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When we have some extra time and can tear ourselves away from the Dole whips and Splash Mountain, we like to spend some time in the other most magical place on Earth: Diagon Alley at Universal Studios. The brilliance behind Diagon Alley is the same brilliance that is behind everything at Walt Disney World: attention to detail. The theming here is so immersive, it's easy to spend an entire afternoon just hanging out and soaking it in.
This re-cap will be a picture frenzy of all the things we recommend experiencing at Diagon Alley. Please enjoy, and try not to drool. But no judgement if you do.
One of the best things about Diagon Alley is that a large portion of it is covered, so when the afternoon thunderstorms roll in, you can enjoy them by staying relatively dry with a butterbeer in hand. Carkitt Market is a great place to hang out and people watch.
Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes is really the first thing you see as you enter through London. The shop is tiny, but we were still able to peruse reasonably well. It is so well done, with so much detail. Make sure to check out the fireworks going off on the ceiling and, my personal favorite, Umbridge on her unicycle. Hilarious. And it's for sale, so you can have an annoying Umbridge of your own! How exciting!
I think the only thing we've ever bought here is candy. Exploding bonbons are our top recommendation. They're white chocolate drops with citrus flavored pop rocks inside. Good stuff.
After exploring the variety of shops down Diagon Alley, we recommend visiting Gringotts for some wizarding money. It's totally useless as a souvenir, as you're literally just holding on to money in a different form, but you can turn right around and spend it, and it's fun to get, if only to be able to say that you did. There wasn't a line for us every time we've been in, but if there is a long wait, I personally don't think it's worth it.
Knockturn Alley is a must-visit. In all honesty, I'm a little disappointed in how small it is; there's only one shop (Borgin and Burke's) and a few empty alleyways. It is very creepy, though, and sheltered from the rain (and sun, to preserve the darkness). One of the best things to do here is just hang out on one of the storefront stoops for a little while and watch the talking shrunken heads do weird things. There's also several interactive spell location here, so it's a fun place to watch children and adults alike make funny movements with their arms over and over in frustration. Make sure you check out Borgin and Burke's. The vanishing cabinet is fantastic, and you can hear the bird inside if you listen closely.
Another perfect place to just sit and hang out (honestly, just hanging out and people watching is probably our most recommended way to spend your time in Diagon Alley) is outside of The Hopping Pot, where you can get delicious drink concoctions like butterbeer, Otter's Fizzy Orange Juice, and Fishy Green Ale (all of which we highly recommend). There are several picnic tables you can enjoy if you're agile enough to snag a bench. One of the best parts about this location is that you can watch people make the interactive mermaid fountain shoot water and hope it hits someone. People will unknowingly stop and stand right where the water hits, and then everyone aware of what a blessing from the gods this is will collectively hold their breaths and hope that someone will come along with an interactive wand and launch the water before the poor person moves. It came inches from hitting a baby in a stroller once. That was a good day.
This little spot outside the Hopping Pot is also a good place to see the stage shows, albeit you'll eventually have standing people around the stage once the show starts that will prevent you from having an entirely clear view. At a minimum you can expect to be able to hear Celestina Warbeck croon some magic tunes and listen to the three brothers tell their tale with some really sweet puppets without having to move.
Speaking of interactive wands, if you're looking for a souvenir that's both really cool and really useful, we recommend getting yourself one of these babies. And even if a wand isn't on your list of things to own before you die (it really should be), check out Ollivanders anyways. Their selection is fun to browse even if you're just window shopping, and the witches and wizards employed there are quite good at keeping it in character.
There are a wide variety of spell locations around Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, and each of the interactive wands comes with a map of the locations, with some hidden ones that can only be seen in Knockturn Alley. Our favorite spell location is an umbrella that starts to rain when you cast the spell. Although it's a little irrelevant when it's already raining, we discovered...
The Hogwarts Express is next up on the list of things to make sure you do; it's pretty incredible. The train resembles the one from the movies in every way possible, and the ride itself has some fantastic special effects. My only qualm is with "Hermione's" voice. It's pretty bad. If they couldn't find someone who could actually imitate her, they shouldn't have given her any speaking parts. Just make her...like...scoff a few times.
Make sure you ride the Hogwart's Express both ways, because the experience is different depending on your direction. And don't miss getting a picture going through platform 9 3/4. You'll have to make someone stay back to get the classic "running through the wall at full speed" picture. Preferably someone with good trigger finger, as their timing will need to be just right. The effort is worth it, though.
The mascot of Diagon Alley, the dragon on top Gringotts, is easy to spot as you enter, but it's watching him breathe fire that is the iconic experience to be had in Diagon Alley, and it really doesn't disappoint, especially at night. After much investigation and ruthless ignoring of the witches in the wand shop insisting that he breathed fire "whenever he felt like it," we figured out that he lights up every 10 minutes. If you're trying to time a good photo, keep this in mind, and listen for the pre-release rumbling. You can hear him getting good and warmed up a few seconds before he really lets loose.
If watching a dragon breathe fire makes you hungry for some ice cream like it does me, you're going to want to get the best ice cream you will ever encounter in your whole entire precious life: butterbeer ice cream. So creamy, so smooth. Get it in the souvenir dish, which is much bigger then the regular cup but only $5 more (Deal! It' like real magic!). You may think you won't be able to eat it all. But then you'll take a bite, and you'll realize how wrong you are.
Diagon Alley's one ride, Escape From Gringotts, is our final recommendation. The wait times on this one can fluctuate quite a bit; we suggest waiting 'til evening to ride. The wait times are hiked up at the end of the night to dissuade riders, so you should be able to get through the line quickly. There's also plenty to look at if you do have to wait a bit, including these highly authentic newspapers.
If you're not a fan of 3-D rides, this probably won't be make your favorites list, but I was totally blown away. I think they did a really nice job with the amount the 3-D technology was used, and the roller coaster portions were thrilling, but not too much. Definitely worth a ride.
Overall, Diagon Alley has a lot to offer in terms of magical experiences, and I don't think you'll be disappointed, no matter how you spend your time there. Look for a post soon on the pros and cons of adding a Universal Studio day onto your Disney itinerary!