We reviewed Diagon Alley earlier this week, praising it for its unprecedented attention to detail. While we've written about the Hogwarts Express as part of the Diagon Alley project, it's really not part of the Diagon Alley land within the park. Universal's Hogwarts Express connects the two Wizarding Worlds via stations adjacent to those lands, in Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. The Express train is, inside and out, a faithful visual recreation of the Jacobite locomotive and coaches featured in the Harry Potter films. It leaves from Universal Studios Florida via the Kings Cross station located adjacent to Diagon Alley's London facade.
And it's inside that Kings Cross station where the Hogwarts Express station breaks its first wall — the wall between the Wizarding and "Muggle" (non-magical) worlds. Kings Cross stands firmly in the Muggle world, and Universal has faithfully recreated a London train station, complete with uniformed attendants, directional signs and brickwork straight from the original Kings Cross station in London.
The Universal team members at the Kings Cross entrance played their roles perfectly this week, commenting with bewilderment at visitors' "strange sticks" and "funny robes." As Muggles, they know nothing of the Wizarding World, so of course they shouldn't recognize magic wands and house robes when the see witches and wizards with them. Yet the ride attendants will send visitors down the tunnel toward platforms nine and 10, figuring that these strange people will just need to see for themselves that there is no "Platform 9 3/4."
Once you get upstairs to those platforms, you will find that Universal has crafted a nifty effect to allow visitors to pass through that wall that separates the Muggle and Wizard worlds. It's a Pepper's Ghost-style mirror effect that allows people in the queue to see those ahead seemingly pass through a solid brick wall to that Platform 9 3/4. (See it in the video below.) And here, Universal breaks another wall with the Hogwarts Express — that "wall" that separates audience from performer.
Universal long ago claimed audience participation in its shows as part of its identity. But it's one thing to pick someone from the audience to play "Mother" in Psycho or an extra in a fake Rice-A-Roni commercial (to cite two roles I've played over the years in Universal attractions as an audience volunteer), it's much more ambitious to cast everyone in the queue as individuals players in a practical special effect. Yet each person walking through the queue gets his or her chance to walk through that wall. (While those behind will see you disappear through the wall, you'll simply walk through a zig-zag in the queue, as a whooshing sound plays over the speakers in the ceiling and the mirrors do their work with your reflection.)
Once around that corner, you're on Platform 9 3/4 from the Harry Potter films, with wizards and witches wearing Hogwarts Express conductor costumes, instead of the British Rail costumes on the "Muggle" attendants you encountered before.
You'll soon board the train for your seat in the eight-passenger compartments that look just like those Harry, Ron, and Hermione occupied in Harry Potter and the Sorcerers (or Philosophers) Stone. Now it's time for you to journey, as they did, from Muggle London to the wizarding village of Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
And now Universal breaks yet another wall — a conceptual one that traditionally has defined theme parks as distinct destinations. It's become convention for theme park attractions to drop you off at or very near the same point where you boarded the ride, so it's a bit disorienting when you exit the Hogwarts Express and find that you're not only in a different train station — you're in a different theme park.
Some fans have complained about Universal requiring visitors to have bought a park-to-park ticket to ride the Hogwarts Express. They've grown accustomed to saving money by declining "park-to-park" or "park-hopper" options and enjoying one park per day. But Universal's breaking the walls that separate theme parks, to reinvent its Orlando resort as single destination where its two theme parks are joined as one by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that spans both. Yes, that forces a different pricing structure, but it opens new creative possibilities in return.
It's silly for visitors to consider at the one-day price for Universal Orlando's park-to-park tickets (currently $136 for visitors age 10 and older). Unless you're staying at a Universal Orlando hotel where you get unlimited Universal Express front-of-line access, there's no way to see all that the resort's parks have to offer in a single day, making such a purchase a poor value. And even with unlimited Express access, one day would offer only a hectic rush of merely the highlights, anyway. The far better buys are the two- and three-day park-to-park tickets (at $176 and $186, respectively), which allow you to treat these two parks within walking distance as one, with enough time and flexibility to enjoy both.
So if you want the full experience of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you're going to have to experience it on Universal's terms, and that means a park-to-park ticket. But Universal is delivering extraordinary value in return for that purchase, giving you the best themed land in the world as well as a captivating new ride in the Hogwarts Express that presents a delightful transit between Universal Studios Florida's London and Islands of Adventure's Scottish highlands. As we wrote earlier this week, "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."
The Hogwarts Express offers distinct journeys in each direction, with encounters with the Weasley twins, Buckbeak, and the Knight Bus on the return trip to London, in place of the encounters seen in the video above, which shows the trip from Kings Cross to Hogsmeade.
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