Let's get all the Harry Potter puns out the way first, shall we?
Universal Orlando's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is undeniably magical. It's an instant 9 3/4 out of ten. It's no Dumble-bore, that's for sure. And you know what? It really Gringott under our skin.
Right. Now that's out the way, we guarantee this write-up all about our exclusive Potter around the resort's astounding new Diagon Alley experience won't drag-on.
With over 450m book sales, a $2.4bn movie franchise gross, three theme parks and a total brand value estimated at around $15bn (to date), Harry Potter 's an undoubted phenomenon - and one that has no sign of abating, what with book spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them set to be turned into a series of films (debuting 18 November 2016).
To tide fans over until then, Universal Orlando has unveiled a brand spanking new addition to its already pretty-darn-mindblowing Wizarding World of Harry Potter experience.
Since its opening back in 2010, fans have been conversely delighted and overwhelmed by the park's huge recreation of Hogwarts School and the snow-blanketed magical village of Hogsmeade.
Yet the launch of Diagon Alley doubles the Harry Potter experience in size, with another insanely detailed and spectacularly immersive fan-gasm that's as close as you'll ever get to stepping into the movie universe itself.
Centred around the Potter-verse's infamous cobbled wizarding alley, its stuffed full of magical restaurants, shops, and Gringotts Wizarding Bank - the site of one of the series' most audacious and cinematic set-pieces.
But before we get onto all the fire-breathing dragons and magical wand-waving, let's start with how you actually get there.
While Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are both part of Universal Orlando, they're actually set within two distinctive parks. Ingeniously, the designers have used even that geographical snafu as a creative opportunity, and lo - the Hogswarts Express was born. Hop aboard an enormous steam train in Hogsmeade, and brace yourself for a four minute ride that's made all the more applaudably entertaining by some very impressive FX tomfoolery.
Once you're secured in your cabin, and the train starts moving, the windows and cabin door are soon revealed to be digital screens which display the full fictional journey in all its glory. With two different videos for there and back, a host of cast cameos (Hagrid, Fred Weasley and more), recognisable mythical beasties (centaurs, hippogriffs, and Dementors all get a look-in), and an array of Easter Eggs, it's guaranteed insta-magic.
Not only that, but head back the other way (from a ridiculously detailed Kings Cross station built outside Diagon Alley), and you'll even get to hop through the magical Platform 9 3/4 in a bit of fun optical illusion-ry (illustrated rather theatrically by our Online Editor @spliggle below).
Wander out of Kings Cross, past the Knight Bus (replete with an astoundingly Siri-esque, Jamaican-accented talking Shrunken Head), and recreation of Picadilly Circus' Eros statue, and it's time to wander through a brick wall between the Muggle and Wizarding worlds.
From the moment you step onto the cobbled streets, your brain is guaranteed to be blown. Courtesy of the actual filmmakers Alan Gilmore (art director) and Stuart Craig (production designer), every shop and restaurant is as they were in the movies - only more so, as rather than roof-less sets, each and every building has been built in its entirety.
Not only are all the classic Diagon Alley establishments all present and correct in stunning detail (grab a beer in The Leaky Cauldron, pick up a wand in Ollivander's and munch on a chocolate frog in the Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes), but the centre piece of the whole environment blows you away - instantly and almost literally.
For crouched atop Gringrotts' is an enormous, disconcertingly realistic dragon so jaw-dropping we reckon even the Khaleesi would run screaming. To make matters even more trouser-shredding/brilliant, it lets off a rip-roaring burst of fire at spontaneous intervals. Total Film tip of the day? Pack extra underwear.
Duck beneath the fiery flames and you're greeted by the park's barnstorming, show-stopper of a ride, Escape from Gringotts. If it's one thing Universal has perfected, it's creating queuing surrounds as ostentatious and entertaining as its rollercoasters. The meander through the bank on the way to the ride is itself a delight, with a teller hall stuffed full of animatronic bank goblins and stunning chandeliers (over 26k crystals in each, fact fans).
The ride is the culmination of the park's ride successes to date, mixing retina-dazzling 4K 3D video visuals with 'motion base' rollercoaster technology. In layman's/muggle speak, prepare yourself for both an auditory and physical thrillride, as you're whizzed up, down and around, with an array of star-studded, stunningly FX-ed action scenes presented on enormous screens throughout.
Along the way you'll come face to face with Bill Weasley (Domnhall Gleeson), Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), and He-Who-Shall-Make-You-Poop-Thyself (Voldemort, as played by Ralph Fiennes) in a series of brand new filmed segments. Not only that but there's the aforementioned dragon to deal with, enormous trolls to battle, and some niftily CGI-d appearances from Harry, Hermione and Ron, too.
For non-fans, Diagon Alley is still an utterly unique and endlessly enjoyable experience. For die-hard Potterites, it's a literal dream come true.
Total Film travelled with Virgin Holidays: seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick direct to Orlando, room only accommodation at the 3V Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and car hire starts from £809. Price is per person based on 2 adults travelling and sharing a tower standard room including all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Price is based on a departure on 10 November 2014. Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected.
To book: www.virginholidays.co.uk, 0844 557 3859 or visit one of our 130 stores located in Debenhams, House of Fraser , Tesco and Sainsbury’s stores nationwide. Start your holiday before you’ve even taken off in the v-room at Gatwick Airport…adults £22, kids £12. Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected. **Add on Universal Orlando 3-Park Bonus Ticket from £240.98 for two adults travelling. They are valid for 14 consecutive days from the day of first use so can be used at any stage of your stay. **
Universal 2-Park Bonus Ticket
Experience the best of Universal Orlando Resort with unlimited admission to both Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure for up to 14 consecutive days, plus all-club access to the live entertainment at Universal CityWalk, Orlando's hottest nightspot!
Prices from £124 per adult; £114 per child. See www.universalorlando.co.uk