July 8, 2014

Diagon Impressions Pt 2: Opening Day & Hogwarts Express

Did you hear the news??? Universal sent me this email ad to make sure I knew what day it is.

Yes, Diagon Alley's Grand Opening happened at 8 this morning at Universal Studios Florida.  But the crowds started forming at 5am.

 By 6am -- this crowd had already formed (as seen on the Local 6 Morning News while watching on my couch and drinking my coffee)

And the lines and wait times have only grown from there. Universal learned a lot from the opening of Hogsmeade in 2010. The crowds were probably almost as big as that opening, but despite lines like these:

 the people hoping to see Potter in person did not stretch out to CityWalk. They DID, however, stretch from basically the back of the park to Mel's Diner at the front. Local 6's Evan Lambert lined up at park opening, and was allowed into Diagon Alley a mere 3 hours later.  But that doesn't mean Evan got a close encounter with a Goblin Banker.

Yes, Harry Potter & the Escape From Gringotts ride did open. Though, sources tell me it is not yet at its full capacity, it is growing more reliable by the day.  By mid-day here's where the line stood:

400 Minutes. That's 6 hours & 40 minutes for the ride ONCE you waited to be allowed into the land. The peak wait time I've seen so far is 450 minutes. Put another way, that's enough time to watch the first 3 Harry Potter films. 

What the inside hallway looks for those waiting in air conditioned comfort (just picture it packed with people).  Before you get there, crowds are winding through a  couple of outside areas for overflow crowd days like today. I guesstimate those hold about 2 hours worth of people) 

Granted, Gringotts has gone down a couple of times throughout the day, but that is to be expected for a new first-of-its kind ride system.  What kind of ride?

 

Picture a roller coaster car, topped with a motion base (like Transformers) matched to 3-D images and props (like Spiderman) with some real surprises along the way.

I have not yet been fortunate enough to try out Gringotts -- so today I'm looking at the other new ride: the Hogwarts Express. From London, you enter King's Cross station and the theming on the inside is as authentic as the outside. It may not be sexy, but it feels like a train station.

 I'm told that a  version of that ad is in one of the Deathly Hollows movies.  Today, lines for the H.E. have stayed around 45 minutes, on average, If you need a snack while you wait, just like a real station -- there is a snack bar in the line.

The whole area is littered with authentic-feeling props from the muggle and wizard worlds -- including a familiar feathered friend.

I enjoyed the queue. Of course, I also enjoyed going during a preview with 99.5% fewer people than will normally be there.  After a nice optical illusion to simulate walking through the brick wall to reach Platform 9 3/4 -- here is what you see.

Pretty authentic, and seeing the smoking train really transports you to a different place (mentally) before transporting you physically.

Friendly conductors split your party into the typical numbers on the floor, then escort one party at a time to their train cabins, which are authentic-feeling down to scuff marks to make things look worn. When you are seated, your eyes are drawn to the window -- which starts with a smoke effect against a brick wall.

This "window" will show you the countryside from London to Hogwarts (Scottland) and -- not to spoil things -- you'll meet a lot of familiar characters on the way. Even though the "window" is hyped as kind of 2 1/2-D  technology, I thought the most convincing illusions happened on the frosted doors.  You'll encounter the big 3 on the way. 

After a few comfortable minutes, the Express pulls into the brand-new Hogsmeade Station with a new look at two familiar views (well, provided you've seen the original Wizarding World)

Hat tip to Universal Creative for making this station feel like it was there the whole time, and yet it also acts as a buffer between the Hogsmeade Village -- and the neighboring Lost Continent land.

I'm happy to say, despite losing a large chunk of real estate to Hogsmeade in 2008 & the Hogwarts Express station now, Lost Continent still FEELS like a land, not a corner. 

After a quick look at how it all fit together, I hiked the short path back to Hogsmeade station, where a conductor insisted on snapping a picture for me, befire I took in the sights back to London. That is a completely different show.

That is another positive to the whole Diagon expansion. Nearly every Team Member I encountered on my two visits to the area seemed not only excited to be there, but stayed in character no matter if I was there day or night. As I mentioned yesterday, the human interaction is essential to making the world feel authentic. 

On occasion, in the past, I have encountered some downright surly Universal Team Members. A couple of years ago, I was literally yelled at in Hogsmeade for following the signs posted in the confusing and crowded area where the lockers merge with the Forbidden Journey line. 

I am happy to say, this seems to be an area Universal is really working on. The current management really seems to understand the importance of customer service (what another chain calls the "Disney Difference") and since the Fast Food Boulevard/Simpsons area opened last year, I have seen only good-to-exceptional Team Members.

So - big thumbs up on that improvement. 

What do I think about the Hogwarts Express itself? The biggest positive is the look and feel of the trains and stations. The show in both directions was extremely family friendly, and it is a nice touch to have a ride even the smallest muggles can enjoy (though there is one brief encounter with a scary creature). The negatives: Hermoine's voice sounds nothing like Emma Watson. Harry sounds different, too, but it is not as glaring. The "window" is only as good as the visuals, and there are some moments when I was taken out of the moment by the CGI. I also worry about re-ridability. I understand some randomization was originally considered for the train (ala Star Tours: The Adventure Continues at Disney's Hollywood Studios)  along with more in-cabin effect. Of course, there is nothing in the ride's hardware that would prevent randomization from being added later, and the younger witches and wizards I spotted seemed delighted as they exited at each station. Please don't misunderstand: I liked the ride, and I recommend it especially for fans -- and those wanting a break from walking. If I had to pick, I'd rather wait for the trip from London to Hogsmeade. For me, personally, that show worked better.

I look forward to giving you my thoughts on Gringotts soon. More on Diagon tomorrow on Theme World.