J.K. Rowling may have closed the book on Harry Potter, but the story of the world’s most popular boy-wizard is on the track and gathering steam at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida.
On Thursday, Universal executives unveiled details about the much-anticipated opening of a second Potter-themed attraction: Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley, which will be located at Universal Studios Florida and linked to the original Wizarding World attraction at Islands of Adventure by a working Hogwarts Express train.
(Universal Orlando Resort is part of NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)
“When we opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010, we knew at the time that there were other great stories to tell based on the fiction of J.K. Rowling,” said Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. “We knew pretty quickly that [Diagon Alley] would be our next move.”
To accomplish it, the park dismantled the popular but aging Jaws attraction and built a themed area that recalls the London of the Potter books. Hidden behind the Muggle (or non-magical) facades, visitors will find the magic-infused world of Diagon Alley — a secret street of shops, restaurants and wizard-related activity.
Among the attractions that are expected to open sometime this summer:
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts: A story-driven dark coaster, this ride will put visitors in the middle of the action as they navigate their way through the vaults at Gringotts Wizarding Bank and deal with wizards, witches and goblins.
- Knockturn Alley: Command central for the Dark Arts, this area will feature Borgin and Burkes, where visitors can pick up Death Eater masks, skulls and other bits of nastiness.
- Ollivanders: Like the one in the original attraction (now called the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Hogsmeade), this attraction will house the “wand picks the wizard” show.
- The Leaky Cauldron: A wizarding pub said to be invisible to Muggles, who nonetheless will be able to order fish and chips, bangers and mash and other traditional fare.
But the centerpiece of the expansion will almost certainly be the Hogwarts Express train, which will ferry visitors between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. (The trip will require a park-to-park ticket, currently selling for $128 vs. $92 for a single-park ticket.)
“The story lent itself really well to the [two-park concept] because Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are geographically separated,” said Woodbury. “It became apparent to us that it would be a great experience to connect the two parks and create the first-ever one-story/two-park experience.”
That experience is expected to be fully immersive with digital screens serving as “windows” that provide views of the English countryside rather than central Florida. Given the nature of the story, mishaps along the way (a Dementor attack, perhaps?) are almost a given.
“In most theme parks you can see coasters going up and down, hear the music playing and everything else,” said Erik Yates, editor of BehindtheThrills.com. “Here, you’re in a completely different world; instead of seeing the rest of the park, you’re actually part of the story.”
And, increasingly, immersing visitors in such stories is what drives the industry. When SeaWorld opened Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin last year, for example, it was as much a story-based ride as an animal exhibit while Fantasy Faire at Disneyland has taken princess meet-and-greets to a whole new level.
Then there’s the runaway success of the original Harry Potter attraction at Islands of Adventure.
Although Universal no longer publishes attendance figures for Wizarding World, the Themed Entertainment Association estimates that the opening of the original attraction in 2010 led to a 30 percent jump in attendance in 2011.
“If they continue to introduce, design and execute the way they did on the first one, people are going to love it and continue to come back,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based theme park consulting company. “This is an effort to generate repeat visitation through the extension of product.”
And, says Speigel, the wealth of material in the Potter oeuvre suggests that Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley may not be the end of the story but, rather, another stop along the way.
“Based on the books, there’s enough Harry Potter product to go for another 15 years without taking a breath,” he said. “I can assure you that based on the success of the original attraction and what they’re anticipating for the new introduction, they’re already looking at ways to expand the concept.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.