Why you need to go to Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Orlando
The hubby and I went to the opening weekend of Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. I may have come to the Harry Potter crazy train somewhat late in life (I started reading the books in college just before the release of the 5th book), but I fully embraced my fandom by that time. Plus, that was BD (Before Daphne), so we could do things like that.
I'll never forget the feeling, seeing it for the first time. As annual passholders we'd been lookie-looing around the barricades for months. A coworker had been working on dressing the sets and was sending me teaser photos, but nothing could prepare me. From the moment I stepped under the entrance archway, I was transported to another world. It was BETTER than the movies, almost better than my imagination. I could overlook the fact that they'd recycled a few rides that already existed in the park (Dueling Dragons), because everything was just so COOL.
The place SWARMED with people; there were lines just to go into the stores, forget getting on the new Forbidden Journey ride. I didn't care, I just stumbled from one end to the other with my jaw gaping open catching flies. I couldn't get over the attention to detail and the totally transformative experience that Universal created at Hogsmeade.
In the years since, we've gotten to ride all the rides, go in all the shops, etc. Daphne has even gotten a chance to experience Butterbeer. Admittedly we just don't go to Universal that often since having D, because Disney has so much more to offer when it comes to attractions geared at the younger crowd. Disney is all about the Magic, Universal is all about the Thrills.
I'd heard that Diagon Alley was doing soft openings. Gringott's ride would only be running intermittently, but since Ian and I are riding toddler-dirty, we wouldn't get to go on it anyway. Disney black out dates? We hadn't done either Universal park even once with D since getting our Disney passes, so why not give their (albeit limited) kids' attractions a try and hopefully get a glimpse of Diagon Alley while we were there?
When I heard about the Diagon Alley expansion I was excited, even if it was at the expense of Jaws (some people were MAD). Ian and I held on to our annual passes almost exclusively with the thought of going to Diagon Alley once it was open. I will admit that reading initial plans made me a little disappointed: One new ride? Just a bunch of new stores, a repeat of the joke shop? Come on... that's it? NBC had a behind-the-scenes special on during prime time last week showing some of the new features, and it looked... reasonably cool. The Hogwarts Express with animated video windows? Uhh... yeah.... sure ok...
Diagon Alley is designed to be hidden from the rest of the park, so all you see walking up from the main park area is a series of London building fronts, The Knight Bus (eee), and King's Cross station. The moment the Knight Bus came into view, I felt my heartbeat speed up. Diagon Alley was temporarily shut off for a private event, but the Hogwarts Express was running with only a 10 minute wait? No-brainer.
Parents, you can take your stroller all the way up to the train (you'll have to fold it at boarding). No park-hopper pass? No dice. They scan your pass and fingerscan you before you even enter King's Cross.
The station is incredible even before you get to platform 9 3/4. The entrance to the platform? The attendant was kind enough to let me know the right place to stand so I could capture the moment on video. Forgive my exuberant reaction, I was ridiculous the whole day.
Once you are on the platform it is PERFECT. EXACTLY THE MOVIE. I kept grabbing Ian's arm and squeezing between bouts of "Squeeee" and manic giggling.
There's a moving snowy owl in a cage next to some luggage, but I only had eyes for the Hogwarts Express. Each little boarding group has their own private cabin that sits up to 6 or 8. It is PERFECT in detail, so much I wanted to shout "PETRIFICUS TOTALUS" to see if any wizards were hiding on the luggage shelf under invisibility cloaks. Forgive the shaky video, I was too busy goggling over everything to pay attention to where my phone was pointed.
The video window I poopoo'd? Holy Moly. It's VERY real-looking, and from what an employee told me there are a lot of variations to it so that the ride experience can change. The timing of the video with shadows playing against the door to your cabin is perfect. You'll get visits from Harry, Ron & Hermione, Spiders, the snack cart, even a dementor! I think I spent the whole train ride emitting a very high frequency squeal as quietly as possible.
The Hogsmeade station is admittedly underwhelming, particularly in comparison to King's Cross, so make sure if you're only going to do the Hogwarts Express once (you fool) you board from Universal Studios.
We returned to Diagon Alley later in the day and it was OPEN! We also caught a break in that it was drizzling so the crowds were almost non-existent. You enter through the back of one of the false fronts and then... you're there.
DIAGON ALLEY IS HUGE. It's a sort of triangle of streets with tons of interactive shops, plus Knockturn Alley is its own separate entity. There were witches mingling around with the muggles to show us how to use our wands to animate the windows (there are different spells with particular wand-waves you have to do!). Yeah, I was definitely starting up that squeaky sound in the back of my throat again. Although the streets are lined with shops and have plenty of buyable souvenirs, the experience is less about buying stuff and more about creating immersive experiences with the stores. For example the Magical Menagerie is filled with not just "pets" for purchase, but moving life-like creatures as well (D was quite taken with the giant kitty). Knockturn is just absurdly cool, too dark for workable pictures (not on my cell phone anyway). Borgin & Burkes is manned by people with death-eater-like uniforms and is filled with new sinister merch for purchase (need... Deathly... Hallows... shirt). Butterbeer can be purchased in a bar from out of giant barrels with new goblet-like reusable drinkware (as opposed to the mugs at Hogsmeade). The only line we encountered was to go into Gringott's for the money exchange (the ride wasn't open), but I peeked through the window. WOW. Dragon Alley is so big it's like a miniature outdoor shopping mall. With the way it's set up to be hidden from the rest of the park, it's easy to forget that you AREN'T in London.
The hubby and I both agreed that Diagon Alley is probably the coolest thing that any theme park has ever done. EVER. There's still plenty of room for expansion, too (more rides, yes please). I had high expectations, and I thought Hogsmeade was cool, but Diagon Alley blew both my expectations and Hogsmeade COMPLETELY out of the water. Go. Go even if you don't ride rides. It is SPECTACULAR.