The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida allows guests to step into the magical world created by J.K. Rowling. They can cast spells, take a journey on the Hogwarts Express and fight it out with Harry’s enemies in Gringotts Bank. It’s all a fantasy, of course – but behind the scenes, Universal’s creative teams (along with a host of outside companies) pulled off some real magic to bring the area to life.
The success of the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the neighboring Islands of Adventure (which opened in 2010) and the impact that it had in turning around the flagging fortunes of Universal Orlando inevitably led to speculation that the resort would install further attractions themed around J.K. Rowling’s creation. The insatiable appetite that fans had shown for Hogsmeade suggested that they would return in droves to experience other parts of Potter’s world.
The rumors were accurate. Just four years after they were able to explore Hogsmeade, guests at Universal Orlando were able to walk into a recreation of Diagon Alley. This is the in-depth, behind-the-scenes story of what happened during those four years.
Spoiler warning: There are no major plot spoilers for Diagon Alley’s attractions in this article. But if you don’t want to know anything about the area or its rides before visiting (or if you’d prefer not to know about the trickery that makes them work), stop reading now.
“Universal got involved very quickly after the first part,” recalls the movies’ Art Director Alan Gilmore, who would be closely involved in the development of the “sequel” to the original Wizarding World. “They realized how good it was; how brilliant a translation the books and films were to the theme park. Universal Creative started conceptualizing ideas pretty quickly.”
There was plenty of scope for extending Hogsmeade. Iconic locations and elements from the movies, such as the Chamber of Secrets and the Whomping Willow, could form the basis for new attractions. The remainder of the Lost Continent area of Islands of Adventure (partially consumed by Hogsmeade), would offer an obvious location for the expansion, given its close proximity to the Wizarding World.
However, plans soon centered around Diagon Alley, the mysterious fictional shopping street in London frequented by wizards and witches and featured in the Harry Potter books and movies. Setting a second Wizarding World in Diagon Alley would offer an instantly-recognizable setting and a host of potential attraction concepts, and would also enable Universal to further bolster merchandise sales by including a number of shops and dining outlets that would already be familiar to Potter fans.
There was one major sticking point with the Diagon Alley concept, however. The shopping street is located in England’s capital, hundreds of miles away from Hogsmeade. Given J.K. Rowling’s insistence on authenticity in the theme park incarnations of her creations, the idea of placing Diagon Alley directly next to Hogsmeade was unlikely to be greeted warmly by the author. On top of that, cramming a realistic representation of London into the space offered by the Lost Continent would be a challenge.
Senior Vice President Thierry Coup credits Universal Creative’s President Mark Woodbury with devising the solution. “We were laying out different areas to put Diagon Alley in. When we tried to place Diagon Alley right next to Hogsmeade, we quickly realized you can’t just walk from Scotland to London. It’s not going to work. If you put them 30 or 40 feet apart, it’s just not going to be right. You can’t see London facades right next to Hogwarts. So we started to think of other places. Well, is it going to be practical or not?”
“Then, suddenly Mark came up with the idea: Well, let’s place it at the Studios. Because then you have the separation. You can create that journey from Hogwarts. And everybody thought ‘That is the craziest idea. No!’ For about two seconds. And then ‘Wait a minute. That is brilliant.’”
“Right away, we started to look at where it could go,” recalls Coup. “Jaws [the ride, at Universal Studios Florida) offered the largest area for us to create something that was about the same footprint that we did back at Hogsmeade. Jaws had been here for about 22 years and it was still going well. But in the rating of all the attractions of the park, it was probably time for it to refreshed or changed.” The giant shark’s days were numbered, and the ride was shuttered in January 2012 to enable construction work on Diagon Alley to begin.
There was still the issue of how to transport guests from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley. Fortunately, Rowling’s books provided a ready-made solution – the Hogwarts Express train, which carries students from London to Hogsmeade and vice-versa at the start and end of every school term. Universal would recreate that journey by installing a version of the train that linked Islands of Adventure’s Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida.
The Diagon Alley project would outstrip the original Wizarding World in its scope, ambition and cost. Analysts estimated a budget of $400 million, while the New York Times reported that Universal had employed 60 designers to help bring the land to life, compared with 18 on the Hogsmeade project.