Home » Pure Wizardry: The Amazing Behind-the-Scenes Story of Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando

Pure Wizardry: The Amazing Behind-the-Scenes Story of Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando

Diagon Alley

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.


Diagon Alley

“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.


Image: Anna Fox (license)

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.’”

Concept art for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley. Image © Universal Orlando Resort

“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.

The world’s most unique train journey

Hogwarts Express concept art

Linking Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade would be one of the most unique theme park rides ever built – one that would connect two separate lands inside two distinct theme parks.

“The Hogwarts Express was an extraordinary creative opportunity,” says Mark Woodbury. “Here we had two theme parks and we saw the opportunity to separate those two stories just as they are in the fiction by a considerable amount of space. But then you have the benefit of the Hogwarts Express that would give us an authentic way to make the story seamless as you travelled from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade and Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley, and to make this whole resort a different and unique experience.”

Whereas Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley are separated in the books and movies by hundreds of miles of British towns and countryside, at Universal Orlando they would be connected by a track that would run through an unattractive backstage area of the resort. “Of course, it will go backstage,” admits Thierry Coup. “But the guests will never know because we’re going to take them on the actual journey.”

Hogsmeade Station

In fact, there would be two distinct journeys (one in either direction), each featuring characters from the movies. Guests would board the Hogwarts Express via either Hogsmeade Station in Islands of Adventure, or via the recreation of Kings Cross Station over at Universal Studios Florida. The trains themselves would be meticulously designed to resemble those seen in the movies, with a facility in Switzerland being used to produce them.

Hogwarts Express train

“The vision of the Hogwarts Express at Universal is to recreate authentically the trains seen in the films,” says Alan Gilmore. “We want the train to look like it has travelled many times between London and Scotland, which is a journey of several hundred miles. We actually have to scratch and dent to really make it feel like it’s been used.”

“We wanted to have a full scale train that looks just like the one in the films,” continues Coup. “An exact reproduction, down to the finest details. The fabric inside the train is from the same manufacturer that made that fabric back in the 1950s. It’s totally authentic.”

To guests, the two trains operating on the Hogwarts Express ride would appear to be real, working steam locomotives. However, the steam puffing out of the engines would be strictly for show. The trains would not be powered by old-fashioned coal, but would instead work more like a funicular railway of the type that usually runs up and down a steep hillside.

There would be no engines on-board. Instead, the trains would be pulled along by a cable, driven by a single motor that would haul both trains at the same time. This would have several benefits. Firstly, neither of the trains could break down individually. They would also travel at exactly the same speed, necessary both to coordinate the show elements and to ensure that they would pass each other at the correct point.

Specialist firm Doppelmayr were brought in to build the funicular railway system, boasting: “Hiding behind the detailed reproduction of the renowned steam train is a modern funicular ropeway constructed by the world market leader in ropeway engineering.”

Hogwarts Express installation

Both trains would run along a single track, except during one point in the middle where they would be able to pass each other. There would be no place for the two trains to turn around (given the cable system employed by the ride, that would be impossible anyway). Instead, one of the trains would travel in reverse, from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley.

The huge, “steam-driven” wheels that riders would see while boarding the Hogwarts Express would be another show element. The actual wheels of the train would be hidden underneath its body. The larger, fake wheels would only exist on one of side of the train – the side facing away from riders would not have them at all.

Rather than looking out of real windows onto the drab backstage area, guests would instead see scenes from the real Britain (and fictional elements from the Harry Potter universe) on display screens carefully disguised as windows. “We had to invent a whole different projection system that is part of the train,” explains Coup. “You can actually lean against the window and see what’s oncoming – this is unheard of, it’s a very unique technology and we developed it here.”

“The projection technology allows us to have everything outside the windows of the trains be the true journey, from seeing the British landscapes, the Malfoy Manor, and coming on to Hogwarts and seeing your favorite characters, all that had to be created so that you don’t feel like you are in Florida.”

The displays would not use traditional 3-D technology, such as that employed by the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. This would have required guests to wear 3-D glasses. Instead, the edges of the displays would be curved, helping to create an impression of depth and to overcome the feeling of simply staring at a high-definition monitor. The overall level of immersion would be enhanced by making the frosted windows of the trains’ eight-seater compartments into screens as well, enabling the illusion to be created of recognizable characters walking or standing just outside.


The scenes outside the window would include shots of Hagrid on his flying motorbike, Buckbeak the hippogriff, and the broom-riding Weasley twins. They were filmed in the UK almost two years before the ride was scheduled to open, with original actors including Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) returning. “I always had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t completely over, that I’d be back again,” admitted Grint. The development of the story had by this stage taken two years, having begun in 2010.

Notable by their absence from the list of returning stars were Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson. Voice doubles would instead be used where necessary to provide additional dialogue for Harry and Hermione. “A while ago, they asked me to do more stuff for the theme park,” explained Radcliffe in May 2014, “and that was my moment to try and draw a line because that theme park is going to keep expanding, and keep going to more countries, and there’s going to come a point where I’m going to be 30 years old, and if I was still doing that then, that would be a huge problem.”

With the trains looking suitably authentic, the two stations closely resembling their movie counterparts, and the journey having been created, there was still one more challenge facing Universal Creative. In the movies, Harry and his friends enter the hidden Platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross by running directly through a brick wall. This memorable effect would have to be recreated in the Wizarding World’s new attraction. But how?

In the end, Universal accepted that actually having guests pass through a brick wall was not practical. Instead, they devised a neat effect for the benefit of waiting riders using the “Pepper’s Ghost” technique that dates back to the 19th century (and which was built upon for the Musion Eyeliner system employed by Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in the original Wizarding World). A sheet of glass would sit between those “walking through” the wall and those watching them, built into a large luggage cart. In conjunction with mirrors and lighting and sound effects, this would create the illusion for those watching that guests in front of them were passing through the wall. However, the guest in question would actually simply walk through a zig-zag section of queue, with a sound effect playing to indicate that they had passed through onto the mythical platform, ready to begin their magical journey to Hogwarts.

The bank raid

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts concept art

“The Gringotts that you see in the films was really a ride experience waiting to happen,” says Mark Woodbury, as he explains Universal’s decision to set the headline ride of Diagon Alley in the goblin-run bank.

2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone featured scenes of Hagrid taking Harry into the vaults of the bank, travelling deep under the streets of London on a roller coaster-style cart. It didn’t require a huge leap of imagination to foresee that this would provide the ideal inspiration for a theme park attraction. One of the movie’s stars, Rupert Grint, recalls: “Even when we were filming it, we always used to say ‘this would make a really good ride.’”

Whereas Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’s storyline had been a “greatest hits” of sorts, taking guests on a journey through a variety of recognizable locations and moments from the movies and books, the follow-up – dubbed Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – would focus on a much more specific set of events, and would largely take place in a single venue. “The story part of it was really important to us,” explains Woodbury. “[We wanted] to bring people into that moment in time in the fiction when Harry, Ron and Hermione are breaking into Gringotts Bank.” This sequence appeared in the final movie in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, as the trio sought to recover one of the “horcruxes” created by the evil Lord Voldemort in an attempt to attain eternal life.

The challenge was to find a way to place guests in the thick of the action, without breaking the continuity of the original story. “It took a lot of thought and consideration to find a way to allow us to be in that moment from the movie,” recalls Woodbury. “We had to find a window that would put us right into the middle of that. But it was a tricky piece of business to find a way to do that and have it be authentic. We studied it pretty hard and the thing we came up with was a slice of time by which we would be able to be in Gringotts Bank at the moment Harry, Ron and Hermione were breaking in.”

“Certain things happen that may not be described in the book,” says Thierry Coup. “Collaborating with J.K. Rowling and her vision allowed us to create that experience – that’s the only way that could have happened.”

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts concept art

Whereas Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey had focused largely on Harry and his friends, the stars of the new ride would be two of his darkest enemies: Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange. Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter would return to reprise the roles that they played in the movies.

“Having Helena and Ralph as part of this movie and ride film was really extraordinary,” claims Woodbury. “They are just extraordinary acting talents. Thierry directed them, and seeing them in character and in costume on the set and watching them bring these characters to life was a tremendous experience – to be sitting next to somebody, and suddenly see them explode into character. You learn to appreciate the genius you are surrounded by.”

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts would occupy a huge portion of the new Wizarding World, though it would be largely hidden inside a cavernous show building. As with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the queue line would form a major part of the overall experience.

 “[The entry] is a giant marble room. It’s enormous, with huge chandeliers. We have animatronic goblins that are working in the bank, processing payments from various muggles who are allowed in that day,” explains Alan Gilmore.


The goblins would play a major role in the queue line, and Eric Hunt, the Creative Producer for the attraction, is particularly proud of them. “This is unlike anything that’s out there,” he boasts. “It’s a major achievement for Universal, because it’s not something you’ve seen in many parts of our parks throughout the world. This is the only place where we have animation at this capacity, where it’s really up close and personal and you can see all the detailing. And what’s great about the details is that the accuracy is coming right off the digital models from the feature films, so they are so authentic.”

The areas occupied by the goblins and passed through by guests would be either based directly on or inspired by the look and feel of the Gringotts sets seen in the movies. “Stuart Craig [the movies’ Production Designer] takes his vision from the feature films, and that segways into drawings that we use to create the environments [for the theme park],” explains Hunt. “Similar, but different because we have to be able to accommodate two or three thousand guests per hour – certainly different to building a set that’s only going to be used for a shoot.”

Once they had descended into the vaults, guests would board mine cart-themed vehicles before racing off on their adventure. As it had with the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and its first Harry Potter ride, Universal would build on its previous successes when devising the ride system for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. “The ride system for Gringotts is a combination of all the great ride systems we have done in the past,” says Coup, “but combined together with control systems that were not fast enough years ago.”

Gringotts vehicles

An essential element of the experience would be the ride’s unique vehicles. Nine trains would be made up of two 12-seater cars each, with lap bars holding guests in place. The vehicles would include a turntable that would sit on top of the chassis, enabling the guests to be spun in any direction, in a similar fashion to the ride vehicles employed by The Cat in the Hat and Men in Black: Alien Attack. Although the trains would coast down sections of the track as on a traditional roller coaster, for much of the circuit their movement would be controlled by rotating tires distributed along the ride path.

Rather than being a simple, linear journey, the Gringotts ride experience would incorporate some unique set pieces and transitions. The first of these would be a piece of tilting track, situated in front of a projection screen that would hold riders’ attention. The track would pivot around a center point, sending the rear car up into the air while the front car leaned precipitously forward. After a few moments, the train would be released, plunging down the ride’s longest drop.

Another section would see a portion of track mounted onto a motion base, seemingly based on a patent filed by Universal in 2011. In a sequence similar to the “roof plunge” segment at the end of the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the motion track would be used in conjunction with footage on a projection screen to simulate a long freefall, with guests coming under attack from a troll.

In common with most of Universal’s recent high-profile rides, projection screens would play a major role in Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The ride would employ 4K digital high definition 3-D projection systems supplied by Infitec, with guests donning 3-D glasses.

Gringotts scene

“The optics are so much better [from the new projection systems],” says Coup. “We have no more ghosting effect, we have really sharp imagery that gives you much more depth, no more strobing on the imagery. We have much bigger screens than we did before. We can also do edge blending, which is a technique that allows us to use almost 360-degree screens that immerse you into the imagery, so you feel you are there with your favorite actors – not just for 10-15 seconds, but for 30-40 seconds at a time.”

Curved projection screen

In total, some 17,000 square feet of projection surfaces would be used within the Gringotts attraction. The screens were built by Winter Garden, Florida-based Phoenix Rising, with the largest being 110 feet in circumference, 45 feet high and with a vertical and horizontal radius of nearly 55 feet. The surfaces are coated with Goo Systems Global’s Screen Goo, a specially formulated, highly-reflective acrylic paint that allows any smooth paintable surface to be transformed into a high performance projection screen.

Edge blending

Filling the enormous screens is a task that is beyond even modern high-definition projectors. Instead, a number of projectors are combined together in order to increase the total resolution of the image. The images from the different projectors are overlapped, with the images being visually joined together using edge blending. This technique involves varying the brightness of the overlapping image regions in order to ensure that they appear to be a single, seamless image to those viewing them.

The roller coaster-based ride system employed by Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts would differ significantly from the robotic arms used by Forbidden Journey. However, one of the robotic arms would play a key role towards the end of the new attraction. As Harry Potter fought a pitched battle with Voldemort on a huge projection screen, fog effects would obscure the arm, which would move a portion of the screen to enable riders’ vehicles to slip through it.

Recreating a city

London Waterfront concept art

Though it would be dubbed “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley”, the new land at Universal Studios Florida would incorporate other areas besides the magical shopping street.

Facing out onto Universal Studios Florida’s lagoon would be the London Waterfront, incorporating a host of recognizable locations from real-world London. The area would play two key roles. Firstly, it would establish the setting for the new Wizarding World, and provide an external façade to face on to the rest of Universal Studios Florida. Secondly, it would completely conceal Diagon Alley and its contents, and ensure that the rest of the park wasn’t visible to guests inside the Wizarding World. “Once you’re inside Diagon Alley”, promised Gilmore, “there’s nothing else. You are in Harry’s World.”

In the books and movies, “muggles” are not aware of the existence of Diagon Alley. Entrance can be gained by tapping a specific brick in order to unveil a hidden alleyway. “That goes completely against what you would do in a theme park,” says Coup. “When you know that millions of guests are going to be going into Diagon Alley, you want to put big signs up. But we didn’t want to do that because it’s not that way in the stories.” Instead, the entrance to Universal’s recreation of Diagon Alley would be hidden by slanted brick walls which would appear solid from the front view, with an accompanying “sliding” sound effect giving the impression that the bricks were moving as guests passed through. On reaching the other side, they would see the transforming wall frozen in time as a sculpture.

In Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure, guests are drawn up the main shopping street towards the iconic Hogwarts Castle. In Diagon Alley, the role of the castle would be taken by Gringotts Wizarding Bank, the goblin-operated financial institution in which witches and wizards store their money and other valuables in heavily-guarded vaults. Sitting atop the multi-story structure would be an enormous, 60-foot dragon – one that would actually breathe fire. “We say that about the dragon, and people think we’re goofing around,” comments Woodbury. “We’re not. This one blows a giant ball of fire.”

The first Wizarding World had been a huge success, but it had also taught Universal some painful lessons. Many of these related to its cramped layout, which made managing crowds very difficult. The undersized merchandise outlets were also a major bottleneck, with long lines of guests waiting to enter Ollivanders in particular.

Diagon Alley

The challenge in Diagon Alley was to make things larger and roomier, while still ensuring that the area and the buildings within it closely resembled what was seen in the movies. Dale Mason, Director of Creative Development, explains: “When we laid out Hogsmeade and began that process we never realized [the size of] the crowds. [In Diagon Alley] we needed to be true to the story which was to keep things tight and close, but we also needed to have the space. And I think we’ve achieved pretty well this feeling of a very tight, close urban environment but still having space for our guests.”

The Diagon Alley version of Ollivanders would offer an identical show to the Hogsmeade store, and would have an exterior that was faithful to its appearance in the movies. Inside, however, there would be major improvements. There would be three showrooms, rather than one, enabling guests to pass through much more quickly. The store itself would also be enlarged, ensuring that eager buyers could grab their own wands more easily.

There were positive lessons from Hogsmeade to be applied to the new project, too. “[With Hogsmeade] we learned that people enjoy the environmental experience as much as they enjoy the ride experience,” says Woodbury. “That’s why this environment is so much more elaborate and expansive.”

Diagon Alley itself would be lined with shops and dining outlets, with the first stop being the Leaky Cauldron pub – the area’s main restaurant. A selection of shops seen in the books and movies would be open to guests, including the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes joke shop, Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions (selling character costumes and Hogwarts school uniforms) and a second version of Ollivanders Wand Shop.

Gilmore explained that the second Wizarding World would be “a maze crisscrossing itself.” Running off Diagon Alley would be Knockturn Alley, frequented in the stories by practitioners of the “dark arts”. This would be headlined by Borgin and Burkes, selling items such as Death Eater masks, skulls and replica costumes. Unlike Diagon Alley, Knockturn Alley would feature a ceiling, ensuring that it would remain dark and gloomy even during Florida’s bright, sunny summer days.

Despite the inclusion of both Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley, Universal was keen to increase the scale and scope of the new land. This meant adding two new areas that were not featured in the books and movies, and were designed in conjunction with J.K. Rowling. The first, Horizont Alley, would provide additional space for stores. The second new area would be Carkitt Market, named by Rowling herself and inspired by London’s covered Leadenhall Market. This would host live shows, and would also be home to the Gringotts Money Exchange, where guests could swap “muggle money” for wizarding bank notes.

The real deal

In order to ensure that fans (and Rowling) would be satisfied that Universal had succeeded in recreating the “true” Diagon Alley, Universal again relied on significant players from the movies’ production teams. “Having a guy like Stuart Craig involved was pretty critical,” says Woodbury of the Production Designer. “Bringing the entire crew of the Harry Potter film franchise back together in a way to help us make this as real and authentic as possible was really important and a very active part of the process.”

Coup felt that the opportunity to build a real-world version of Diagon Alley was too much for the likes of Craig and Gilmore to resist. “We clearly get the feeling that this was a dream come true for them, because when they get to design sets when they work on films they are limited to what the cameras can see. Often there are no ceilings. When you walk into the Diagon Alley movie set you can see the ceiling and all of the lights. One of the comments from the cast when they walked in [to Universal’s Diagon Alley] was ‘Wow, there’s the sky!’”

To ensure that the streets could accommodate large numbers of guests, but would still feel suitably hemmed in on both sides, the buildings would be constructed on a large scale. “We realized every detail of Diagon Alley, so we have finished all the buildings, all the way to the top,” says Gilmore. “The streets lean in on top of you, it’s all twisty and old England.”

Despite their flimsy, aged appearance, the buildings themselves would be built around a sturdy steel framework. This was designed to ensure that the structures would be able to withstand the frequent hurricanes endured by Central Florida’s theme parks, complying with modern building codes.

“I think Diagon Alley is utterly unusual,” says Gilmore. “Coming from a film team where we only ever built Diagon Alley maybe 20 feet high, we’ve had a chance to build it for real. Everything is there – roofs, chimneys, inside the rooms. It’s a real, breathing city. The scale is so magnificent. To tell all these stories and layers of stories is a real joy.”

Multiple time periods would be evoked in the design of the buildings and the streets themselves. “The place has been very authentically designed to represent a palate of British architecture in London,” claims Gilmore. “The Leaky Cauldron is a medieval building, which is, say, 1,000 years old. You have the Victorian streets and Victorian architecture of London. Stuart [Craig] drove a design logic where it’s almost an enhanced reality, where the buildings lean a little bit more, and the columns are a little bit stronger, to give that sense of magic.”

“I want people to walk in here and experience every level of detail. I want them to look at the buildings and realize these are real buildings. This is really old, magical London. I want them to think, ‘My gosh, I’ve been transported to another time.’”

The little details

The musical soundtrack of Diagon Alley would play a critical role in immersing guests in the Wizarding World. The London Symphony Orchestra, who performed the movies’ soundtracks, were brought in to work on new arrangements for the area and its attractions.

Thierry Coup travelled to London’s famous Abbey Road Studios in March 2014 to oversee the recording sessions. “You’ll recognize the theme, the score,” he claims. “But it is rearranged in a way that goes so well with this brand new adventure. Music brings emotions together. Even if you close your eyes and just hear the music of [composer] John Williams, you start visualizing and experiencing these feelings, these moments that Harry Potter lived.”

As well as ensuring that Diagon Alley would sound authentic, Universal also had to ensure that even the smallest elements would look authentic – right down to the design of posters in the shop windows and the packaging of the merchandise sold within. That meant carrying out a meticulously detailed graphic and product design process, led by London-based design firm MinaLima. The firm, made up of Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima, had previously spent a decade designing graphics for all eight Harry Potter movies. The pair met on the set of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and worked on creations such as The Daily Prophet newspaper.

J.K. Rowling provides little detail on how the graphics on signs, documents or products look in the Harry Potter books. “Rowling captures the essence of an object, but we were given free rein to create all the details,” says Mina. Although some designs for the movies could be reused directly, in many cases they had to be extensively reworked in order to create functional, real-world items.

Often, the designers had to look through the eyes of the fictional person that created an object in order to generate ideas. The merchandise in Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, for example, was designed to look as though it was dreamt up by two 16-year-old boys. “We used all kinds of rudimentary printing techniques and clashing graphics for the Weasleys’ products,” says Mina. “We drew inspiration from childishly designed things like firecracker packaging.”

Daily Prophet

A variety of looks and styles are incorporated into the area. “Harry Potter’s world includes Gothic, Victorian, Soviet elements, ‘70s and ‘80s influences,” Lima says. “When we designed The Daily Prophet, we knew it needed to be quite imposing-looking as a newspaper from the Ministry of Magic’s totalitarian state, so we looked at Soviet propaganda images and mimicked their look.”

Gringotts Money Exchange sign

The signs on the various shops had to reflect the age of Diagon Alley, with MinaLima employing faded paint, ghost-lettering and vintage wood. But the weathering was purely artificial – the signs are actually extensively hurricane-proofed.

Dining, wizard-style

As in the original Wizarding World, and later in the Simpsons-themed Springfield, Universal saw dining as an essential part of the overall guest experience in Diagon Alley. Ric Florell, Universal Orlando’s Senior Vice President of Revenue Operations, explains: “When our guests dine with us in our restaurants, we want them to be fully immersed in the theme, so they feel as if they’re in that world. With The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we want our guests to feel as if they’re a part of the adventures that their favorite characters experienced. We’re bringing to life our guests’ favorite stories and giving them a chance to experience them first-hand – and we want our food and beverages to enhance that experience.”

Executive Chef Steven Jayson was once again called upon to give actual flavor to imaginary dishes and beverages. His team placed notes throughout Rowling’s seven books, with each marking an idea for a possible food or drink offering. “With everything we did, we tried to make it as authentic as possible,” says Florell. “Of course, we had to have the Leaky Cauldron.”

Just as the entrance to Diagon Alley itself would be nondescript, so would the entrance to the “grubby-looking pub” described by J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. “If people hadn’t pointed it out,” says Rowling’s text, “Harry wouldn’t have noticed it was there.”

“All we’ve got out in front of this restaurant to indicate that the Leaky Cauldron is actually here is a very simple sign. A witch standing around a cauldron,” explains Florell.

While Rowling had given hints as to the pub’s appearance – built upon in the movies – she hadn’t devised a menu. “The tricky part was creating a menu when there was no mention of any of the food items in the books and only mention in the films to Split Pea Soup,” says Florell. “So, we devised a menu with delicious dishes you would find in a British pub. We also took into consideration what our guests wanted. For example, we received a lot of interest in having a larger beer selection in the Hog’s Head pub in Hogsmeade. We took that feedback and decided to offer more options in the Leaky Cauldron.”

Image: Universal

Jayson says of the headline restaurant: “We wanted to expand the dining from Hogsmeade into Diagon Alley by recreating another beloved restaurant found in the Harry Potter books and films that delivers a completely different experience than the Three Broomsticks – yet has the same magical feel. In the Leaky Cauldron, you actually feel as if you’re walking into a pub with dishes that are true to the British culture.  We even imported certain ingredients like English cheeses to add to our dishes.”

Three of those cheeses would be incorporated into the Ploughman’s Platter, along with a traditional Scotch Egg (a hard-boiled egg wrapped with sausage, which is breaded and fried). In an attempt to ensure that the traditionally heavy British pub grub would not overwhelm guests in the heat of Florida, Jayson’s team did make some changes. “Our Scotch Egg is flash fried. It’s not in the deep fryer for very long, plus the coating that we use on this item is kind of thin,” he explains. “We supplement that with a beautiful apple and beet salad, some Branston Pickle Relish plus a field green kind of salad and some roasted tomatoes. So you’ve got some lighter items in there alongside the authentic British pub fare. You’ve got some protein with the eggs and the cheese, some carbs with the peasant bread. So in the end, it’s a balanced meal.”

Other entrees would include pub favorites such as bangers and mash, lamb and Guinness stew and toad in the hole.  A selection of pies, including cottage pie (meat and vegetables in a potato crust) and fisherman’s pie (salmon, shrimp and cod in a potato crust) would also be on offer.

Whereas guests at Hogsmeade’s Three Broomsticks pick up their food directly from a counter, Universal hoped to bring together elements of the counter service experience with elements of the table service experience in the Leaky Cauldron. After placing their order, guests would be handed a numbered candle before being seated. Staff would then use the candle to locate the guests and serve them their food.

As for the drinks that guests would enjoy with their food, Florell says: “We knew that we were never going to be able to top Butterbeer, which is still going to be served at the Leaky Cauldron. So we thought that we’d try and create some other new beverages which would then take their inspiration directly from the Harry Potter movies. So we have things on tap here like Peachtree Fizzing Tea, Tongue-Tying Lemon Squash and Fishy Green Ale.” The latter creation features “fish eggs” that actually contain blueberry-flavored liquid, and are designed to explode in the drinker’s mouth.

Although none of the new beverages were likely to attain Butterbeer’s level of success, Universal did have a new version of its classic creation up its sleeve. At Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, Butterbeer would be reinvented – this time as an ice cream flavor. This would be served up alongside other unusual varieties of ice cream, which Jayson claims were “inspired by flavors associated with England, like Clotted Cream and Earl Grey and Lavender.”

Casting a spell

If Butterbeer was the star turn in the original Wizarding World’s food and drink line-up, then the wands sold at Ollivanders were the hit item of merchandise. Rather than simply expanding the selection available in the larger Ollivanders in Diagon Alley (and the Gregorovitch store in Carkitt Market), Universal had more ambitious plans.

“When you come to Diagon Alley, you can actually practice your magic, practice your spells,” says Thierry Coup. “When you buy a wand, you get a map with it that shows you where all of these magical places are, and you can go and practice your spells in a shop in front of a window, and when you cast a spell something magical happens in the window. It’s great.”

The original wands would still be available, priced at $34.95 plus tax. For an extra ten dollars, guests would now be able to buy interactive wands that would enable them to perform “spells” in select locations in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade (to retrofit the technology into Hogsmeade, many animations that previously ran on a loop were converted to be triggered by the wands).

In order to perform a spell, guests would be required to navigate to a brass marker, which would indicate the wand motion that should be made. If the budding wizard or witch achieved the correct motion, then an event would play out.

The technology behind the wands is actually deceptively simple, and is based on infrared light. Each wand is equipped with a reflective tip, covered by a filter. These reflect infrared light emitted by lights attached to cameras that are pointed at the spell-casting locations, enabling a computer program to track the reflected light and ascertain that the spell has been performed correctly.

Bringing Diagon Alley to life

In addition to the shops and rides, Universal also planned to include live entertainment as a core part of the Diagon Alley offering. The newly-devised Carkitt Market would host a stage that could accommodate performances, enabling the company to deliver on Mark Woodbury’s promise to bring the characters of Harry Potter’s world to life within the second Wizarding World.

“Much like Hogsmeade, we really wanted to figure out a way of getting certain music into the entertainment programme,” says Mike Aiello, Universal’s Director of Entertainment – Creative Development. “With Diagon Alley being a place of commerce, we were trying to figure out how we could fit that into this architecture. The Wizarding Wireless Network [a radio station based in Hogsmeade] became an outlet for us to say ‘we know that there’s a radio station that wizards listen to.’ Examining the fiction, we found a line in the books where Mollie Weasley says that she’s a huge fan of a singer named Celestina Warbeck. Okay – there’s a single line here, we’ve got to figure out something with this. Who is Celestina, and how can we bring her into the world of Diagon Alley?”

Celestina Warbeck

“We worked with Warner Bros. and discovered that there were four song titles that J.K. Rowling had written. Just song titles, and I think one lyric line for one of the songs. We said ‘Would you be opposed to us creating all the music and lyrics for these songs?’ And they said ‘Yes, let’s try this out’. So we investigated who she reminded J.K. of – if there was a singer in existence today who most closely reminded J.K. of Celestina, who would it be? And immediately they said ‘The inspiration for Celestina was Shirley Bassey’. So we said ‘Okay, we’re starting to find some foundation here with which we can build a show experience.’”

The resulting show would feature Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees, live in concert. “We hired two amazing composers – Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner – working with us and Warner Bros. to write these songs from scratch. Using all the inspiration we had from J.K. Rowling, we’ve come up with a really great, one-of-a-kind show that allows us to kind of expand the brand. Based on a single line, we were able to build something that people haven’t seen before.”

Tales of Beedle the Bard

Universal had far more material to work with when devising the other show to be performed in Carkitt Market. This would be based on The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a selection of children’s stories by J.K. Rowling which is featured in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. First produced in a limited edition run of only seven copies in 2007, the book was released to the general public in 2008.

“We chose two stories from this book – The Fountain of Fair Fortune, and the Tale of Three Brothers, which was featured in the seventh Potter film,” says Aiello.  “We have music and puppetry, performed by four members of the Wizarding Academy of the Dramatic Arts, which was created by J.K. Rowling in the foreword of Beedle the Bard. We’re like an archaeologist going through these books trying to piece things together, trying to form a show experience, and these four performers are telling these stories using these puppets.”

The puppets themselves were designed by award-winning artist and production designer Michael Curry and his team. The Three Brothers puppets, each about 30 inches tall and fully articulated, are held in one hand by the actors using an oblong handle, with their other hand being used to operate the arms.

Curry was approached about working on the puppets in September 2013. “I run a studio of 38 puppet makers and special effects people and every one of them are absolute Harry Potter die-hard fans, so we had a lot of support. Universal was great, because they came out and visited us and then met my staff, and were like ‘Well, we’ve already found a nest of, you know, experts here.’ Designs were done back and forth and we really wanted to adhere to the designs set forth in the movie, and then J.K. Rowling’s illustrations, too. That was our bible.”

The finale of the Three Brothers performance would feature a 16-foot version of Death, which would have to fit into a small, three-by-four-feet box. “We had to come up with a piece that would extend and cantilever forward, so it’s a compound motion,” explains Curry. “We didn’t want it just to pop up like a horror house. The shoulders, the head would have to collapse down, but that also added to its animation. During the animation stroke, we could control it so the shoulders are moving and the head is curling down…and we found out that it looked actually quite natural, because if you were taking a character and folding it up in the small box, you would curl it up in the fetal position. Something about it emerging from that position is doubly creepy.”

“We have Beedle the Bard, which gives us things that are deeply rooted in the fiction, and Celestina which is something we’ve been able to build from the foundation and create and expand the world,” says Aiello proudly. “What our entertainment team brings to the table when we’re creating content is providing life to the amazing architecture that surrounds us. Our role is to give it form and function. Music is a huge part, and the puppets and tales is a different look to anything we do at Universal. It brings the life that Diagon Alley deserves.”

Another smash hit

Following the runaway success of the first Wizarding World of Harry Potter, some analysts suggested that Universal would struggle to replicate it with Diagon Alley. “It has great potential to show that what they did with the original Harry Potter-themed area was not a fluke,” said John Gerner, founder of Richmond, Virginia-based Leisure Business Advisors. “[But] now they have the potential to disappoint more than they ever had before. It works both ways.”

The early signs were promising. Huge crowds descended upon Universal Orlando on July 8, 2014, ready for the area’s opening day. Lines began forming as early as 5am, and within an hour of Universal Studios Florida opening there was a two hour wait to get into Diagon Alley. The line for the Gringotts ride soon reached more than six hours, with technical glitches failing to discourage guests from joining it.

The crowds kept on coming. Within a month, the Hogwarts Express carried its one millionth rider, with Universal dishing out free Butterbeer ice cream at Hogsmeade Station to celebrate.

For the Universal Creative team, the sense of satisfaction mirrored that experienced when Hogsmeade made its debut. “People that came in 2010 told us they couldn’t wait to come back,” said Mark Woodbury. “My favorite part is standing inside the London façade and seeing people’s faces as they walk in. Then the discovery starts – they start seeing every detail and seeing everything that there is to do.”

For Universal Parks and Resorts Chairman and CEO Tom Williams, the opening of Diagon Alley was a chance to reflect. “You have to understand that I was part of the opening team for Universal Studios Florida. I was here back in 1987 when this was all still snake-filled marshland. And to see what it’s become – Central Florida’s newest destination resort – is just kind of mind-blowing.”

You can learn more about the creation of Universal Orlando’s rides and attractions by reading Universal Orlando: The Unofficial Story, the first full-length history of the resort.