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A Huffington Post exclusive: A detailed look at Diagon Alley, the highly anticipated expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort

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A Huffington Post exclusive: A detailed look at Diagon Alley, the highly anticipated expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort

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Ever since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter first opened at Universal's Islands of Adventure back in June of 2010, thousands of people have entered Hogsmeade and -- after spotting that stationary version of the Hogwarts Express (which was parked at the entrance of this theme park land as a photo op) -- exclaimed: "Oh, wouldn't it wonderful if we could climb aboard that train and actually go someplace like London or Diagon Alley."

Well, as you can see by this exclusive piece of concept art, starting in the Summer of 2014, that dream will finally become a reality. Building on the success of Hogsmeade, Hogwarts Castle and the award-winning "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" attraction, Universal Orlando Resort and Warner Bros. Entertainment today announced an expansion of historic proportion with the addition of an entirely new themed environment, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley.

Copyright Universal / Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

According to Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative (i.e. the division of Universal Parks & Resorts that develops rides, shows & attractions for their theme parks), it was only weeks after The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade opened that Universal & Warner Bros. officials first began toying with the idea of bumping out the borders of this super-popular theme park land.

"Given the strong response that we got from our Guests as well as from Harry Potter fans, we knew that we had done something truly special in bringing to life this great body of fiction with such a high level of detail and authenticity," Woodbury explained. "But even so, we knew that there were other great Harry Potter-related tales to tell. That there were stories, characters and experiences that we just hadn't been able to fit into Hogsmeade & Hogwarts Castle."

Half the fun of looking at a piece of concept art like this is trying
to figure what's supposed to be where in this new Harry
Potter-themed land. Take -- for instance -- this window,
giant hat and hand ...

"So we then began to wonder: Given that we had these two great theme parks sitting right next to each other, could we maybe turn that to our storytelling advantage?," Mark continued. "By placing Diagon Alley & London at Universal Studios Florida and Hogsmeade & Hogwarts at Islands of Adventure, could we maybe use the distance between these two theme parks as a way to echo the natural geographic separation that the readers find between Hogwarts & Diagon Alley in J.K. Rowling's own stories?"

Now you have to understand that no one has ever attempted to do something quite this bold & ambitious at an entertainment destination resort before. Taking a world-renown intellectual property like Harry Potter and then creating two separate lands set in different theme parks that are then connected by a transportation system. With all three of these elements then coming together to tell one single immersive story on an epic scale. But that's exactly what Universal Orlando & Warner Bros. Entertainment are planning on doing with Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express.

... which seems to suggest that the Weasley Wizard Wheezes shop
will be located toward the front of The Wizarding World of Harry
Potter - Diagon Alley. Copyright Universal / Warner Bros.
Entertainment. All rights reserved

So was Woodbury and his team ever daunted by this challenge? More to the point, what did Ms. Rowling have to say when Universal Orlando & Warner Bros. Entertainment officials told her that they were planning on building the world's first centrally themed, multi-park experience around the characters that she'd created?

"Those meetings are fascinating and wonderful opportunities to have, to be able to talk and collaborate directly with J K Rowling and the Warner Bros. film-makers. This was a big idea. And everybody immediately saw that when we initially laid it all out. And the fact that we wanted to continue to tell the Harry Potter story, the places that we had chosen to develop -- Diagon Alley & London & Gringotts & Hogwarts Express -- were really big ideas and bold moves, I think that the ambition behind that was very much appreciated," Mark stated.

Mark Woodbury walks J.K. Rowling through the just-
completed Wizarding World of Harry Potter
- Hogsmeade back in June of 2010. Copyright
Universal / Warner Bros. Entertainment.
All rights reserved

So with steel already rising up at the Diagon Alley construction site and tracks for the Hogwarts Express already being laid backstage at Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure, is Woodbury worried that -- what with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade now considered (by many in the themed entertainment business, anyway) to be the absolute gold standard when it comes to successfully translating an IP to a theme park setting -- that Guest expectations for this Potter expansion project might be hard to meet?

"As we went into this project, the folks at Universal Orlando & Warner Bros. Entertainment set the bar very high and we weren't about to compromise. We knew that London & Diagon Alley & the Hogwarts Express had to be equal to and better than Hogsmeade & Hogwarts Castle in every way and at every level. And that's exactly how we approached this expansion project right from the get-go," Mark said.

And look at what's parked right out in front of The Wizarding World of
Harry  Potter - Diagon Alley. It's the Knight Bus! Copyright Universal /
Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

"Our goal here is to fully immerse people into the Harry Potter stories. So the architecture plays a big role in that. And starting with the London area, which is totally authentic and recreates & captures the essence of the iconographic parts of the fiction in that space, we went big," Woodbury continued. "And then we find our way into Diagon Alley in much the same way you do in the books and movies. And that's a totally different environment that gives Guests an even deeper immersion into the world of Harry Potter. And those buildings are big as well. Four and five stories-tall in some places."

And though Mark -- in addition to the rest of the team at Universal Orlando & Warner Bros. Entertainment -- are now being somewhat close-mouthed about which shops & restaurants Harry Potter fans can expect to find as they wander through the streets of Diagon Alley next year, Woodbury did admit that he had one specific aspect of this expansion project that he was most looking forward to seeing UOR Guests experience.

Copyright Universal / Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

"After teasing people with that static version of the Hogwarts Express in Hogsmeade, we're now going to give them the opportunity to climb aboard that train and go on an actual journey. And we're not going to do the usual theme park thing, where you get on an attraction that promises to take you on a journey, but then when you exit your ride vehicle, you're actually back in the exact same spot where you began that ride," Mark enthused. "After people climb aboard the Hogwarts Express at Universal Orlando Resort next year, as they exit that train, they're going to find themselves in an entirely different environment, in a completely different place. Whether they've journeyed from London to Hogsmeade or visa versa. And we've made sure that even your train trip aboard the Hogwarts Express will be part of the ambitious immersive storytelling experience that we're trying to create for our Guests with this Potter expansion."

This is why -- for the past year or so -- Woodbury has gotten a kick out of going over to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade and then listening in as people talk out loud about how they wish they could climb aboard that stationary version of the Hogwarts Express and then go visit some other spot in the Pottersphere.

Copyright Universal / Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved

"When I hear Universal Orlando Guests say things like that, I just smile and think about how we're working on that right now," Mark concluded. "How focused we are on creating the next great place for Harry Potter fans to go visit."

RELATED STORY: Universal Orlando Resort Reveals Grand Opening Date for Blockbuster Attraction, TRANSFORMERS: The Ride - 3D

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  • Sounds like it will be another immersive environment but was hoping to hear an announcement of a new ride (more than the train) going into this new land. Hopefully there's a phase 2 right behind this with some sort of announcement. And I'm wondering how they are handling the traffic. Do you have to have a park hopper type ticket to ride? If you only have an IOA ticket, are you blocked? I'm sure they have the logistics figured out but it was my first thought with this.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Patience, Grasshopper. You gotta remember that we're more than a year out at this point from the actual grand opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley. So in the weeks & months ahead, Universal will be releasing additional pieces of concept art and providing further details on the rides, shops and restaurants that are all part of this Universal Orlando expansion.

    Beyond that ... You asked about whether you're going to need a two park pass in order to travel on the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley and back. This is my understanding.

    Mind you, Universal does believe that there is precedent for this in The Wizarding World. After all, any child / adult who enters Ollivanders can be chosen to take part in the wand selection ceremony in that shop. But when that show is over, a Universal Orlando employee discreetly approaches that child / adult and explains that -- while that wand did indeed chose them -- they still have to pay for that wand. And those who don't chose to pay ... Well, that's fine. But that wand has to remain behind at Ollivanders.

    So seeing as they've been asking parents to pay -- what is it? $25? $30? -- for those wands, Universal honestly doesn't think that there's going to be an issue when people try and board the Hogwarts Express with a single park ticket. They'll just have a team member on duty at the train station who will pull that person / that family out of line and discreetly explain that -- since they're traveling from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley or visa versa -- they're going to need a two park ticket. And these people will then be directed to an in-park ticket office that will then handle this transaction and reissue them new admission media that allows them to move from one park to the other.

    Which -- I know -- sounds like a pain. But let me be blunt here: By the time Diagon Alley opens during the Summer of 2014, Universal Publicity will have done its job and made sure that every possible UOR visitors knows that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is now spread across two separate theme parks. And going forward from this, all of the maps and brochures for the Universal Orlando Resort will include fine print that says if you want to board the Hogarts Express and travel from park to park, you're going to need a two park ticket.

    So I know that there are those who will huff & puff about this and try to turn this non-issue into some sort of indictment on Universal. How they're being overly greedy / making young children who love Harry Potter cry, etc. But there's just no getting around the fact that -- because these two Harry Potter-themed lands are in two separate theme parks -- you're going to need a two park ticket in order to experience them.

    Just to be fair here: It's not like Disney -- if you're a Beauty and the Beast fan -- will allow you to buy a one park ticket and then go watch the Beauty & the Beast - Live On Stage show at Disney's Hollywood Studios and then go over to the Magic Kingdom and visit with Belle at her cottage and/or do dinner at Be Our Guest. If Disney doesn't allow people to do something like this, then why should Universal then be held to a different standard?

  • I do think the needing the two park ticket to ride the train is going to cause logistical problems. Universal is going to have to make the signage really clear and have repeating audio announcements and even then there's going to be people who won't understand/will make a fuss which is going to cause longer lines and aggravations for everyone else. Plus you'll still have people needing to dig their park tickets out of their wallet, etc.

    I suppose they could implement either a wrist band system or a "ticket machine" near the ride that would work like a fast past dispensary where you inset your park ticket and it tells you if you don't have the right kind. Honestly if I was Universal I might just consider getting rid if the one park tickets all together once Diagon Alley opens properly just to avoid all of the confusion.

  • TBH I was skeptical at first about the idea of having Wizarding World split into two parks but you gotta admit it was a very clever business tactic on Universal's part.  And either way, you will get the Harry Potter experience (wands, butterbeer, etc) regardless of which park you're in and even if it is just that one park for that day.  To be able to board the Hogwarts Express is an impressive parkhopper bonus.  Sure beats having to sit on Disney's crowded buses just to get from one park to another.

    Now if they REALLY want to up ante, they should build that Harry Potter hotel and make the experience complete.  Anyone notice how the structures in Diagon Alley are incredibly tall in the first artwork?  How much cooler would it be if they built Leaky Cauldron-themed hotel rooms above the shops?    The Harry Potter nuts would die.

  • "Exclusive piece of concept art"? No. it's standard press artwork. Quit trying to be so JimHill. And Universal Creative has gone on the record as saying that you can ride the train to each park. You just can't get off. Get your facts straight if you're going to be so 'exclusive'.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Here's the definition of "Exclusive" as it is used in the journalism world:

    a piece of news, or the reporting of a piece of news, obtained by a newspaper or other news organization, along with the privilege of using it first.

    Check the time stamp on my "Diagon Alley" article over on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page. That article went up at 9 a.m. this morning because -- per an earlier agreement with Universal -- no one else was going to receive the official press release or concept art 'til (at the earliest) 9:30 a.m. Which meant that HuffPo got to be the very first news outlet to reveal this piece of Diagon Alley concept art to the public. Hence the use of the word "Exclusive" in this story's headline was correct.

    More to the point, since that I was the only writer who got to interview Mark Woodbury, the VP of Universal Creative about the development of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley in conjunction with this morning's release of this piece of concept art, that would be considered an exclusive as well.

    As for the Hogwarts Express ... "You can't just get off" ? Um, do you mean -- like -- backstage at Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure? Well, yeah. You can't do that. But beyond that, this is a legitimate transportation system that will move thousands of Universal Orlando visitors from Hogmeade to Diagon Alley or visa versa each day. Why you'd even want to try & dispute something like that when it's mentioned in the official press release that was sent out to hundreds of other news outlets earlier today, I don't know. Maybe you were just looking for yet another reason to try and pick a fake fight with me tonight.

    So -- just to review here -- I did get my facts straight. So is there anything else that you want to pretend is upsetting to you about today's story? Or are you done now being a troll?

  • I agree with Mary - this is a brilliant move by Universal. I can't imagine HP fans not wanting to see both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley and taking a ride on the Hogwarts Express, so Uni's gonna have brisk sales of one-day/two-park tickets.  All the moves being made by Uni/comcast show that they're serious about giving the Mouse some real competition - Disney had better get serious about responding in kind. In the words of Walt, "Any of you who are thinking of resting on our laurels can just forget it - we're just getting started" (or at least they should be).

  • My concern is more around the consistency & efficiency of the electronic ticketing systems (rather than the need to buy admission to both parks) when it comes to using Hogwart's Express to move between the parks. On my last few trips, I've encountered some sort of problem with tickets bought online ahead of my trip. Most recently (last week) I had purchased a 3-day park-to-park ticket from the Universal Orlando website prior to the trip. Everything was fine until the morning of the 3rd day when I was told by the gate attendant "your days are all used up." Even though the rest of my party had entered right before me with tickets bought at the same time, of the exact same type, with identical park visits up until that point. The gate attendant could see my having used the ticket on the previous two days, but of course no activity for the 3rd (because I hadn't entered yet). But of course his only option was to send me to guest services...who validated that I had in fact only visited two days on a three day ticket and that "the system just must be messed up" (not a very comforting explanation). I had to fill out a few forms, and they issued a new ticket for the day. However, I was half way back to the Wizarding World when I looked at the ticket and realized what they had given me was for a single park only--not the park-to-park I had purchased...so back to guest services I went to get it resolved. Now granted, guest services eventually fixed the situation to my satisfaction (and did so in a friendly and hospitable manner), but I still lost over 45 minutes of park time to a "system glitch" that was no fault of my own. I have to question (especially with that "the system is just messed up" comment) how prepared they're going to be for situations like this when Hogwart's Express is transferring thousands of people a day between the parks?

  • Nevertheless, I am still excited to see how they will make Diagon Alley from fiction to reality and if it will surpass the expectations of all Harry Potter fans.

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