July 7, 2014

Diagon Alley Impressions Pt. 1

While muggles are already mobbing Diagon Alley today for the last soft-opening, a lot of questions remain about tomorrow's grand opening. First and foremost: Will guests get to venture beyond the Gringotts Bank Lobby and onto the signature ride itself?


Universal has promised the ride will be ready, but also have promised they won't open it until it is ready. Still, if this weekend's twitter and Facebook posts are any indication, not riding Grigotts has been a disappointment for some, but hasn't taken the shine off of the love for the new land. And there is a lot to love, frankly. Over the next few days I will share some of my impressions of what I think really works (most of it), what is a mild disappointment, and where there are opportunities for either a magical or frustrating experience.

Today I'm going to start with how this new Wizarding World has so quickly won over so many -- even people who have never read the books or seen the pictures.  

 The best theme park designers dating back to Walt Disney himself realized early on that the whole experience (when done right) is like a movie where you are the movie camera. So the best designs have built-in cinematics.  

When you first come into the light from the dark opening in the wall, you are overwhelmed with an area that very much feels like it has existed, hidden from view, for centuries (and this was built on a pretty ambitious construction schedule).
Take a few more steps and you see this:

The dragon atop Gringotts is revealed.  Walt Disney would have called this a "weenie" -- something (like a castle or a mountain) that draws you in and makes you want to see more. And there is so much eye candy to see: Signs and ads everywhere in intricate detail.



 
Better believe having the ads well-themed in what is, essentially, the wizarding shopping district is a smart move for getting guests to open up their wallets. And it is brilliant in more ways than one. Many of the facades are also interactive if you purchase magic wands (more on that later).

But as Diagon gets ready for its close-up tomorrow, I close today with the outside of the new land that hides incredibly well all that is inside.
I've showed you before how the London facade is intricate in detail.

But there are also hidden surprises for those who look patiently enough that hint there is more to this area than meets the eye.


The Knightbus (seen here in the foreground) is also the first entertainment experience many guests will find, as the driver and his shrunken head friend will chat with tourists.
Those human elements really sell the experience as more than just some pretty buildings (as do wandering witches and wizards in Diagon itself)




But the designers also help make this all feel real with another cinematic tradition: the cross-fade. Look how well London blends in as seen from Universal's beautiful San Francisco area.

As you walk past the brickwork on the Disaster show building and approach King's Cross Station both feel harmonious and yet feel like different areas. Universal Studios Florida as a whole needs more of these transitions, and I understand more are on the way.

Tomorrow - the details of King's Cross Station, Platform 9 3/4 and my impressions of the trip on the Hogwarts Express itself from London to Hogsmeadeand back..