Expect 'NextGen'-style animation and interactivity in Universal's Diagon Alley

May 14, 2013, 1:34 PM · The leaks keep on coming from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley, now under construction at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando. We told you in December 2011 about the Gringotts coaster that will provide the centerpiece of the new land, and in March of this year we described about the various shops and restaurants you'll find when Universal Orlando's second Harry Potter land, which opens in the summer of 2014.

Now, we're hearing more about the various atmospheric details that will distinguish this new land.

You've likely heard of Disney's "NextGen" initiative, which, among other things, includes the installation of new animation and interactive elements in queues and other public spaces in Walt Disney World's theme parks. Well, Universal's creative team is raising the stakes with a similar initiative of its own inside the new Wizarding World.

Universal's pushing the intersection of technology and stagecraft with its development of these features, which, if successful, will help make Diagon Alley the most convincing and immersive themed environment ever created in a theme park. If Universal pulls off what it has planned, as one insider told me, Disney's NextGen will be several generations behind Universal's.

So what is Universal planning for Diagon Alley? Let's start by reviewing what we already know:

Diagon Alley concept art
Concept art courtesy Universal

Diagon Alley Attractions

We've got two rides coming: the Gringotts dark ride, which will blend Premier Rides roller coaster track with a 3D story-driven dark ride. Twin, 12-person, Victorian-inspired open-air cars, arranged in three rows of four, will take riders through the Gringotts vaults, where they will encounter dark wizards, including Voldemort. The ride vehicles will have a motion-base component, making this a blend of Revenge of the Mummy and Transformers in the ride's technology.

The second ride is the Hogwarts Express, which will shuttle visitors between the two Wizarding Worlds: Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida and the original Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. Trains will travel on an elevated track through the backstage are connecting the parks. The windowless train cars will feature digital screens that simulate windows overlooking the passing English countryside -- but don't expect a smooth voyage. As this is a theme park attraction, expect that something will go terribly wrong. (It might be best to keep some chocolate handy. I hear that helps.)

Riders will exit the Hogwarts Express outside the two lands, and might be required to queue to enter the Wizarding World on the other side during busy periods in the parks, according to a Universal survey obtained by Parkscope. The Hogsmeade station will be located underneath the Dragon Challenge track, exiting on the "Lost Continent" side of the Wizarding World. The Diagon Alley station will exit through the facade of King's Cross station, next to the Disaster! exit in Universal Studios Florida.

In addition to the two rides, I'm told that Universal is working on a live show, which will play in the open area under a glass canopy near the Gringotts ride's exit.

Diagon Alley
Gringotts Coaster building (lower left) and the rest of Diagon Alley under construction in May 2013. Photo from TH Creative's gallery from earlier this week.

Diagon Alley Restaurants

The Leaky Cauldron will be the main restaurant in the new land, standing next to the Wizarding World's entrance. Your other refreshment options will include Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour, located near the Gringotts bank tower, and what looks on the land's plans to be a Butterbeer stand over one the other side of the land, nearer the Gringotts exit.

Diagon Alley Shops

Universal's creating another Ollivander's wand shop, this time with three rooms to handle to the "wand picks the wizards" show. In addition, you'll be able to stock up on Wizarding gear at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions and Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment (that will be the store at the exit to Gringotts).

The plans also call for Borgin and Burkes in Knockturn Alley, located over to the left of the land's entrance, underneath King's Cross station. And that's where things get really interesting.

Diagon Alley's Interactive and Animated Elements

Here's where we get to the fresh stuff! The experience will begin even before visitors step into Diagon Alley, as the Knight Bus, which will be parked on the London promenade outside the land, will feature interactive talking heads.

We already know about the giant fire-breathing dragon that will inhabit the top of the Gringotts bank tower. This dragon really will breathe fire (if all goes well in construction, of course), and it represents the largest of the many animated elements planned for Diagon Alley.

It might be worth taking another look at the Weasley Wizard Wheezes scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for some clues as to the additional interactive and animated elements Universal's planning for its version of that iconic joke shop.

Elsewhere in the new land, be on the lookout for suits of armor that fall apart then rebuild themselves, as well as self-stirring cauldrons and some skeletons that perform with a surprising effect that my sources refuse to tell me about in more detail. And goblins, too!

The most cryptic clue I've heard, though, concerns the wands. There's a huge time crush, obviously, to finish this land by June 2014 (for a planned July opening), but I keep hearing hints that Universal's got something planned that involves wands. One's imagination runs wild.

Which, of course, is the whole point. Universal is working to create a land that will appear to come to magical life for each visitor. With so many interactive and animated elements, the idea is that the entire land becomes a platform for an individual experience within the Wizarding World. It's not just about queuing up for a roller coaster ride. Diagon Alley has been conceived as a public place that supports personal stories, as each visitor discovers the various details and elements available throughout the land.

And the technology that Universal's developing for Diagon Alley won't be limited to this land. Expect Universal, at some point after the opening of Diagon Alley, to begin work retrofitting the original Wizarding World with new interactive and animated elements, so that the magical experience continues at the same sophisticated level across both lands.

Update: I'm hearing now that Universal is working on a "new generation" of souvenir wands, which will have interactive capabilities inside the park and some (undisclosed) additional use at home, too. So your old wands won't be able to do what the new ones will. The wands' abilities are described as more complicated than simple RFID-based triggers.

Finally, many of us are debating just how animated the Gringotts dragon will be. Will it just breathe fire, or will it move, as well? I haven't heard a definitive answer on that, and anyone who's been around Animal Kingdom's Yeti can tell horror stories about trying to maintain a functional animatronic figure on that massive a scale. But the dragon inside the Gringotts ride? Well, that appears to be a different situation.

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Replies (48)

May 14, 2013 at 1:52 PM · Interesting. Gotta love how nothing remains secret for long these days!

Perhaps you have more info on this subject that you cannot share at this time, but I fail to see how any of the described interactivity is raising NextGen to a new level. Seems to me Universal is simply following suit with what is happening down the road. Which is fine by me as I support just about any attempt to make theme parks more immersive and interactive.

May 14, 2013 at 2:02 PM · I think it's scale more than anything else. The scale of individual elements, plus the number of elements in the land.
May 14, 2013 at 2:17 PM · Hmmm... still sounds like more of the same, but I am glad Universal is getting on the NextGen bandwagon nonetheless.

I wonder if the elements will react to visitors a la the RFID tech Disney continues to roll out? If so, will Universal implement some sort of high tech wrist band as well?

The wand stuff could be similar to Magiquest at Great Wolf Lodge but there just aren't enough details to make a determination yet.

May 14, 2013 at 2:17 PM · I really hope the main areas of the new section are able to accommodate crowds better than the original WWOHP. It's like a nightmare over there and every time I'm there I wonder WHAT they were thinking when they designed it. I know they were trying to make it really FEEL like the village but OMG - it's ridiculous at times.
May 14, 2013 at 2:19 PM · The design for this new land really feels more like a traditional "hub and spoke" design with a central alleyway and four others than branch off of it. It should have better visitor flow than the original, though the placement of interactive and attraction elements throughout will affect that.
May 14, 2013 at 2:35 PM · I'm fascinated to see King's Cross - which has recently been redesigned into one of the most architecturally uninteresting buildings in London... Perhaps they'll just focus on the platforms and not so much on the shopping mall.
May 14, 2013 at 2:40 PM · I'm really happy Universal is stepping up to the plate with this! However, it kind of seems like universal is finally copying Disney with this. Disney has had an incredible AA dragon lurking in Disneyland Paris for, like 20 years. Small interactive elements abound in the parks. Moving trashcans, talking suits of armor, AA parrots, and more. I hope Springfield and the area around Transformers will include these kinds of interactive elements too, then one corner of Universal Studios won't outshine the entire rest of the park.
May 14, 2013 at 2:43 PM · However Universal does it I think it will be miles ahead of Disney in creativity and technology. WDW still has not been able to match the Spiderman, Transformers and Potter ride and now new tech is set to debut. Can't wait!
May 14, 2013 at 2:50 PM · I was wondering if they were going to put Ollivanders in the new section since that's where is belongs thematically. I also correctly suspected they would add more rooms.

The questions are:
Are they removing the old location?
If so, what will they replace it with?

May 14, 2013 at 2:52 PM · Given the amount of money Universal makes selling wands, I can't imagine it closing the IoA wand shop.
May 14, 2013 at 3:11 PM · Amazing, thanks for sharing this Robert! Do you have word on restaurants outside of the Leaky Cauldron?
May 14, 2013 at 3:21 PM · Sounds great I can imagine people running around triggering effects with wands and little kids begging their parents for wands of their own so they can join in on the fun.
May 14, 2013 at 3:43 PM · Universal has had 'Next-Gen' style interactivity for years and it didn't cost them billions either. 23-years ago E.T. started calling my name on the E.T. Adventure and he's still doing it today, though botching it nearly every time.
May 14, 2013 at 3:46 PM · ^That's right! ET's been messing up names for years. No wonder Universal has waited so long to try again! ;) Thanks for the reminder, Eric!
May 14, 2013 at 3:52 PM · Robert,

What do you think about Gringott's being in 3D? I've always appreciated the fact that HPATFJ wasn't in 3D.

I'm not a fan of 3D movies and it seems like having glasses on your head may limit the amount of movement and speed of the ride.

What are your thoughts?

May 14, 2013 at 3:54 PM · Robert: You da man!!! Watergate was amateurs compared to the Niles Big Leak Machine.
May 14, 2013 at 4:07 PM · I don't know what to think about the 3D. It's used so poorly in so many places, but I like what Universal did with it on Spider-Man and Transformers. Still, some people can't see it, and that makes Gringotts less- or in-accesible to them. In general, I guess I do prefer parks to stay away from 3D.
May 14, 2013 at 4:20 PM · Nice photo!
May 14, 2013 at 7:21 PM · Does someone have a wand that they bought at Universal Orlando, and would be willing to tear it apart to see if there's an RFID chip or some other element in there that could be used to support some interactive effect? I wonder if what Universal's working on is something that will apply only to new wands, or if the capability on the wand end is there already. *UPDATE* Strike this. See my updates, above and below.
May 14, 2013 at 4:50 PM · Robert, I have multiple wands from IOA -- they all appear to be some sort of solid resin material that is made to look like wood. I would imagine that new, updated wands will be in order for these interactives. Another money-making gimmick, to say the least!
May 14, 2013 at 4:51 PM · That's a smart idea, but I'm not willing to tear it apart.
May 14, 2013 at 5:22 PM · I can already see some problems about the wands given how many have sold already. Can't you just imagine someone who came in 2010, returns in 2014 and sees someone else's wand interact with the land while they have to buy another one if they want to join in. I wonder how Universal will deal with this potential customer service nightmare.
May 14, 2013 at 6:01 PM · It sounds like Universal is going all in on HP 2.0... can't wait to see it. It will just up the ante in the theme park wars and Disney will put their creative caps on when it comes to Avatarland.

I heard there are fences up at AK and preliminary work has begun, but no spy shots have surfaced that I know of.

I am also amazed when comparing TH's photos to the superimposed map I created a long time ago. It is almost a spot on match. Gotta love leaked blueprints, Google Earth and Photoshop.

May 14, 2013 at 6:00 PM · I was thinking the same thing with making the wands RFID. Everyone who already has one will now buy another one.

Instant cash cow.

This might make some people angry, but how many people really bring their wands back to the park after they've bought them? I can't imagine it would be enough to really get complaints. I mean, it's not like it does anything at your house.

May 14, 2013 at 7:13 PM · I would personally love to see something like MagiQuest, with different quests that you can complete at your leisure and a collectible spellbook or something similar. One of the most memorable parts of the movie is the various spells, so being able to complete them using a wand would be remarkably cool and intimately personal at the same time.
May 14, 2013 at 7:20 PM · Just posted an update above. Yes, we're talking new generation wands here. The old ones won't work for whatever Universal is planning.

So, no need to break your old wands!

May 14, 2013 at 7:35 PM · For some reason breaking the wand is reminding me of the end of Deathly Hallows. Won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't read the book or saw the movie, but if you have you'll know what I'm talking about.
May 14, 2013 at 7:45 PM · Oh, no. Don't get me started railing against the inferior ending of the movie, compared with the book!
May 14, 2013 at 11:09 PM · That is why I have never read the books....
May 15, 2013 at 12:08 AM · Does the size of the Gringotts show building seem small? Currently on Google Maps Sat view you can see "inside" the building. The show floor is currently at ground level with the rest of the park. And it doesn't seem to have the height to accommodate a 2nd level like Transformers.

I'm excited for this expansion, but have a feeling that this ride could end up being the size of Mummy at USH.

May 15, 2013 at 2:42 AM · The interactive wands sounds interesting - hopefully they will be even more interactive than the "events" that happen in Disney's detective-style cell phone activity at Epcot's world showcase.
May 15, 2013 at 4:22 AM · Wasn't their talk about interactive wands before but was it cancelled because of the crowds triggering the effects every second of the day ruining the surprise (like now at Magic Kingdom).
I wish the parks wouldn't dumb down the "game" part of these experiences. Waving a card (or wand) is not a game.
Take notice of this that is more fun: http://us.playstation.com/games/wonderbook-book-of-spells-ps3.html
Anyway, June 2014! omg didn't expect that. I thought more closer to the holidays.
May 15, 2013 at 7:02 AM · I agree with Mr. Niles! The ending of the movie was so much better than the book. I mean, Voldemort turns out to be Luke's father and Rosebud turns out to be a sled? I'm not buying it!
May 15, 2013 at 7:21 AM · I find myself wondering how unbalanced Universal Studios is going to be after the opening of Diagon Alley. From the sounds of it we shall have a totally immersion themed area, (although there's still way too little of it to call it a 'World') and it truly looks as if the level of attention to detail and overall 'feel' will be very, very impressive.

But boy is it going to make the rest of Universal Studios feel shoddy. It's already the least attractive theme park in Florida - basically just a series of boxes with attractions inside - and whilst some of the attractions are decent, (Mummy,Transformers, Men in Black), the rest is on the average end of the scale. I can see Diagon Alley totally dominating Universal Studios and drawing 90% of the crowds and sitting very awkwardly within the park.

I don't think there's as much of an issue in Islands of Adventure. Hogsmeade is so small it's basically just another of the themed lands around the lagoon and those other lands are generally well defined and well landscaped with good quality attractions in all of them. The whole park feels coherent even with the Potter boy in residence.

May 15, 2013 at 8:10 AM · David, I think that's why we're seeing Universal remake the area around The Simpsons Ride into a more immersive Springfield land. You've got theming around Disaster and Mummy now, and Men in Black is a nice building. Transformers is a box, but a well-decorated one. It's the strip between Shrek and Despicable Me that really needs the most help, after Springfield.

Shrek's not long for this world, I believe, so that's the next space I'd target for a big upgrade at the Studios. But once that happens, I think you'll have a pretty consistently well-themed park all around the lagoon.

Universal is spending its Potter money to upgrade elsewhere in its parks.

May 15, 2013 at 9:56 AM · We have two wands from 2011. We will GLADLY reach in our pockets and pull out some $ for two more...especially if there is interactive possibilities. I had read somewhere when rumors about WWOHP 1.0 was first announced, that the wands would have some "in park" functionality. So I think the idea was there all along. Maybe Universal just didn't have time to implement that aspect. But NOW??? Different story. So excited...will be there September 2015 ready to cast some spells, and head to our vault in Gringott's. Thanks for all the updates Robert! I come here everyday because I can count on information like this!
May 15, 2013 at 10:54 AM · These updates are getting better every time. I love the wand rumors. In fact, a local park already has wands where the kids can make things happen when you wave a wand. Its at the dinosaur exhibit at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana.

Diagon Alley will make people forget about the new Dwarf's roller coaster at the New Fantasyland. In this case, Disney's delay will not work to its advantage. Not only did its delay in completing the New Fantasyland hurt its attendance in 2013, they are unable to capitalize when faced with real competition in 2014.

May 15, 2013 at 11:32 AM · Universal: "Your move Disney.."
Disney: "Oh yeah? Well take THIS!"
*POOF* *Another character meet and great attraction appears*
Universal: "......Ummm yeah....Nice try.."
May 15, 2013 at 1:31 PM · David, I think it's a stretch to say that the rest of the park feels "shoddy". Only one portion is themed to a movie studio, and that's Production Central, which has the "boxes" that you're referring to. The rest of the park is very pretty and feels complete. Hollywood, New York and San Fransisco develop a strong sense of place and have excellent theming. MIB looks nice, as its themed to the World Expo.

And we're getting Springfield.

May 15, 2013 at 12:56 PM · I wonder if they have considered the situation of the people who are going on a round trip instead of the second park. These passengers shouldn't have to exit the station and then come back to the original station.

I have a solution. They ought to have a specific car for round trips. Either the car goes half way along the tracks and returns or it doesn't leave the station at all. The passengers just exit the car when the show is over. They never really see outside of their window so they don't know.

May 15, 2013 at 2:16 PM · I realise I'm out of synch with most people here but Universal Studios just doesn't float my boat at all. My wife and I do it because it's there but very little actually excites, (that might change post Diagon Alley of course). It's good to know Universal are spending Potter money upgrading the rest of the park but Springfield leaves me cold - mainly because the attraction at its centre is appalling (The Simpsons ride is crude both technologically and stylistically). Even if they prettify the park itself, for me the attraction line-up remains weak, (apart from the afore-mentioned trio).
And nothing they can do will bring the park even remotely up to the Potter standard, especially if it's full of interactive next-gen stuff.
I stand by my prediction that the park will be a ghost town apart from the Potterverse...
May 15, 2013 at 2:56 PM · It's hardly a ghost town now without Potter 2.0. Not as crowded as IOA, but quite densely populated these days.
May 16, 2013 at 3:00 AM · "From on May 15, 2013 at 2:56 PM
It's hardly a ghost town now without Potter 2.0. Not as crowded as IOA, but quite densely populated these days."

That's not my point - my suggestion is that once Diagon Alley opens the quality of that attraction is going to be so superior to everything else in US that it is going to draw a vast percentage of the crowds that currently populate US leaving the rest of the park relatively deserted and the Potterverse horrendously crowded.

May 16, 2013 at 9:23 AM · FYI, I deleted a few comments and banned a user. Debate parks and what they do all you want, but we don't take kindly to direct personal attacks on other members around here. Be nice to each other, please.
May 16, 2013 at 11:15 AM · Thank you, Robert. That banning has been a LONG time coming.
May 16, 2013 at 11:43 AM · About time he got banned.
May 16, 2013 at 11:45 AM · NB = Banned. No wait... I'm still here. :)

I will have to disagree about Diagon Alley making the rest of the park look shoddy. I have always loved the more open feel of Universal Studios compared to the way IOA is laid out. If you really take a look around at all the detail that goes into buildings that are just used for props sake, it is very impressive.

IOA has trees, shops and barriers that feel like narrow hallways and everything feels farther away than it is, at least to me.

I do think you will see some big changes for both parks when the Potter 2.0 bucks start to roll in.

May 16, 2013 at 11:49 AM · I think London will fit in just fine. Production Central and New York are sets while the rest of the lands are on location.

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