Florida: Welcome to Diagon Alley

By Laura Wurzal

A dragon sits atop Gringotts Bank in Diagon Alley in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Orlando. Photo / AP
A dragon sits atop Gringotts Bank in Diagon Alley in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Orlando. Photo / AP

Walking along a cobbled alley, I come a across a Victorian pet shop with a huge snake in the window.

"You're a beautiful creature" I coo, tapping on the glass. The snake slithers up to the window and hisses, "Thanks". He speaks some more, but I can't understand him.

"He's speaking Parseltongue now," the shop assistant tells me. "He's saying, 'Welcome to Diagon Alley'."

Chatting to the snake in the Magical Menagerie is just one of the wand-erful things you can do at Diagon Alley, the latest attraction to open at Universal Studios Florida. It follows the success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened four years ago at the Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, re-creating the snow-covered village of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts School.

In JK Rowling's Harry Potter books, Diagon Alley is a cobbled wizarding shopping area, completely hidden from the Muggles (non-wizards). It is the first wizarding place Harry Potter sees when he comes ith Hagrid to shop for his school supplies.

Universal's Diagon Alley is also hidden from view. At the entrance, I find some of London's iconic landmarks set along an embankment. Parked up is a purple triple-decker Knight Bus from the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I share some banter with the Knight Bus Conductor and Dre Head, a shrunken head that hangs from the rear-view mirror.

Then, after entering Leicester Square Tube station, I am magically transported to Diagon Alley, the centre of wizarding London.

Like Harry, who said he wished he had more than one set of eyes to take in all the sights the alley has to offer, I find it all a bit "Dumbledawsome". At the top of the alley dominating the whole area is Gringotts Wizarding Bank, with a huge, fire-breathing Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon on its roof.

The attention to detail is amazing. There is a bustling shopping area called Carkitt Market, featuring two live shows a day. Students from WADA (Wizarding Academy of Dramatic Arts) perform 'The Tale Of The Three Brothers' (featured in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), and we dance along to Molly Weasley's favourite soul songstress, The Singing Sorceress: Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees, before heading for a refreshing cold Butterbeer at The Leaky Cauldron.

Shopping is a magical experience, too. There's Wiseacres Wizarding Equipment for telescopes and compasses, Scribbulus for quills, pens and stationery, Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions, Quality Quidditch Supplies, Weasley's Wizard Wheezes for magical jokes and Magical Menagerie selling toy animals.

No trip would be complete without a visit to Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands. Don't miss the "wand choosing a wizard" experience that re-creates the iconic scene when Harry Potter buys his wand from Mr Ollivander.

Along with a wand, visitors are given a map that marks the interactive Wand Points in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Thus, with a swish and flick, I can levitate a feather quill at Scribbulus, light all the lamps and chandeliers in Flimflam's Lanterns window, and use a Silencing Charm to quiet the maddening song of the Fwooper bird at Magical Menagerie.

In the imposing Gringotts Bank building is the ground-breaking Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts roller coaster. It's based on the iconic scene in the eighth Harry Potter film when Harry, Ron and Hermione break into the bank.

We queue in the bank's huge marble hall entrance, where spookily life-like animatronic goblins are hard at work counting money. Once I get on the ride, I'm sent racing, plunging and spinning underground through a labyrinth of vaults, coming face to face with trolls and an angry, fire-breathing dragon. Throughout the ride, I interact with familiar characters including Bill Weasley, Griphook, Bellatrix Lestrange, and even Lord Voldemort.

Another ride that is not so fast but just as exhilarating is the Hogwarts Express, the steam train that links Diagon Alley with Hogsmeade village in Islands of Adventure.

We watch a Hippogriff flying over a Scottish lake, see Lord Voldemort outside Malfoy Manor and are greeted by "Mad Eye" Moody at King's Cross. We even magically walk through the wall to reach Platform 9 and 3/4.

After a day of Harry Potter hedonism, we spend the evening at the Universal CityWalk, 12 hectares of entertainment nestled between the two theme parks. There are plenty of clubs, bars and restaurants to keep us amused. I love the rainbow coloured Antojitos Authentic Mexican restaurant with its steaming fresh tortillas and extensive selection of tequilas.

Although I'm potty about Potter, we do make time to visit other attractions. Just opposite Diagon Alley is Springfield, the home of The Simpsons where we call into Mo's Tavern for a sizzling Flaming Mo and refreshing Duff Beer.

Our hotel, the newly opened Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort, is like another theme park. Its retro feel is based on the family motels and beach resorts built in America during the 1950s and '60s.

From the moment we arrive at reception, we are transported back in time. The resort is divided into five blocks nestled around two huge pool areas, both with a bar and even a sandy beach.

The Cabana Courtyard has a super water slide, a kids' water play area, hot tub and a beach pavilion where bands perform, while a lazy river runs through another courtyard area.

One morning, we visit the Royal Pacific Resort for a Character Breakfast in Jake's American Bar. We enjoy a buffet with a Pacific Island twist, dining on Hawaiian pancakes and Tahitian French toast.

But the whole room lights up the minute we hear that Gru and the minions, from Despicable Me, will be joining us. Both adults and children are excited when the colourful characters walk in the room. They stop at each table, posing for selfies.

Yet another highlight in a holiday that was magical from start to finish.

Laura Wurzal was a guest of Virgin Holidays.

- PAA

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