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A whole new magic kingdom

Harry Potter's world - Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, even quidditch - is coming to Universal Orlando.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published June 1, 2007


In this artist rendering provided by Universal Orlando "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park is shown.
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[AP photo / Universal Orlando]
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[AP photo / Universal Orlando]
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Universal Orlando Resort are partnering to create the worlds first fully immersive Harry Potter themed environment based on J.K. Rowling's books and the Warner Bros. films. "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" is expected to open in 2009.

Universal Orlando has signed a deal to transform a corner of Islands of Adventure into a "theme park within a theme park" called the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Slated to open in late 2009, the biggest expansion of the 8-year-old park will cover 20 acres, jutting into a parking lot from the existing Lost Continent, which will shrink once its Dueling Dragons and Flying Unicorns coasters are re-themed to a Potter-esque story line.

Center stage will be a new top-tier, family-friendly Harry Potter ride - probably executed with never-done-before ride technology. But most of the appeal of the new land will be the elaborate walk-through replicas of the foreboding castle known as the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a snow-covered Hogsmeade village and the Forbidden Forest, all of it interwoven with magic shops, restaurants, animated creatures and vanishing apparitions.

"Every memorable scene from the films - quidditch, the Hogwarts Express train, Weasley's flying Anglia - will be seen in some form," said Mark Woodbury, president of the creative unit at Universal Parks and Resort. "This is one of the greatest properties of our time for magical moments to hide around every corner."

So far, author J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter book series has sold 325-million copies. The four adventure films to date grossed $3.5-billion at the box office. The franchise shows few signs of fading, with a seventh and final book in the series, along with the fifth of seven movies, coming out this summer. Universal, which gets more than 10 percent of its visitors from Britain, underscored the global marketing opportunity by announcing the deal in London.

The Universal Orlando resort has suffered sagging attendance triggered by meager capital improvement budgets since being taken over by General Electric. The theme park is mum on how much it's spending.

But GE is said to have warmed up to the huge cash flow generated by theme parks. The Potter deal, described by park brass as their biggest ever, is a clear sign that Universal is getting back into the theme park arms race.

In fact, Universal aced out the Walt Disney Co. in a fierce contest to land the theme park rights to Harry Potter. Disney reportedly had artistic differences with Rowling over story-telling techniques in a theme park.

"The plans I've seen look incredibly exciting, " said Rowling, who has parlayed Harry Potter into the 13th largest fortune in the United Kingdom. "I don't think fans of the books or films will be disappointed."

The knock on Islands of Adventure has been that it's too dependent on the original complement of over-the-top thrill rides from the park's opening in 1999. Universal beefed up its kid-friendly appeal with the completion last year of the original vision for Seuss Landing. Meanwhile, Islands of Adventure attendance slipped 5 percent to 5.3-million in 2006, according to Economic Research Associates.

Universal budgeted $120-million in 2008, triple its capital improvement spending in each of the two prior years, and a similar amount in 2009, according to SEC filings. Some of that will be spent converting the old Back to the Future ride to a theme focusing on The Simpsons. The lion's share, however, will be poured into the Harry Potter project. With no attribution, the Times of London tossed out $1-billion as the budget. But at 10 times what Disney or Universal has ever spent on its most extravagant attractions, that's a dubious figure. That would be half of what it cost to build the entire Islands of Adventure park, but park executives left an impression that scrimping is not in the script.

"We are going to devote more time, more money, more expertise and more executive talent to ensure this entire environment will be second to none," said Tom Williams, chairman and chief executive officer of Universal Parks and Resorts.

Harry Potter fans are hopeful.

"It sounds interesting and worth a trip," said Alec Ewig, a St. Petersburg High School senior who has avidly read all of the Potter books since the first was published in 1998. He hopes the Orlando re-creation will be true to the characterization in the books. "I just hope they don't try to dumb it down for a younger audience like they did with the movies."

Rhiannon Capuano, 11, who will enter seventh grade at Dunedin Academy, said she will definitely visit the theme park when it opens. But before it does, she has a few suggestions: Maybe an interactive ride where people can cast spells. There should definitely be a replica of Diagon Alley where Rhiannon can buy robes and wands and candy just as the characters in the book do.

"Maybe a kind of roller coaster where chemistry goes haywire or something, " she said. And what about a haunted house like the Shrieking Shack? The ultimate idea: Bringing in Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe and other cast members of the movie to the park's opening.

Rowling and Warner Bros., which controls the film and consumer product rights, are partners with Universal in the theme park venture in a deal that is not too different from Steven Spielberg's for the Jurassic Park section of Islands of Adventure.

The design team will be headed by Stuart Craig, Academy Award-winning production designer for the first of the Harry Potter films.

Speculation is rampant among theme park fans over the type of ride system Universal will use after recently landing a 10-year exclusive license for a new type of industrial-strength robotic arm. The arm is strong enough to lift and spin a ride car full of people around - 360 degrees - then precisely lower it into another themed environment.

One Hollywood movie industry Web site claims to have learned of a mockup in a heavily guarded Hollywood soundstage of what Universal called Project Strongarm. The site shows a rendering of a flying Ford Anglia car - like the one Ron Weasley and Harry Potter take to Hogwarts in the second book. Park ride designers declined to confirm or deny any speculation about the ride system.

Times staff writer Tamara El-Khoury contributed to this report. Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.

[Last modified June 1, 2007, 00:58:54]


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