The Hogwarts Express is one of the most unique and popular elements of Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But, perhaps appropriately, all is not as it seems with this magical train ride.
The Hogwarts Express is unique among the 3,500+ rides listed in our theme park guides, in that it actually acts as a transport system between two distinct parks, as well as being a ride experience in itself. The train recreates the journey that Harry Potter takes at the start and end of each year at Hogwarts, carrying guests from London to Hogsmeade and vice-versa. Or, in this case, from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida to the original Wizarding World in Islands of Adventure.
It’s an impressive sight. The trains, which closely resemble those seen in the Harry Potter movies, billow steam as they travel from Kings Cross to Hogsmeade Station. Once on-board, you’ll be hard-pressed not to believe you’re on the “real” thing, given the spectacular special effects employed by Universal to recreate the journey.
The Wizarding World, and Harry Potter in general, is all about magic and the suspension of disbelief. But, as you disembark from the train, you may be wondering exactly how it all works. And you may be quite surprised by the answers.
Spoiler warning: We won’t ruin the plotline of the Hogwarts Express in this article. But if you’d prefer not to understand how the ride works before experiencing it, stop reading now.
1. The trains don’t have steam engines. Or any engines at all…
All the steam puffing out of the Hogwarts Express trains is strictly for show (and it’s quite a show). The trains are not powered by good old-fashioned coal, but instead work more like a funicular railway of the type that usually runs up and down a steep hillside like this one in Fribourg, Switzerland:
There are no engines on-board the two Hogwarts Express trains. Instead, they are pulled along by a cable, driven by a motor that is (presumably) housed at one of the two stations. The same motor is actually hauling both trains at the same time, which has several benefits. For starters, neither of the trains can “break down” individually. And they’ll also travel at exactly the same speed, which is necessary both to coordinate the show elements and to ensure that they pass each other at the correct point.
The system was built by funicular railways specialist Doppelmayr, who boast: "Hiding behind the detailed reproduction of the renowned steam train is a modern funicular ropeway constructed by the world market leader in ropeway engineering."
2. The trains run on a single track
There may be two trains travelling back and forth between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, but that doesn’t mean there are two separate tracks for them to run on. Instead, both trains share a single track – except for one point in the middle, where they are able to pass each other.
Flanged wheels on the outboard side of the trains follow the outer rail, whereas unflanged wheels on the inboard side stick to the opposite rail, enabling the two cars to pass each other. A similar split section from another Doppelmayr funicular is shown above.
3. It goes backwards
You’ll have noticed, of course, that there’s nowhere for the two trains to turn around (and, given the cable system employed by the ride, that would be impossible anyway). What does that mean? Simple – you travel in reverse from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley.
4. There are no wheels on one side of the trains
Those massive, “steam-driven” wheels you see when you climb aboard the Hogwarts Express are another show element – they’re fake. The actual wheels of the train are hidden underneath.
Interestingly, the fake wheels only exist on one side of the train. The other side doesn’t have them, as you can see if you check out these aerial photos from Pixels at the Parks.
5. The comparments don’t have any windows
OK – this one isn’t so secret. You’ve probably guessed that the windows of the Hogwarts Express compartments are not actually real, and that you aren’t really looking out at the British countryside. In fact, hidden beyond the fake windows is a decidedly unattractive backstage area of Universal Orlando.
What you may not have figured out, though, is how those fake windows provide such an impression of depth, even though you’re not wearing 3D glasses. The answer is that the edges of the display are curved, helping to overcome the impression that you’re just staring at a high-definition monitor (which, essentially, you are).
Once again with the Hogwarts Express, Universal has demonstrated its ability to combine old and new technologies to create a truly convincing and exciting experience. In its own way, the Hogwarts Express is just as magical as the mythical train that it seeks to represent.