New Harry Potter attraction: food and first impressions

06/19/2014 7:04 PM

06/19/2014 7:10 PM

Universal Orlando Resort opened its new, richly detailed Harry Potter-themed area to media and other travel industry insiders on Wednesday night.

The new park zone, called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley, will delight fans of the hit book and movie series with a marquee ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (which coincidentally wasn’t working Thursday during a media preview).

But Diagon Alley is also heavy on experiential retail, with stores so entertaining and visually stimulating that you almost forget you’re shopping. Diagon Alley even has its own currency, so guests can swap U.S. dollars (muggles money) for wizard cash, to spend or to keep as a souvenir.

The attraction doubles the size of the Harry Potter footprint on Universal’s property. Diagon Alley opens to the public July 8 at Universal Studios. A train called the Hogwarts Express connects the new area to the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Hogsmeade, which opened in 2010 at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Universal Studio’s sister park.

Even the train ride between the two parks is immersive. Visitors board at either King’s Cross Station (built like a real Tube station) or Hogsmeade Station for a two-minute trip in enclosed compartments. A video screen (instead of windows) shows a passing urban landscape, then countryside, along with Harry Potter characters. Outside the car door, silhouettes flit in the corridor and familiar voices from Potter movies are overheard.

If fans want to ride the train, a two-park ticket is required. For adults, a two-park ticket for one day costs $136; for children, it’s $130.

The new Harry Potter area has one main eatery called the Leaky Cauldron. It’s a large restaurant with large group tables just inside the entrance. There are also street kiosks with food and drink, plus Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour.

Here are some must-try culinary adventures from Diagon Alley for us ordinary muggles.

Butterbeer ice cream: When Universal’s original Harry Potter attraction – the Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Hogsmeade – opened in 2010, butterbeer – a sweet, butterscotch, non-alcoholic beverage – was instantly popular. Diagon Alley offers butterbeer soft-serve ice cream, and it’s just the thing for a hot Orlando day. The ice cream shop also sells other unusual flavors, such as Earl Grey and lavender, or chocolate chili. Cost: $4.79.

Mini-pie combination: If you’re unsure whether you’ll like a large portion of traditional British meat-and-potatoes pies, try the mini. It includes two smaller savory pies with a side salad. One pie is salmon, shrimp and cod, the other is beef and vegetables, both baked under a mashed potato crust. Cost: $12.99. (And if you’re still hungry, add on a toad in the hole – sausage baked in a flour-egg batter, $8.99.)

Ploughman’s platter: This is like an English charcuterie plate, with cheeses, crusty bread, cornichon pickles, apple-beet salad, Branston pickle (pickled diced vegetables) and a Scotch egg (hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and baked). Cost: $19.99 (serves two).

Sticky toffee pudding: This moist, spongy cake is covered in gooey toffee and topped with vanilla ice cream. Yum. Cost: $6.99

Gillywater: In the Harry Potter stories, Gillywater is made from Gillyweed, a magical plant. In real life, it looks like plain bottled water, but costumed Universal employees add magical and colorful elixirs for a slightly sweet taste. The names of the elixirs are fun: Draught of Peace, Babbling Beverage, Elixir to Induce Euphoria and Fire Protection Potion. Cost: $4.

Here are other first impressions of Universal’s new Diagon Alley, which was inspired by the fictional London location famous for wizarding supplies in the Harry Potter series:

Window shopping: The level of detail in Diagon Alley is amazing, and nowhere are the features more fun and true to the novels and movies than in shop windows. There are lots of things for sale, but others are simply great decorations. Books play a central role in the decor; window-shoppers will see animatronic versions of The Monster Book of Monsters, a tome with teeth, along with self-knitting needles and Harry Potter’s snowy owl, Hedwig.

Unique gifts: With seven shops in Diagon Alley, there’s plenty to buy. (There are five shops in Hogsmeade, Universal’s original Harry Potter attraction.) Among the offerings: Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes (chattering teeth, expandable ears), Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions ($250 for a wizard’s robe), Quality Quidditch Supplies (everything for playing the real-life sport based on the game in the series) and Scribbulus (implements for paper, pen and ink lovers). Magical Menagerie sells cute stuffed animals (pygmy puffs are popular), while Borgin and Burkes – located off Diagon Alley in the book, on Knockturn Alley – is a “dark arts” shop that sells skulls, black T-shirts and Death Eater masks. Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment sells telescopes and binoculars.

Interactive wands: For $35, guests can buy interactive wands at Ollivanders Wand Shop, located in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. When wand-wielding guests see a medallion symbol in either area, they can wave the wand and cast spells. The wands make trolls dance, light lamps and chandeliers, and silence some shrunken heads, among other things. Maps of the medallion areas are available, but Universal says there are also some hidden spell areas for guests to discover.

Wizard wardrobes: In addition to robes, fans can buy capes and preppy button-down cardigans inspired by the four houses where Harry and his fellow students lived at Hogwarts school. Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions also has on display a wedding dress and two costumes that aren’t for sale: an intimidating black-beaded cape ensemble worn in a promo for the new attraction, and a costume worn by Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets movie. The wedding dress is white with white feathers at the hem and softly twinkling lights within the skirt.

Photo ops: As you enter Diagon Alley, look toward Gringotts Bank – which is the entrance to the centerpiece thrill ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. A dragon is perched atop the bank, and it breathes fire – an instant Facebook photo or Instagram. Once you enter the bank, while in queue for the ride, don’t miss the three enormous glass chandeliers. Finally, find 12 Grimmauld Place where Kreacher the House Elf peers eerily from a window.

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