Creating Our Own Diagon Alley

Our family's year-long quest to follow Harry Potter's footsteps into the magical marketplace of Diagon Alley.

A Year to Make the Dream a Reality

Our family enjoys the Autumn season and all of the festivities that accompany it.  Around September we often find ourselves eyeball-deep in preparation for Halloween and other activities that dominate the calendar.  Following the 2016 holiday season my wife issued me a challenge to begin earlier in the year so we’d have more time to enjoy the activities rather then spend so much time and late nights crafting the visuals.

As a family, we quickly settled on the theme of “Harry Potter” for 2017 and devised a plan to compete in our church’s trunk-or-treat activity the following October.  Throughout the year we’d each get Hogwarts wizard robes for our birthdays and we’d design and build a facade that would resemble the entrance to Diagon Alley, the wizarding world’s magical marketplace found in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels.

We’re a house divided four ways.

We wanted Alex to be a house elf, but he wasn’t having it.

We’ll settle for a house ninja turtle though.

Research

At the start of the year Amy and I took a trip to Universal Studios for our anniversary.  While we were there we were about to gain valuable research and inspiration in preparation for our project.  Later in the year we returned with the children.

Concept

Our family brainstormed and sketched ideas of how we might approach the construction of our set piece. We wanted it to be fairly lightweight, able to be transported in our minivan, and easily assembled on site with as few tools as possible.

Prototype

I’d always wanted to try my hand at sculpting foam to resemble brick or stone and this seemed the perfect opportunity. Using smaller foam panels, I had to learn the best techniques to achieve the desired look, as well as figure out how to scale up to the full 4’ x 8’ sheets of foam we planned to use.

Draw

Using an actual brick, we crafted a couple foam bricks to match and used these as stencils to draw the brick pattern on the foam. We wanted the design to be uniform for realism, but allowed for variances and asymmetry to add to whimsical feeling of the wall.

Cutout

I used a combination of a hot wire tool and a soldering iron to cut the doorway out of the foam panels. I then used the foam panels to stencil onto quarter-inch plywood and cut to match. The plywood was used to add rigidity to the back of the foam.

Rout

We used a Dremel rotary tool for creating the brick and grout shapes.  Definitely a time for wearing proper safety gear.  This step made a royal mess on the floor.  I also recommend an apron if you have one.

Detail

First we sprayed clear coat onto the foam and allowed it to mildly eat away at the foam. This yielded the pitted, and in some areas, weathered texture of the bricks we were looking for, it also helped to seal the foam for later paint applications. Next we sprayed wall texture to further enhance the grain of the wall.

Assemble

From time to time we would assemble all of the pieces to ensure everything was working together.  Sometimes this made it easier to apply the base coat of paint or to discover flaws.  Even in an unfinished state, seeing the wall put together helped to re-inspire us to continue to push forward with the project.

Paint

This was the most controversial step because there are differences in the look of the wall seen in the Harry Potter movie and the one at the theme park. We also wanted to consider the lighting that may exist at the event, which would be dark, and not anything like what has been seen on film. We settled on the traditional acrylic paint applied with a brush over an airbrush because we had all the equipment and more of us could work on it at a given moment. In hindsight we would have preferred an airbrush.

Wire

Since the intended environment would be dark, lighting received special consideration.  We used LED landscaping lights because they are bright, lightweight, and their wires easily strung together to allow for a continuous setup with a single plug.  Swivel heads on poles also meant we could direct light to a specific spot on the wall, and we added laser lights just inside the entrance to add a touch of magic.

Dress

Now that our wall was complete, it was time to dress the set.  Several of these complementary projects we started before the wall was complete as a way to break up some of the larger tasks.  We re-created themed posters from the Harry Potter films and a Leaky Cauldron sign that would give visitors a clue about the theme if they were not already aware.  We also created foam bricks that could be inserted at the entrance to give more dimension to the wall, since it moves in the film.

Enhance

Never missing an opportunity to push the immersion factor, I recorded brick sliding sounds using actual bricks and looped the effect near the entrance, and put together a looping soundtrack of the happiest of Harry Potter songs from the films.  I also constructed a mist cooler to create a ground fog effect that would play with the green laser light shining from above.