From the outside, it appears to simply be a re-creation of some London landmarks, including a perfectly replicated Kings Cross station and some townhouses that would fool a lifetime resident of Bloomsbury (keep an eye on the curtains in the second balcony window of 12 Grimmauld Place, the shabby townhouse). You have the re-creation of the “Eros” fountain from Piccadilly Circus (unlike the original, this one is actually flowing), cab shelters selling Britannia souvenirs and jumbo hot dogs, and a three-level-tall Knight Bus. If its conductor is there, go have a chat with him, but don’t be alarmed if the shrunken Jamaican head hanging above his steering wheel butts into the conversation.
Hidden behind the London facade, through some sidelong portals through brick, is the world’s hottest theme park phenomenon of the moment, essentially a wholesale construction of 3 city blocks around Diagon Alley, where wizards go for their provisions. It’s not so much a single attraction as it is a cluttered streetscape of shops, beverage and dessert stores, and painstaking design work that seals you off from the outside world. There are few right angles, but plenty of opportunities to spend lots and lots of cash. You could pass hours simply exploring details, from tricked-out window displays (the skeleton that imitates your movements from the window of Dystyl Phaelanges is a standout) to clever signage larded with inside jokes (“These Premises to Let: Reptiles/Arachnids Allowed”).
The main thoroughfare is Diagon Alley, lined with the Leaky Cauldron restaurant, plus shops for wands, toys, and clothing. It leads dramatically to Gringotts Bank, which is crested by a petrified dragon that belches fire every few minutes (and contains the blockbuster ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts). Gringotts is on Horizont Alley, a 2-block lane noted for its pet store, beer hall, and ice cream shop. On the left, it leads into Knockturn Alley, a fascinating indoor area that simulates a shady ghetto at night, right down to shifting clouds in a simulated sky and a tattoo parlor, Marcus Scarr’s, where the animated sample designs writhe on the wall. Branching off from Diagon Alley on the right, you find Carkitt Market, a covered area recalling London’s Leadenhall Market, where the principal show stage for the land is located. Performances include The Singing Sorceress: Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees (a talented but somewhat out-of-theme singer rendering such classics as “A Cauldron Full of Hot, Strong Love”) and The Tales of Beedle the Bard (a street performance with puppets of two tales from the Potter spin-off book).
Nearly everything there is to do and taste comes with a price tag, and you can’t get these experiences outside Universal’s gates. It’s extraordinarily easy to get swept along in the merchandising mesmerization. Some of the best bespoke purchasing potential includes these Potterized twists:
* Gringotts Money Exchange, Carkitt Market. Trade in “muggle money” (U.S. $10s and $20s only) for Gringotts Bank Rune Credit, a currency that you can use in both parks or, Universal hopes, take home as a souvenir for pure profit.
* Ollivanders, Diagon Alley: In addition to the same wand-selecting mini-show available at Hogsmeade, you may purchase a $45 interactive wand used to activate more than a dozen tricks wherever you see a medallion embedded in the ground. Stand on it, emulate the wand motion depicted on it, and you’ll make toilets flush, suits of armor animate, fountains squirt, and so on.
* The Hopping Pot, Carkitt Market, and the Fountain of Fair Fortune, Horizont Alley. Sip sweet concoctions for $5 each: Otter’s Fizzy Orange Juice, Tongue Tying Lemon Squash, Peachtree Fizzing Tea, and Fishy Green Ale with “fish eggs” (actually blueberry boba) on the bottom. They also sell the classic Potter potable, Butterbeer (in a mug made for Diagon Alley, $12), and two beers unique to the park, Wizards Brew (a light lager) and Dragon Scale (a chocolatey stout), both $9
* Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, Diagon Alley. Try a range of only-here flavors including Chocolate Chili, Clotted Cream, Earl Grey and Lavender, and a dangerously addictive soft-serve version of Butterbeer ($5 cup, $6 cone, $11 in a souvenir plastic cup).
* Eternelle’s Elixir of Refreshment, Carkitt Market. At this cart, mix your choice of $4 “elixirs” (Draught of Peace, Fire Protection Potion, and so forth) with $4 “Gillywater” (water) and something magical happens (Universal just made $8 on sugar water).
* Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Diagon Alley. The new local toy shop (replacing the old Zonkos at Hogsmeade) sells $15 Pygmy Puff stuffed animals. When a purchase is made, the staff gongs a huge bell and announces a new adoption. Also buy the candies Ron would eat to get out of school: Puking Pastilles, Fainting Fancies, Fever Fudge, and Nosebleed Nougat ($7 each).
* Magical Menagerie, Horizont Alley. Where windows are filled with animated pets such as pythons and giant snails, procure the specialty souvenir: a plush version of Hermione’s half-Kneazle cat Crookshanks ($25).
* Shutterbutton’s, Carkitt Market. Via a green screen, put your family in the middle of a 3- to 4-minute DVD ($70), like a moving postcard exploring the Potter universe.