Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

While wandering the corridors of Hogwarts castle on their way to experience Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - the marquee attraction of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - guests will pass through Dumbledore's office. The office is an exact replica of the one seen in the Harry Potter films, and is the place where the Hogwarts headmaster officially welcomes you to Hogwarts. (KEVIN KOLCZYNSKI, UNIVERSAL ORLANDO / March 25, 2010)

After months of waiting, Universal Orlando officials are peeling away more of the mystery surrounding the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the Orlando theme park's $200million addition.

Today they will announce June18 as the grand-opening date of the 20-acre expansion to Islands of Adventure.

Although theme parks typically have days or weeks of soft openings before officially launching, Universal would not comment on whether that will be the case with Wizarding World. However, last month it began selling vacation packages with Wizarding World benefits starting May28.

Visitors who have purchased those will receive everything that was promised, Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said. Those packages are still available, although some days already may be sold out, he said.

But for now, construction is in full force, with dozens of painters and carpenters completing the snow-capped Hogsmeade village and the iconic Hogwarts castle, which will house the park's new dark ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

The scene was a work in progress Wednesday, with machinery maneuvering through the attraction and around a small media tour getting a first look behind the construction walls up since 2007.

The tour included a walk through the village based on J.K. Rowling's bestselling book series; past shop windows packed with Potter props such as owl cages, caldrons and wand boxes; and then up to the castle, where park guests will enter the Forbidden Journey ride through the dungeon level of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

"You're meant to feel you're really down deep," said Alan Gilmore, Wizarding World's art director, as the trek began in the dungeon. In the lowest level are items such as a statue of the one-eyed witch and the Mirror of Erised that, in Potter stories, reveals the heart's desires.

The queue winds through several chambers and an outdoor area that represents a Victorian greenhouse with vines snaking over the roof and a cage of Rowling's mandrake plants. The greenhouse area leads guests to higher ground and a series of corridors with statues of notables such as Hogwarts' architect and the school's first headmaster.

The Forbidden Journey storyline revolves around newcomers to the castle.

"Hogwarts is open to muggles for the first time," said Thierry Coup, Universal Creative vice president. That's reflected throughout the wait, particularly with talking portraits unaccustomed to having muggles — Rowling's term for people with no magical ability — in the halls. The portraits, some as tall as 5feet, address one another and guests, too.

Eventually, the line flows into Dumbledore's office, where visitors will see the headmaster standing on a mezzanine behind his desk — about 18feet from the queue. He's a lifelike but somewhat ghostly being.

"We had to create some new technology for this," Coup said. However, Universal officials would not be more specific about that effect, the new filming process or the robotic ride technology, which are essential to Forbidden Journey. They refer to the seats as an "enchanted bench," although two test seats with over-shoulder harnesses are in position outside the castle.

The Dumbledore character is happy to greet guests — but wants them to sit through a lecture. Harry Potter (as played by actor Daniel Radcliffe) and pals Hermione and Ron intervene in the Defense of the Dark Arts classroom.

"They say, ‘Forget the lecture; it's boring. Forget the tour; it's boring. The quidditch match is about to start,'" said Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. "Hermione casts a spell, and off we go, and the adventure ensues. We get sucked into a quidditch match; we go face-to-face with Dementors; we go into the Forbidden Forest."

Before that happens, there are safety instructions for the ride in the Gryffindor Common Room from three characters not seen in the films, including the "etiquette lady."

The bulk of the ride remains secretive — even its duration — although Woodbury expects the entire experience to take about an hour, from entering the winged-boar gates outside to exiting through the gift shop.

"In some of it you're touring the castle; in some of it you're flying around the world of Harry Potter," Woodbury said.

The complicated nature of opening a major attraction with new technologies usually requires a soft opening to work out the kinks, said Chad Emerson, author of Project Future and an upcoming book about the history of Orlando's theme parks. It's rare to open without a dry run, he said.

"Nowadays with technology as advanced and complex, that's sort of a risky move," Emerson said. "You've got to have a lot of confidence."

Dewayne Bevil can be reached at 407-420-5477 or dbevil@orlandosentinel.com.

More Wizarding World morsels
Other details from the tour of Wizarding World of Harry Potter include:
•There won't be any walk-around Potter characters.
•Guests entering from the Lost Continent side of Islands of Adventure will see the Hogwarts Express train on the right. It's a 100 percent replica of what is seen in the films, Coup said. After that is Hogwarts Station, which conceals lockers for the Dragon Challenge (formerly Dueling Dragons), which has a new flag-flanked entrance there.
•On the left will be several previously announced establishments: Zonko's, Honeydukes, Three Broomsticks restaurant and the adjacent Hog's Head Tavern. In between are fake fronts of other Potter elements, but you cannot go inside such spots as McHavelocks, Dogweek and Deathcap
(with good and evil windows), Gladrags Wizardry, Scrivenshafts (inks and quills), Wiseacres (equipment such as crystal balls) and Potages, a caldron store. You can merely look in the windows and admire the theming.
•Back on the right are the Owlery (with robotic owls) and Owl Post, plus Dervish and Banges.
•In the middle of the pathway is a butterbeer cart, which also will sell a frozen version of the drink.
•Ollivanders is just beyond the Owlery, even though in the books, it's in Diagon Alley. "It was such an important part of the fiction, how the wand chooses the wizard, we want it to be part of this," said Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. With Rowling's blessing, a Hogsmeade branch was opened for Wizarding World.