Diagon Alley adds new magic to Universal Orlando

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 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 phenomenally popular series about the young wizard Harry Potter, the first part of The Wizarding World arrived at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 2010, featuring a pair of rethemed, intense roller coasters, a family-friendly coaster and a technology-enhanced ride inside Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It also included more opportunities to spend money, including 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 too 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 3/4 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 telephone booth and a kiosk selling Union Jack-emblazoned items.

Entrances to Diagon Alley are so nondescript that they would be hard to find if it weren’t for the crowds pouring in. Much of the tightly packed area is covered, which provides welcome shade from the sun and protection from frequent summer downpours.

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, with intricately patterned floors and massive chandeliers and goblins working at counters, before it heads deeper toward the underground vaults.

The 3D ride mixes roller coaster action with a lot of virtual interaction; a lightning-shooting Bellatrix Lestrange sends the two linked 12-person carts on a thrilling initial plunge. While the cart moves on a track and frequently shoots the riders forward, it also slows down to 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 likely crowd-pleaser. The ride can be glitchy; it stopped working during an early press preview, and has gotten some attention since for stopping and needing repairs. It worked on our recent visit, but part of the line experience — an elevator ride to the depths of the bank — didn’t manage the descent. The end result felt like being stuck in an elevator that didn’t go anywhere.

The ride’s exit is, as is typical, 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 $109.95 at Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions; a light-up broom for $34.95 at Quality Quidditch Supplies or Hogwarts parchment for $12.95 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 $34.95, while the new interactive versions are $44.95.

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, a treat for $4.99 in a cup or $5.99 in a cone that tastes like marshmallow with a butterscotchy ribbon swirled in.

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.

On a recent visit, kids, parents and young adults all delighted in following the directions for wand-waving and seeing the results. One woman, realizing a computer-generated skeleton was mimicking her movement, busted out in a goofy dance before walking away in giggles.

For diMonda, the 20-year-old guest who made rain fall, the feature was enough to prompt her to buy a wand.

“I’m sort of like a very practical person,” said the University of Central Florida junior. “If it doesn’t serve a purpose, I won’t buy it.”

Wandering the park with a group of friends on her third visit to Diagon Alley, diMonda said she was a fan of Escape from Gringotts, which she described as a “gentle” roller coaster that “tells a good story” as well as the “immersive” Hogwarts Express.

But really, she said, she just loved the experience of being in a fictional place she’d read about since childhood and never imagined she’d see.

“I’m turning into an old grandma,” diMonda said, “and enjoying walking around all day.”