It’s not every day that you encounter a 60ft, seven-ton, fire-breathing Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon and survive.
But I’ve just managed to do it, ducking past its eyebrow-scorching flames – seemingly thousands of times hotter than the blazing Florida sun – and taking refuge in the vast marble halls of Gringotts Wizarding Bank. Here I sneaked past 10 goblins busying themselves counting cash, before jumping on a mine train to underground vaults where I did battle with Bella LeStrange and Lord Voldemort – all with a little help from Harry Potter and friends.
I’m at Diagon Alley, the multimillion-pound extension to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando that opens to muggles on 8 July. The expansive park-within-a-park doubles the size of the Harry Potter offering, linking to the existing Hogsmeade area via the Hogwarts Express train.
From the minute you enter the park – via the spookily realistic King’s Cross station and a London area complete with a life-size replica of Piccadilly Circus’s Eros statue, red telephone boxes and even double yellow lines on the roads – it’s clear that even the smallest detail has been scrutinised by the designers.
Inside Harry Potter's Diagon Alley
When I step behind the London façade and into Diagon Alley itself though, I almost have to pinch myself to make sure that I’m not part of JK Rowling’s imagination. The high-rise buildings block out views of the rest of Universal Studios, taking me right into the heart of both her books and the films.
“It’s even better than the film set – it makes me feel like a child; it has created a real sense of wonder in me,” Helena Bonham Carter, who plays LeStrange, tells me on this preview of the park. “They have ceilings and solidity, we only had sides and green screens. But when you have an amazing set like this, it makes acting easier as it does the imagining for you.”
The narrow streets of Diagon Alley are lined with familiar names such as the Leaky Cauldron pub and Ollivanders Wand Shop. Each turn takes you further into Potterland, with areas themed on Horizont Alley, Carkitt Market and the dark, foreboding Knockturn Alley.
The films’ art director, Alan Gilmore, is the man responsible for bringing it all to life. He has gone to painstaking lengths to get the details right, even bringing London bricks over in his suitcase for sculptors to copy.
“We were set a challenge to raise the bar. It had to be the best theme-park experience in the world and I think we’ve achieved that,” he tells me. “Parks don’t normally do this level of immersion, but the technology is far and beyond anything done before.”
Diagon Alley is the same size as Hogsmeade, which opened four years ago last week, but it feels much more expansive, largely because there’s enough to keep you entertained for days. Pick up an interactive wand and wave it at a window in a certain way and something will come to life; or head to the Knight Bus to meet the dreadlocked Shrunken Head that will happily hold a conversation with you.
Look at the same thing again and you’ll find something else to pick up on, another layer of depth. As Harry said when he visited Diagon Alley in the film, you need eight pairs of eyes to take it all in.
For fans who want to dig even deeper, the creative team has hidden dozens of “Easter eggs” around the park – small features that you have to seek out. Use one of the red phone boxes and dial 62442 (or M-A-G-I-C) and you’ll get through to the Ministry of Magic; twist a door handle on a shop in Knockturn Alley and it lets out a surprising blast of steam to warn you off.
VIDEO: HARRY POTTER CAST AT THE OPENING UNIVERSAL STUDIOS' DIAGON VALLEY
The showstoppers, though, are the two rides: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express train. The first combines roller-coaster movement with giant 3D projection screens to produce the battle scenes in Gringotts’ vaults. It’s a thrilling ride, but you need to sit in the middle of the row for the full effect – the safety bars on the sides of the car are on the high side and can obscure your vision.
The train – reached magically with a special effect that has you disappearing through a wall to reach platform 9¾ – was my favourite. Jump into the old-style eight-seater compartment to ride from one park to the other; CGI-scenes through the windows reveal London and the M25, before passing through the Scottish countryside to reach Hogwarts. Along the way, hippogriffs, centaurs and Potter characters on broomsticks appear – you have to ride it in both directions to get the full story.
This being the US, a theme park and a film franchise, there are plenty of ways to part with your muggle money aside from the entry fee. At Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour you can pick up a tub of butterbeer ice cream for $4.99 (£3) while those interactive wands cost $44.95 (£28) and come with a snazzy location map for the wand stops that glow in the dark. For anyone looking to specialise in the Dark Arts, a Sirius Black cape will set you back a staggering $299 (£187).
A two-week, two-park ticket to Universal’s Islands of Adventure (for Hogsmeade) and Universal Studios (for Diagon Alley) costs £111 per adult and £102 per child, so you don’t have to take a sizeable withdrawal from Gringotts to have a good time – but if you do pay a visit to the bank, keep an eye out for that dragon. One wrong step and you could be fried.
James Ellis travelled with British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0758; ba.com), which offers flights from Gatwick to Orlando and seven nights’ room-only at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort from £809 per person, for travel in September.
Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Florida: bit.ly/Diagon