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Friday, January 29, 2010

Peek at Harry Potter's world as it takes shape

The new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Resort, opening this spring, will replicate landmarks from the Harry Potter books, including Hogsmeade village, Ollivander?s wand shop and Hogwarts castle.
Universal Orlando Resort
The new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Resort, opening this spring, will replicate landmarks from the Harry Potter books, including Hogsmeade village, Ollivander?s wand shop and Hogwarts castle.

Universal Orlando Resort honchos are keeping a veritable Invisibility Cloak over the landscape of the highly anticipated Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The multifaceted attraction in the resort's Islands of Adventure park will open this spring, but Universal won't say exactly when. Hogwarts castle, with its Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, will feature "entirely new technology." But Universal is mum on even the basics. The 20-acre "world" will replicate aspects of Hogsmeade village, including Ollivander's wand shop, where the wand chooses you. But how that works is anyone's guess.

In fact, since revealing some details about the $200-million-plus themed area in September, Universal executives have invoked the sort of secrecy usually reserved for, say, vital questions of national security.

But in an exclusive arrangement with USA TODAY, the theme park is providing a virtual sneak peek via an augmented-reality map, which, with the aid of a webcam, offers a bird's-eye view of Harry Potter's new world.

The centerpiece is Hogwarts castle, rising more than 150 feet and visible from beyond park boundaries. It houses Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a "dark ride" that uses robotic arms to move passengers in various ways as they pass through scenes from the movies, says Robert Niles of industry tracker Two other rides, Dragon Challenge, a twin high-speed roller coaster, and Flight of the Hippogriff, a tamer coaster, use the core of existing attractions that have been re-themed.

The majority of Harry's world consists of venues in which to eat, drink and shop.

But Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury assures that those outlets will be about more than mere consumption. Dining will be an "experience," and shopping will be "retail theater," he says.

At Ollivander's, for instance, a costumed "wandkeeper," with the aid of some questions and special effects, will help shoppers find which of the 10,000 wands in stock is destined for them.

"Everything is about immersing you into ... the stories of Harry Potter," Woodbury says. "It would be a real letdown to me if people just came and bought something."

That said, there will be plenty of Harry-themed merchandise to peruse, from Quidditch equipment to Spectrespecs. Ditto for distinctive food and drink. The fare at the Three Broomsticks and the Hog's Head pub will include the first J.K. Rowling-approved recipe for Butterbeer.

Creating a Potter-themed attraction would seem to be a slam-dunk proposition. The seven-book series has sold more than 400 million copies and been translated into 67 languages. The movies have raked in $5.3 billion. The venture has author Rowling's blessing. And the films' production designer, Stuart Craig, and art director, Alan Gilmore, are working on the theme-park version of Harry's world.

"We're taking the most iconic and powerful moments of the stories in the books and putting it in an immersive environment," says Thierry Coup, Universal's vice president for creative development. "It's taking the theme-park experience to the next level."

But devoted fans can be demanding. Translating hugely popular books and movies into three-dimensional reality isn't easy. Expectations are high. Regardless, industry scuttlebutt on the venture is practically reverential.

"The advance word on this is that it's fabulous," says Bob Rogers, head of BRC Imagination Arts, a major designer of museum and theme-park exhibits. "How do you do something that's going to live up to this incredible world? All indications are that Universal is about to hit one out of the park. Even people who would be in head-to-head competition are anticipating its completion."

Indeed, some believe the new attraction could have a rippling effect that would boost attendance at other area theme parks. Orlando tourism hasn't been immune to the recession: Visitor tallies are expected to drop by 9.4% to 44.3 million for 2009. Parks have been forced to discount to boost attendance.

Meanwhile, Orlando's other major theme parks, including Walt Disney World and SeaWorld, are unveiling no major new attractions for 2010.

"Clearly, (Harry Potter) is the most anticipated attraction opening this year, to the point you're seeing a smaller number of new attractions from other parks," Niles says. "A lot of parks are thinking, 'Let's let (Universal) have it this summer.' "

This video explains how to use the printed map in the Jan. 28 issue of USA TODAY to get an augmented-reality preview of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort. After viewing, go to to launch the magic map. If you don't have the newspaper, you can print this PDF map file.