Sun, Jan 26, 2014 - Page 14 News List

Universal to expand Harry Potter theme park

By Brooks Barnes  /  NY Times News Service, ORLANDO, Florida

Forget the long lines for the rides at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida. Nearly four years after opening, the attraction is still so popular that visitors routinely wait more than an hour just to get into a shop that sells wands.

Moving to ease the gridlock — and shower its corporate parent, NBCUniversal, with more profits — Universal Orlando Resort on Thursday unveiled details for a huge Harry Potter expansion. There will be two major new rides, eight new stores (expect a second Ollivanders wand shop) and a sprawling Leaky Cauldron restaurant, all part of a new section called Diagon Alley, one of the marquee spots in J.K. Rowling’s fiction.

A June opening is planned. Analysts estimate the cost to be US$400 million.

However, a question hangs over Hogwarts: With no new Harry Potter books from Rowling and three years having elapsed since the last Harry Potter blockbuster, can the boy wizard really power this much added theme park capacity?

Rivals like Disney and SeaWorld privately predict that the huge pop Universal got from adding Harry Potter in 2010 — a 30 percent year-on-year rise in attendance — will be followed by a much smaller bump this time. Theme park experts say Universal also faces the challenge of higher expectations among consumers. The first Harry Potter world was so compelling that it will be difficult to wow visitors a second time.

Universal is confident about its plans.

“One plus one will equal six,” Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury said of the addition of Diagon Alley to the original Wizarding World.

Alan Gilmore, an art director for the Harry Potter films who has worked closely with Universal on design, said the theming of the new section “absolutely raises the bar.”

The new area is “a maze crisscrossing itself,” as Gilmore said as he led reporters on a tour of the Diagon Alley construction site, with narrow, winding streets lined by five-story buildings and a dramatic train trestle running overhead. There is also Gringotts Wizarding Bank, replete with goblins at work, a ride plunging through its dark vaults and a fire-breathing dragon on the roof.

“We say that about the dragon, and people think we’re goofing around,” Woodbury said. “We’re not. This one blows a giant ball of fire.”

Rowling collaborated with Universal to add new elements to Diagon Alley, including a large souvenir-selling space called Carkitt Market.

As a sign of increased pressure to produce something dazzling, Universal employed 60 designers on the sequel, compared with 18 on the original.

The goal is not only to please Harry Potter fans, but to make cash registers ring. Aside from the mountain of added merchandise the resort hopes to sell, Universal Orlando — made up of two theme parks — has designed the expansion to increase the sale of more expensive multipark and multiday tickets.

Wizarding World opened in 2010 at Islands of Adventure, the newer of Universal’s two parks. Diagon Alley is located in the abutting Universal Studios. To ride the Hogwarts Express connecting the two properties, visitors must buy multipark tickets.

NBCUniversal has added attractions to its older Studios park over the past couple of years, including a Despicable Me simulator that turns riders into Minions. However, the Universal Studios property is climbing out of a deep hole created by years of underinvestment by the resort’s previous owners, the Blackstone Group and General Electric. There are still attractions themed around fading movies like Twister and characters like Betty Boop. Comcast’s NBC Universal paid US$1 billion in 2011 for full control of the resort.

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