Diagon Alley: First impressions

By Ken Pilcher - Producer
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I didn't have a lot of time inside Diagon Alley Wednesday night, due to needing to help our crew get the best coverage on the air. But let me give some first impressions:

Mostly, my first impression is wow. The London exteriors are as detailed as anything Disney has tried outside, possibly, Tokyo DisneySea. While I am a huge fan of Animal Kingdom, London is more like Adventureland -- insanely detailed, yet romantic. I hoped to interact with the KnightBus driver and shrunken head later Thursday. Both were extremely convincing at first glance.

The interior areas of Diagon almost immediately reveal a definite sense of place and feel like there are unique "streets," not just one homogeneous zone. The scale of the area is, perhaps, even more impressive than I was led to believe. Don't kid yourself, folks. In scale, this new Diagon area is Main Street, U.S.A., at the Magic Kingdom compared to the original, smaller Disneyland in California.

Islands of Adventure's original Wizarding World: Hogsmeade is a small town. Universal Studio's Diagon represents a thriving section of a big city. The scale there is dramatically bigger and even more immersive overall. You do feel transported in the best sense of that word (in a different way than my favorite Old School immersion: Tom Sawyer's Island at Magic Kingdom. There are places on that island where you really can forget you are in a theme park.)

I must say, right off of the bat my lone disappointment came in the transition from London to the new Wizarding World. I have a huge understanding and appreciation of logistics and theme park ops needs. Having entered Diagon, I truly get why Disney & JK Rowling could not come to terms a long time ago. And I understand why Universal leapt at the chance for the theme park rights to her world.

See, a long, long time ago Disney was the front-runner for a Potter park presence. Their executives pitched something that would have been, essentially, one ride with a themed area around it, probably for Disney's Hollywood Studios, so that we can (wink, wink) go inside, making the movie world real.

From my understanding, Rowling had a vision of every guest getting the chance to individually tap the bricks outside of the Leaky Cauldron to enter Diagon Alley. For all of the flack many of Disney's imagineers and executives get from operations teams for not realizing what is practical, Disney's people (reportedly) said something along the lines of, "Um, we can't do that. There has to be a huge flow in and out of the area." That was not the only reason Rowling went with Universal, but while that story has become theme park legend, I know enough of the people involved to believe the gist of that story is correct. (I'm sure the real details vary. Memories fade and egos like to protect themselves).

Long story not-so-short, I looked forward to seeing how Universal would pull off the transition from London to Diagon. I heard spinning bricks were tested. To be very fair, what I saw Wednesday night was a work in progress. But what I witnessed was walking around a partition to separate the areas. The bricks were already separated like the Hulk had smashed through with no motion. Just an occasionally 'meh' sound effect -- disappointing.

Look, most people won't care. They will be, understandably, excited about exploring a new world that appears to be very thought out. I just know how important that detail once was to the author, and by extension to the designers.

Thanks for all of the kind words for those who followed me while I covered the Red Carpet VIP on Twitter, along with Erica Rakow and our photojournalist Jesse Drausch. 

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