First impressions: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express
Written by Robert Niles
ORLANDO — Universal Orlando Resort this evening opened its Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley to invited reporters and guests, following a red carpet event featuring some of the stars of Warner Bros.' Harry Potter films.Tweet
Helena Bonham Carter, Bonnie Wright, Tom Felton, Robbie Coltrane, Evanna Lynch, Warwick Davis, James and Oliver Phelps, Matthew Lewis and Domnhall Gleason stood together on the red carpet with Universal Orlando President Bill Davis as Coltrane opened the brick wall of Diagon Alley to the invited guests for the evening. (The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley will open to the public officially on July 8.)
(Update: Here's a replay of the red carpet webcast.) We then followed the crowd into Diagon Alley, a wildly detailed recreation of the hidden the London alleyway that serves as the downtown of the British Wizarding World. The fire-breathing Ukranian Ironbelly dragon sprawls across the tower of Gringotts Bank at the far end of the alley, our first stop in the land.
We will have complete coverage of Diagon Alley on ThemeParkInsider.com tomorrow, with all the photos and video we weren't allowed to take tonight. (Universal insisted that professional-quality cameras remain outside for the preview event this evening.) But allow us to offer you a few first impressions of the land's two new attractions: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and the Hogwarts Express.
We've been telling you about Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts for two and half years, already offering you a detailed description of the ride along the way. Universal's Gringotts ride overwhelms with detail, from the superbly animated goblin tellers in the bank's Great Hall, the first scene in the queue as you enter the building, to the moving photos on the Daily Prophet newspapers you'll find lining the hallways of the Gringotts offices below. You'll meet there with Bill Weasley, who offers you a tour of the bank's vaults to help convince you to open an account with the "safest bank on Earth."
From Bill's office, it's into a lift for the wildest fake elevator ride you've ever taken, before you climb a spiral staircase to the load platform for the ride. After a short delay at the load platform, Brian climbed into the same seat that Matthew Lewis was vacating after his trip on the ride.
Our first trip was a miss. Two ride stops and a resulting missed scene marred the trip, and the Universal team members kindly allowed us the option to ride again, in the hopes of getting a complete experience on our second attempt.
And then, wow.
We will offer the scene-by-scene analysis tomorrow. But as Forbidden Journey offers a parchment-thin story to connect a bunch of otherwise random experiences around Hogwarts Castle, Gringotts throws you into one of the most exciting narrative moments in the Harry Potter canon: Harry and friends' attempt to break into Gringotts to steal the Hufflepuff cup horcrux from Bellatrix Lestrange's vault.
The narrative of Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts runs in parallel with that chapter from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. We encounter Harry, Ron, Hermoine, and Griphook, who warn us to escape from the vaults, as their identity as intruders has been discovered and Death Eaters are on their way. Soon, we discover that it is Voldemort himself who's come to claim Harry, with us as easily-dispatched obstacles in his way.
Of course, as something almost always goes terribly wrong on theme park rides, we also always join with our heroes to save to the day, as we do here on Gringotts, as well. But the journey toward that triumph is spectacular. A much milder ride, physically, than the always-gyrating Forbidden Journey, Gringotts excels with superior graphics, in sharp 3D, set amid richly detailed practical sets of the Gringotts caverns.
You will find an equally engaging commitment to detail on the Hogwarts Express. On the Universal Studios Florida side, the Hogwarts Express station lies within the Kings Cross station of Muggle London. Indeed, the Kings Cross station personnel wear different uniforms that their colleagues on Platform 9 3/4, and they don't break their role as Muggles. Indeed, they commented perplexedly about the wands that they saw so many visitors this evening carrying, since, as Muggles, they have no idea what magic wands are.
On board the Hogwarts Express, Universal Creative has mastered the window scenes brilliantly. Forget that lame B-roll that Universal distributed earlier this month. On board the Express, the effect of watching the English and Scottish countrysides pass is utterly convincing, with physical space between the train windows and the passing scenes. While seats in the middle of the train compartments offer the ideal views, there's enough parallax effect that the scenery convinces from every seat. And don't neglect to turn around when you hear voices in the corridor. You'll find the shadows of familiar characters walking down the corridors as you ride.
Together with the richly detailed shops, restaurants and entertainment that we'll describe in full tomorrow, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express raise the standard for theme park entertainment in the United States. Nowhere in America will theme park fans find a more faithfully detailed, narrative-driven, and magically engaging experience.
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