He tapped the wall three times with the point of his umbrella.
“Welcome,” said Hagrid, “to Diagon Alley.”
If anybody could re-create that moment from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it was Universal Orlando. Actor Robbie Coltrane, (who played Hagrid in the films), even carried his character’s signature pink umbrella to do the honors. Like Harry Potter, I wish I had “about eight more eyes” to take in all the magic. It was opening night of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley and it was already bustling with activity from film stars walking the red carpet to character actors strolling the streets in witch and wizard costumes to barmen serving up butterbeers and brightly colored elixirs, and shopkeepers peddling wands, quills, robes and Quidditch gear.
I was dressed in my best Rita Skeeter meets muggle librarian book attire but I wanted to trade it in the moment I saw celebrity author Gilderoy Lockhart’s cape and vest combo through the window of Madam Malkin’s Robes For All Occasions. While everyone else rushed to Gringotts Wizard Bank to check out the 60-foot Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon breathing fire, I had only one thing on my mind – butterbeer ice cream. Pushing through the crowds of VIPs and other media muggles, I found the door to Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour and yanked it open. Inside, I was greeted with the delightful smiles of pink apron wearing witches in matching pointy pink caps, with the power to cast a spell on my ever-growing stomach.
“Butterbeer ice cream?” one witch assumed, while politely making a pointing gesture to her lip.
Apparently, I was wearing my butterbeer mustache again.
On my rush to get the ice cream, I made a quick stop at the huge beer keg hanging from the sky that said BUTTERBEER — The Fountain of Fair Fortune, figuring that if I was going to try butterbeer ice cream, it was important to cleanse my palate first.
The ice cream was soft serve and had caramel-colored swirls of butterscotch butterbeer goodness within. It was perfect for a hot day and it was going to be a hit. But there was something else in the ice cream case that got my attention: Earl Grey and Lavender. Ice cream! I love a good cup of tea and this flavor was like your own personal tea party in your mouth. It was like nothing I had ever tasted.
Until I tried a beverage called Fishy Green Ale.
A mint flavored soda with boba-like blueberry filled gelatin “eggs” at the bottom that one sucks up through a fat straw. There’s also bottled Gillywater at Eternelle’s Elixir of Refreshment, where for an additional cost, you can add various magical elixir flavors to it, ranging from Fire Protection Potion (watermelon) to Draught of Peace (berry), which were fine but I needed Money Protection Potion. Fast!
Before I suffered a stomachache spell from all the sweets, I continued on to The Leaky Cauldron for some authentic British pub food, some of which, according to Chef Steve Jayson, shipped directly from the UK. I went with the Ploughman’s Platter to start, allowing me to sample my first-ever Scotch egg, which was surprisingly tasty with mustard. I also enjoyed the Fisherman’s Pie (salmon, shrimp and cod baked together under a potato crust), which was a nice change from the Shepard’s Pie I usually ordered at British restaurants. My beverage of choice was a Wizard’s Brew, a magically delicious dark stout made exclusively for Diagon Alley. I ended my meal with my ultimate favorite British dessert — Sticky Toffee Pudding — and it didn’t disappoint, even though the space in my stomach eventually did.
To work off all of the food and beverage I had over-enjoyed, I decided to try my hand at some magic. Thanks to the new Interactive Wands they sell at Ollivander’s: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C. (priced at around $45) and accompanied with a Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade map, I was able to cast spells on a frog to spit water and levitate a feather quill with the simple flick of my wrist and the words “Wingardium Leviosa.” It was great fun to pop around to the bronze medallions (34 in total) that are displayed mostly in front of various shops in both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade (another great idea by Universal to constantly bring muggles back to the true task at hand — shopping!)
And shopping I did.
Magical Menagerie is a shop filled with owls, Hippogriffs, cats and rats – all plush of course, but the fun is the large snake in the window speaking Parseltongue. There is also Wiseacres Wizarding Equipment for anybody needing a telescope, hourglass, or in my case, a butterbeer T-shirt for just $28 (or the price of six cold butterbeers I could have had, but the shirt was probably better for my health.) Next door is Scribbulus, where you can find feather quills, seals and parchment paper, which any kid without a smart phone is going to love. Housed in the bright orange building with the giant redhead tipping his top hat, is none other than Weasleys Wizard Wheezes (pictured above), the infamous joke shop where everything about it from the Extendable Ears to the Puking Pastilles proves there is plenty of magical mayhem for one and all. You can also wander into Quality Quidditch Supplies for Golden Snitches and Blundger bats, but should you want some darker magic, check out Knockturn Alley and its Borgin and Burkes shop, featuring Death Eater masks and Azkaban prison T-shirts — the place where the Goth kids will be hanging out.
Run out of muggle money yet? No problem. Just head over to the Gringotts Money Exchange and speak to the goblin in charge and he can get you more of those Gringotts Bank Notes that are accepted all over Universal Orlando property. You can also buy chocolate Gringotts Galleons, just don’t leave them in the car; they melt.
Goblins, you say? Oh right, the goblins.
The most anticipated 3D ride of the year — Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts — was most certainly groundbreaking. Like, it never left the ground. Except for a couple of minutes. Now I’m not going to complain. If the ride is anything like the extraordinary marble hall entrance with rows of animated goblins dressed in tiny three-piece suits, scribbling away with their feather quills, it is well worth the wait when Diagon Alley officially opens July 8th.
The ride that was working and absolutely captures the essence of Harry Potter is the Hogwarts Express. I’ve been a fan of trains for as long as I can remember and I was most excited to see how Universal would take what was once a fixture specifically for photos in Hogsmeade and make it into a journey between lands (and parks – yet another selling point for Universal’s two-park ticket.) By combining storytelling with the innovation of live special effects and lifelike animation, every rider on the Hogwarts Express feels like they are actually in a cabin on a real train…to Hogsmeade! Or London if going the other way. Both experiences are vastly different in their storytelling via the windows of the train featuring characters from the films.
On my way back to Diagon Alley, I got the chance to stroll through the streets of London, where I spotted Sirus Black’s house elf, Kreacher, peering out the window of 12 Grimmauld Place. It was here that I also met Stan, conductor of the iconic three-story, purple Knight Bus featured in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But it was the tiny shrunken head hanging from the mirror that offered the most laughs.
While the purpose of Diagon Alley is obviously shopping, there are also two stage shows to enjoy in Carkitt Market. The first is Molly Weasley’s favorite singer — The Singing Sorceress: Christina Warbeck and the Banshees; and the second, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a live stage version of the book by J.K. Rowling, featuring props and puppetry.
Exhausted? Broke yet? If you are a die-hard Harry Potter fan, you are going to lose your mind faster than a Memory Charm when you take your first steps into Diagon Alley when the land officially opens July 8th. Universal Orlando has done a tremendous job with nailing every single detail that J.K. Rowling imagined when she first put quill to parchment paper, which the films embraced so well after. My only complaint is that there doesn’t seem to be an interactive bookstore open to enjoy. No book signings with Gilderoy Lockhart on the schedule either. Get on that, Universal! I want a first edition signed copy of Magical Me almost as bad as I want to hook up with Neville LongHOTbottom. Have you seen that kid lately? Wow.
Not a Potterhead? No worries. There is still plenty of fun to be had in just walking around and enjoying all of the details in the building facades of Diagon Alley. Plus, an interactive wand is going to be a must have item once you’ve had one too many Wizard Brews.
Sadly, the magic will end when you get that massive muggle credit card bill.
Admission into Universal Studios Florida and Diagon Alley ($96 for adults and $90 for kids ages 3 to 9), however, if you'd like to pop over to Hogsmeade at Universal's Islands of Adventure via the Hogwarts Express, you must purchase park-to-park admission ($136 for adults, $130 for kids ages 3 to 9). For more information, visit: universalorlando.com.
Meredith Myers is a USF-trained librarian and a stand-up comic — hence her nickname.