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Universal's Diagon Alley opens with long lines, die-hard Potter fans

By Dewayne Bevil and Sandra Pedicini, Orlando Sentinel

5:59 PM EDT, July 8, 2014

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Thousands of happy Harry Potter fans transformed Diagon Alley into a street party — and an endurance test — as Universal Studios' new attraction opened its gates Tuesday.

Parkgoers stood in a snaking queue for at least two hours to get into the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley. Many then joined yet another line to board Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, the attraction's signature ride.

By early afternoon, the park's posted wait for the ride reached 450 minutes — enough time to watch the last three Harry Potter movies.

The hefty time commitment did not deter 17-year-old Ariana Median of Westchester, N.Y., who had been told the ride "was totally worth it." She anticipated an amped-up version of other Universal Orlando rides, she said — "like Spider-Man, Transformers and the Mummy mixed together."

The 3D Gringotts ride combines roller-coaster maneuvers with on-screen action featuring heroic Harry and the villainous Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix, characters from the "Potter" books written by J.K. Rowling and transformed into eight blockbuster films.

Danielle Johnson, 26, of Melbourne found the new ride faster and more intense than Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which debuted in 2010 with the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter at nearby Islands of Adventure theme park.

"You're trapped in a vault, and it's high-speed, and it's fast, and you're trying to escape … and you're, like, scared," said Johnson, who fashioned a Potter magic wand into a hair accessory.

Although Diagon Alley previews were held for several days, the Gringotts ride had technical problems and rarely operated during those times. The ride worked consistently Tuesday morning but shut down for about 45 minutes in the early afternoon.

Guests were escorted off the ride at least once. Universal would not provide details about how many times the ride broke down during the day but said it was operational most of the time.

"We've put thousands of people through the ride flawlessly," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said. "Have we had some technical glitches? Of course." That's "not unusual for a highly sophisticated ride," he said.

Elsewhere, the park's new "enchanted wands" triggered special effects, such as making water shoot from a frog's mouth. The souvenirs, which sell for $45, got high marks from D.J. Delvecchio, 21, of Lake Buena Vista.

"They're incredibly responsive. They work exactly like you'd expect them to," he said. "I feel like I'm 12 years old and in Harry Potter books."

Others had tougher luck. Alex Williamson, 23, of Seminole tried repeatedly to make an image of a skeleton dance along with his wand movement in the Knockturn Alley area, but it didn't work.

"Maybe I'm not doing it right," he said.

The attraction's 8 a.m. opening was preceded by a short ceremony, including remarks by Universal President Bill Davis, fireworks and confetti. There were no actors from the "Potter" movies at the park. Rowling was absent, too.

"She has not been here yet," said Universal Creative President Mark Woodbury. "She wishes us all the best. She just couldn't make it."

As more visitors arrived at Universal Studios, the line to get into Diagon Alley stretched throughout the park and into backstage areas. Guests used umbrellas and park maps to shield themselves from the blazing sun. Universal set up big misting fans that provided brief blasts of air.

Universal, which does not release attendance figures, gave out return tickets to let people come back a couple of hours later and skip the lines.

Lisa Chomicz of Connecticut took a cigarette break from the Diagon Alley line in which she had waited for 90 minutes. She had not been aware there would be an additional wait to ride Gringotts.

"Oh, my God," she said. "Oh, well. We've waited this long."

Still, she said, "They should charge you less or something. I think it's ridiculous how they charge."

Diagon Alley is included in regular Universal Studios admission. A one-day ticket is $96 ($90 for ages 3-9). However, to experience both halves of the Wizarding World, including the Hogwarts Express train that connects the two theme parks, guests must buy a ticket that permits passing between them. Those sell for $136 ($130 for ages 3-9).

By midafternoon Tuesday, fans jammed the park. It was difficult to move in Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, a joke shop that sells toys and candy. A crowd milled about outside Ollivanders wand shop. The tables were full at the Leaky Cauldron, and there was still a lunch line at 3 p.m.

"All the food here has been very good," said Mary Casavant of Oakley, Calif., whose family enjoyed the ploughman's lunch: an appetizer platter and cottage pie, meat and vegetables under a potato crust.

The day started early for some fans, who entered Universal's parking garage at 5 a.m. That experience wasn't bad, said Luke Viramontes, 23, who wore the signature glasses of Harry Potter and a shortened Hogwarts school robe.

There were "a lot of crazy fans like me here, so it's definitely a great environment to be in," said Viramontes, who lives in Spring Hill. "I'm here because I love Harry Potter."

Staff writers Jon Busdeker and Paul Brinkmann contributed to this report. dbevil@tribune.com or 407-420-5477. spedicini@tribune.com or 407-420-5240.