News Column

Universal's Diagon Alley opens with long lines

July 8, 2014

By Dewayne Bevil, Paul Brinkmann and Sandra Pedicini, Orlando Sentinel

July 08--Diagon Alley is open for business, with long lines, plenty of Harry Potter-themed shops and a 3D ride that thrilled visitors -- despite a 45-minute outage in early afternoon.

The posted wait time for Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts thrill ride, the centerpiece of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley, topped out at 450 minutes before the ride was shut down. It was restarted about 45 minutes later.

The ride had technical problems during previews and operated sporadically. It was not running during the recent "soft openings" for the general public. But Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative, said he was "beyond confident" that the ride would operate today.

Hundreds of Universal Studios visitors began streaming into Diagon Alley at 8 a.m. after fireworks and a brief statement by Universal President Bill Davis.

"You're going to love the entire land," Davis said.

By late morning, park visitors waited a few hours to get into Diagon Alley. Then, they faced a wait of six hours for a ride on Escape from Gringotts. The line snaked outside the bank building and into the Carkitt Market area of the attraction.

The ride operated almost flawlessly for one early group, except for a minor glitch with a frozen screen at the end. Gringotts hurls riders deep into the vaults of the wizards' bank, where they encounter villains Bellatrix and Lord Voldemort.

"It was just like a whole new experience," Lauren Gay of Tampa said of the Gringotts ride.

An avid theme-park visitor, Gay, 33, described it as "nothing like anything we've ridden."

Her friend, Nikida Vaughn of St. Petersburg, said, "If we could give it a standing ovation, we would."

Danielle Johnson, 26, of Melbourne, said she liked the realistic look of the ride's scenes as well as its high speed.

"It's like 'Get me out of this vault! I don't know what's going to happen,' " Johnson said.

In addition to the Gringotts ride, Diagon Alley has shops and eateries based on the seven "Harry Potter" books created by author J.K. Rowling and seen in eight blockbuster films.

Sanders McCandless of Milford, Mass., and his 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, tried one of the interactive wands Diagon Alley sells. The wands trigger reactions throughout the park, such as making water shoot from a frog's mouth.

"The hunt for the little wand things is awesome," McCandless said.

The Borgin and Burkes shop, hidden in Knockturn Alley, had a few customers at midmorning, but the colorful Weasleys Wizard Wheezes on the main drag was packed with people buying props such as pink- and purple-colored stuffed animals called Pygmy puffs.

As more visitors arrived at Universal Studios, the line to get into Diagon Alley snaked behind the Men in Black attraction. Guests used umbrellas and park maps to shield themselves from the blazing sun. Some bought drinks from a cart in the line. Universal set up big black misting fans that provided brief blasts of air.

Universal also was giving out return tickets that let people come back a couple of hours later and skip the lines.

One place that had relatively short lines: Hogwarts Express, the train that connects Diagon Alley to the original Wizarding World at Islands of Adventure. This afternoon, the wait time was 45 minutes.

Crowds started gathering outside Universal Orlando about 4 a.m. By 6 a.m. they were let inside the London Facade plaza in front of the entrance to Diagon Alley and the King's Crossing Station entrance. The sky was clear blue, and music from the Harry Potter movies was playing.

A replica of the three-story Knight Bus from the movies towered over the scene.

Veronica Junco, 15, of Miami, came with two friends. She was dressed as a member of House Ravenclaw from the movies.

"I missed the opening [of the original Wizarding World] in 2010. Then I learned there was a second chance to come to this one," Junco said. "I couldn't sleep last night. I'm so excited."

There was some pushing and shoving at the entrance, said Kenny Leasure, who arrived at 4.

"It got pretty crazy out there," he said. "We had some people go down. We lost some flip-flops in the process."

Catherine Owen was celebrating her 17th birthday at Diagon Alley today. She had been inside during previews, and she's a lifelong Potter fan.

"Seeing it all come alive in a park is a dream come true," she said.

"The structure of it is so real. You feel, 'Oh my gosh, this is where they filmed the movie,' " said Owen, who lives in Delray Beach.

Islands of Adventure saw double-digit growth in attendance after its Potter attraction opened in 2010. Thousands of guests flooded the theme park, with the line eventually extended beyond the front gate and into the adjoining Universal CityWalk entertainment district. Some people waited more than eight hours to pass through the Hogsmeade gates.

Universal continues to be bullish on the Potter franchise. A Wizarding World of Harry Potter, based on the original, is scheduled to open next week at Universal Studios Japan, and another similar attraction is slated to open at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2016.

Jon Busdeker of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.


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