaks to a magical menagerie of odd birds and dragons and an ice cream parlor serving unique flavors like Earl Grey lavender. A must-do is a trip to Ollivanders Wand Shop, where a wizard-shopkeeper selects a young magician from the crowd to try out a wand. A dead plant and a few broken shelves are a result of several bad wand selections, until finally the right match is found. (Parents beware: The wands cost around $50. Get your money's worth at several "Dark Detector" spots around the alley which activate the wand for a little magic fun.)
Frequented by Harry Potter, Hagrid and the Weasleys, the Leaky Caldron is a casual pub great for grabbing a bite. Universal's culinary team spent years poring over J.K. Rowling's series to come up with the perfect menu that's both authentic and whimsical. Patrons will find traditional fare like Toad in the Hole (sausage baked in Yorkshire pudding), and Fish and Chips, while getting a taste of a few concoctions invented by Universal chefs with guidance from Rowling herself. The Fishy Green Ale is an ultra-sweet brew complete with tangy blueberry fish eyes. And of course, the ever-popular Butterbeer makes a reappearance here at Diagon Alley from Hogsmeade. I recommend getting the Butterbeer frozen. It's like a cross between butter pecan ice cream and cream soda, and the magic is that the froth never dissipates: Ahhhhhhh.
The centerpiece of the new land is Gringotts Bank. Customers can actually exchange their "muggle" money for wizarding bank notes to spend around the park. Escape to Gringotts Bank, based on the break-in of Gringotts Wizarding Bank by Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, is a rollercoaster through the bank's cellar, using immersive, 3D technologies. The wait has been running about three hours, so this editor decided to skip it for now. (Note: The Universal Express Pass is not good for any of the Harry Potter rides, so save yourself some quid.)
The second ride in Diagon Alley is the Hogswarts Express. To ride the train, visitors must have a $130, two-park pass since they're transported from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade at Universal's second theme park, Islands of Adventures. The Universal design team has gone through great lengths to replicate King's Cross station, down to the street vendors, trash cans, advertisements and the departure board. Visitors head upstairs to Platform 9 3/4 where Harry Potter first boarded the train in "Sorcerer's Stone." Inside the Hogswarts Express, passengers watch scenes of the British countryside out the window while a few creatures make mischief in the hallway.
Passengers deboard at the familiar ground of Hogsmeade, where they venture off to the Forbidden Journey ride, where wait times are a mere 30 minutes. Or many return on the train for one more glimpse of Diagon Alley.