Theme Park Ranger
7:45 AM EST, January 30, 2014
We still can't see a whole lot of what's going up at Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley at Universal Studios. That construction wall is maddening to anxious Potterheads, who must wait until summer for unveiling and exploration.
Park officials did offer a media preview last week, however, a day before a webcast for fans. They frequently used the words "authentic" and "detailed," and they talked more about what's visible from outside the walls.
Right now, guests can see a tall façade that's a mishmash of current London architecture. The idea is that the city is blocking us non-wizards from magical Diagon Alley. The scenery, which gives off a fortress vibe, is based on actual buildings. From left to right, if facing the façade, the buildings are:
•King's Cross Station, a train station used by Hogwarts students in the "Potter" books and films.
•Leicester Square tube station, the representation of which was called "spot on" by "Potter" actor Matthew Lewis. At Universal, the entrance to Diagon Alley is beneath the red tile arches of this station.
•Wyndham's Theatre, which was opened in 1899 by actor Charles Wyndham. The W's built into the décor stand for Wyndham.
•Grimmauld Place, which has significance in the "Potter" fiction as the Black family home and onetime headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix.
These Universal structures are the same size as the originals. Art director Alan Gilmore says the design team went to far as to measure the bricks of Grimmauld Place to reproduce the look.
"The bricks are exactly London-sized bricks," he says.
The buildings — mashed together, unlike their British counterparts — will be fronted by a grassy area, iron railings and a reproduction of the Eros fountain at London's Piccadilly Circus. Nearby will be the Knight Bus, a land-based form of transportation for wizards and witches in need and, at Universal, a photo op.
"You won't be able to, necessarily, get all the way on the Knight Bus, but there's a whole interactive Knight Bus experience," Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative, teased. A shrunken head is involved, he confirms.
The façade and grassy area are on an embankment that faces Universal Studios' central lagoon. Visitors arriving via the Hogwarts Express train from Islands of Adventure will exit through the far-left King's Cross section, then travel through the grassy area to the Diagon entrance.
Here's where Universal becomes sketchy — somewhat delightfully so — on details. In author J.K. Rowling's work, Harry and friends enter Diagon Alley by way of the Leaky Cauldron pub. Although that establishment will exist at Universal, it won't be the gateway to Diagon.
Instead, something will happen in transition from the muggle world (that's you and me, folks) to Wizarding World. Whatever it is, it's "jaw-dropping," Woodbury says. The "Potter" actors in town for last week's "A Celebration of Harry Potter" nodded their heads in strong agreement.
"It's a very new way to enter a land," Gilmore says, without further hint.
Soon after the alleged jaw-dropping, guests will see Leaky Cauldron on the left and Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes story on the right. A train trestle rumbles overhead.
Straight ahead is Gringotts Bank (and its fire-breathing dragon), home of the marquee ride Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts. Bear left for dark-arts hotbed, Knockturn Alley.
On the opposite side of the new area, which is built upon the old Jaws ride and Amity area, will be Carkitt Market. It will be based on London marketplaces, but there has been no reference to it in Potter lore. No problem. Universal just turned to Rowling to name it, just as she named some shops for the movies.
"We had to create additions to expand that world," says Dale Mason, executive art director.
She also named the major cross-street of Diagon Alley, so someday starting this summer, guests will be walking Horizont Alley.
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