First impressions: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express

June 18, 2014, 9:45 PM · 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.

Harry Potter stars

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 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."

Yeah... right.

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.

Replies (17)

June 18, 2014 at 10:49 PM · Sounds amazing. But the nerds want to know: how much of a coaster is it?
June 18, 2014 at 10:49 PM · "Nowhere in America will theme park fans find a more faithfully detailed, narrative-driven, and magically engaging experience."

So, how does the Gringotts ride and the Diagon Alley experience measure up when compared against the very best of Tokyo DisneySea?

June 18, 2014 at 11:08 PM · Brilliant. I have got to make it to Universal while I'm down in Florida for school. Robert, since many people say 3D is often hit or miss as far as perspective and eyesight goes, how well do you think Universal did this time?
June 19, 2014 at 2:04 AM · Everything I've read & seen so far gives it the "Wow" factor,. And the excellent story narrative, crisp screens, the milder more family ride experience & all the AA's in the Gringott's queue should quiet some of the Forbidden Journey critics. To see Diagon at night & during the day on various TV shows sent a chill up my spine, and I'm not even a Harry Potter fan outside of the theme park experience. Can't wait till our September trip.
June 19, 2014 at 4:55 AM · Your description sounds truly amazing! I cannot wait to hear more details about the two rides and the alley itself! Thanks for the coverage!

However, you said that Diagon Alley raised the standard for theme park entertainment in the Unites States! So you think that there are superior experiences outside of America? ;-)

I would love to hear your opinion about how Diagon Alley compares to the best experiences TDL and TDS have to offer!

June 19, 2014 at 5:40 AM · but what about the Churros??? ;)
June 19, 2014 at 5:43 AM · Seriosuly though, Robert...your article had the "Wow" factor! Please give us more! You know...for those of us unable to make the trip this summer...
June 19, 2014 at 5:50 AM · The TV preview last night was quite fun to watch, but this land looks even better than I hoped. If this doesn't cause disney to turn their heads, I don't know what will.
June 19, 2014 at 8:59 AM · I'm curious how the platform 9 3/4 effect is. Is it as convincing as the transporter effect on the now defunct Star Trek: The Experience? The lack of mention suggests it either wasn't part of the media tour or was not a big deal (simple mist wall or similar).
June 19, 2014 at 9:05 AM · "wildest fake elevator ride"

A fake elevator ride. This was done too many times to mixed results.

I'm surprised that Diagon Alley is more family friendly with the roller coaster ride. This is actually an improvement since they have too many thrill rides.

June 19, 2014 at 9:28 AM · Russell, officialmugglenet posted a video on Instagram and it appears to be a holographic brick wall. Looks convincing enough to me.
June 19, 2014 at 11:09 AM · So the fake elevator ride is better than the one at DisneyQuest that takes you up to the third floor? Lmao.

Seriously though, this place looks amazing. I'm hoping to spend a few months in Orlando this winter to escape the cold, and I will absolutely be spending a good bit of time over at Universal with an annual pass.

Maybe I'll get an EPCOT after 4pm annual pass too. But I only have so much money and Universal has earned what little expendable income I actually do have. Good on you, Universal!

Disney, pick up your game!

June 19, 2014 at 11:33 AM · First I wanted to Thanks you Robert and Brian....
Great coverage.

Universal - I am speechless...

But remember Disney has a Train ride that slightly rocks back and fourth. Hahahaha (I had too).

June 19, 2014 at 12:19 PM · Sounds great, but I hope the Gringotts ride has physical sets and AAs, not just 3D. Spider-Man and Transformers are great fun, but I don't think Gringotts will live up to the standard of Forbidden Journey if it has no physical effects.
June 19, 2014 at 3:08 PM · Hi everyone,

Brian and I spent the morning and afternoon shooting in Diagon Alley, and our videos are exporting now.

But while we wait... for Platform 9 3/4, it's a practical effect that people in the queue see differently than the person going through. Which will make sense only when you visit, but we'll have me going through the wall on the video.

June 20, 2014 at 3:24 PM · It's a super simple concept folks. This is not an up-charge like you have to pay to ride go-karts at Six Flags. Because the Hogwarts Express takes you from one park to another, you must be in possession of a two park ticket. Disney transportation does takes you from park to park for free, but you are not inside the parks. It would be sort of like going for a ride on the Disneyland Monorail from DTD without a ticket and expecting to get off in Tomorrowland for a free visit to DL.
You can upgrade your one park ticket at either train station which then gives you access to The Hogswart's Express. An up-charge would imply you are only getting to ride one limited capacity attraction, i.e. a Go-Kart or a Sky Coaster. What Universal is doing is offering the ability up upgrade a one day one park ticket to something much more valuable inside the park rather than at a traditional gate. Part of owning that kind of ticket is getting access to The Hogwart's Express railroad attraction.
I really hope this clears some of this up.
June 20, 2014 at 7:04 PM · I hope the roller coaster is like the mummy and not all 3-D

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