June 20--Lance Hart scored the hottest ticket in the theme-park universe -- a media preview pass to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley -- but as he stood in the shadow of the fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts Bank on Thursday, it was as if someone had cast a spell on him.
He couldn't stop weeping, and he wasn't sure why.
"Tears of joy, I guess. It's kind of embarrassing. I didn't know I would do this," said Hart, a 43-year-old graphic designer of tombstones and memorials, and the news editor of Screamscape.com ("the ultimate guide to theme parks"). "This is just something you thought you'd never see."
"This" is Universal Orlando Resort's new Harry Potter attraction, opening to the public July 8, and "it's light years beyond anything else. It's like a new surprise on every corner," says Hart, who's explored dozens of amusement parks across the United States with his wife, Kerry, and their three sons.
Kerry Hart was wiping tears from her eyes, too. Diagon Alley was conjuring feelings of disloyalty in the self-described "Disney junkie."
"To walk into this, it blows my mind," said the 37-year-old insurance agent and city councilwoman, who worked for Walt Disney World before the Harts moved from Orlando to Stanley, N.C. "This far exceeds anything they've ever done."
It exceeds Universal's previous efforts, too.
When The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Hogsmeade opened in Universal's Islands of Adventure in June 2010, executives already knew they wanted to invite guests to explore a zone modeled after Diagon Alley -- the wizards-only world that Harry visits with Hagrid within the first half-hour of the first movie.
As the magical district where Harry purchases his robes, wand and school supplies, Diagon Alley begged to be built out with gift shops (ch-ching!). Another plus: Its fictional location.
"Diagon Alley is in London, and Hogsmeade is in Scotland," said Thierry Coup, senior VP of Universal Creative, "so guests could also live the journey on the train," Hogwarts Express. (Translation: They also could be encouraged to purchase tickets to both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, home of Diagon Alley.)
Harry's London: Four areas of fantasy come to life
As opposed to Hogsmeade's single thoroughfare, Diagon Alley is comprised of four areas -- its namesake street, Carkitt Markett, Horizont Alley and the shadowy Knockturn Alley -- that are home to seven stores with as much thought given to their interior design and window displays as to the merchandise on the shelves.
The shops are, blessedly, a bit roomier than the cramped Hogsmeade boutiques -- the better to choose from among the 11,000 wands for sale at the new Ollivanders; to adopt a stuffed Fang, Fluffy or Fawkes the Phoenix at the adorable Magical Menagerie; or to select an "I Served Time in Azkaban" T-shirt from the candlelit Borgin & Burkes.
With Diagon Alley, the goal was to load detail upon detail, turning J.K. Rowling's vision into a reality for fans, said Alan Gilmore, art director for both the Harry Potter films and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. "You want to have them say, 'Yes, I'm sitting in the Leaky Cauldron. This is exactly it.'"
Gilmore describes himself as "a real architecture person," and said he's most pleased with his team's re-creation of London backstreets. "You have to feel like they're real."
And once you enter Diagon Alley, the buildings that circumscribe it are so tall that they obliterate all other views of the park. "You can do a full 360-degree turn and not see anything else, no rollercoasters or anything," said Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood in the movies.
Said Kerry Hart, "You don't even hear the other rides."
That immersion in an imaginary world is why so many Harry Potter fans who've already dodged around Diagon Alley don't need a Nimbus 2001 to fly. They're floating on air.
Actress Helena Bonham Carter, for example, called the experience "transporting." The Oscar nominee portrayed Bellatrix Lestrange in the movies and on the new Escape to Gringotts ride, and attended the media preview in Orlando last week with director Tim Burton and their two children.
Diagon Alley "is better than what we had" on the sets, said Carter during a press conference held in the Leaky Cauldron. "We didn't have a ceiling, and in some scenes we just had green. Green, green, green screen.
"This does the imagining for you."
Oh, there are some kinks that need ironing out before July 8. Only a few guests last week were able to board Escape from Gringotts, an indoor rollercoaster that requires 3-D glasses, before it stopped working.
Among them was actor Warwick Davis, who played diminutive Professor Filius Flitwick: "I found myself protecting myself at times -- 'Whoa, what's coming at me?' I think it sets the benchmark in rides."
All aboard the Hogwarts Express!
But Hogwarts Express was running on time, and it is to amusement-park trains what IMAX is to the first Nickelodeon theaters.
After passing through a replica London underground station, guests appear to slip through a brick wall between Platforms 9 and 10 to step onto the express train from Platform 9 3/4.
They're shut inside a richly detailed cabin, and as the train pulls out of King's Cross station, they see not the back lots of Universal out the window, but English countryside, shifts in weather and airborne Harry Potter characters. Turns out some familiar wizards are among their fellow passengers, too.
And then there are the illusions created in the Diagon alleyways by those who purchase a $44.95 enchanted wand, enabling them to light lamps, open doors or command an image of a skeleton to perform a dance that they choreograph.
"This really takes theme parks to a whole new level," said Erik Yates, the 37-year-old editor of BehindTheThrills.com (and a heavy-equipment operator from Fort Pierce).
Yates has visited every theme park in Florida -- "even some that don't exist anymore" -- and said Diagon Alley ranks as the most beautiful, and richly detailed, he's ever seen. "Disney needs to step it up," he added.
His wife, Rachael, a 24-year-old retail clerk and CEO of BehindTheThrills.com, said she had to fight back tears when she stepped into this spell-casting world for the first time: "This is seeing my childhood come back to life."
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