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New Harry Potter Theme Park Set for Orlando

Brooks Barnes|The New York Times
Wednesday, 16 Sep 2009 | 12:27 PM ET

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the keenly anticipated Florida theme park, will open in the spring and allow visitors to tour Hogwarts, buy quidditch gear and drink butterbeer.

Universal Orlando unveiled some details about the park, a 20-acre addition to its Islands of Adventure property, on Tuesday in a Web presentation. The resort, co-owned by NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric , and the Blackstone Group , secured the theme park rights to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books in May 2007, but has been silent about specific plans until now.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
AP
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The so-called theme park within a theme park will be faithful to the visual landscapes of the Harry Potter films produced by Warner Brothers, which licensed the rights to Universal, after a flirtation with the Walt Disney Company. “We’ve tried to include something from every book,” Alan Gilmore, an art director for the films who is helping to oversee the park designs, said in an interview. “We had free range to be as grand and as excessive as we could be,” he added. “It’s only money that holds us back in the end.”

Universal and Warner would not discuss financial details, but analysts estimate Wizarding World will cost about $265 million, a relative drop in the bucket compared with what Universal’s bigger rival spends on expansions. Disney is putting $1 billion into its California Adventure park, for instance, and just outlined hundreds of millions in expansion and refurbishment plans for other properties.

But the Harry Potter sum is still considerable, and Universal executives hope the result will be an immersive experience unlike any theme park currently offers. “We wanted fans to be able to truly live the experience of these movies,” Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative, the research and development group responsible for designing the resort’s attractions, said in an interview.

Islands of Adventure could use the help. While the park is home to popular rides based on “The Cat in the Hat” and “Jurassic Park,” it faces an industrywide downturn in attendance because of the recession and visitor complaints that it lacks new attractions. Analysts say about 5.3 million people visited the park in 2008.

Universal Orlando is also coping with Disney’s $4 billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment. Two of the most popular rides at Islands of Adventure are built around Marvel characters: the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man. Universal’s licensing agreements are long term but exclusive only to Florida; Disney can add the same characters to its parks in California, Europe and Asia, potentially weakening their Florida drawing power.

Wizarding World, drawing on Ms. Rowling’s legions of fans, will allow Universal to ease its reliance on the Marvel characters and, to some degree, attractions based on the movies of Steven Spielberg. Mr. Spielberg has a spectacularly rich consulting contract that gives him about 2 percent of the resort’s gross, or an estimated $20 million a year, in perpetuity.

Mr. Spielberg’s contract contains a stipulation that allows him to be bought out in the coming months — at a cost in excess of $200 million in cash — and Universal is trying to negotiate an extension or some other contractual change. Universal Orlando has a deal in place to refinance about $1 billion in debt, but the terms rest on getting Mr. Spielberg squared away first, adding urgency to the negotiations.

Three rides will form the center of the new park. Universal still will not talk much about the biggest one, a high-tech experience inside the castle called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey that involves the likenesses of the heroes from the films.

Flight of the Hippogriff is described as a family coaster that simulates a Hippogriff (the half-horse, half-eagle beast from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) training flight over Hogwarts castle. Dragon Challenge is a twin high-speed coaster that will feature elements from the Triwizard Tournament.

Interactive shopping is a major component, said Paul Daurio, show producer for the park. For instance, the Ollivanders wand shop will replicate Ms. Rowling’s story line: the wand chooses the wizard instead of the other way around. Other stores will offer Potter merchandise that is unavailable elsewhere, like extendable ears.

The castle itself will be about 150-feet tall but will appear to tower some 600 feet in the air because of architectural and filmmaking tricks, Mr. Daurio said. Over all, the park will resemble Hogsmeade, Ms. Rowling’s all-wizard village.

Wizarding World is already receiving rave reviews from at least one contingent: the actors in the films. Tom Felton, who plays Harry’s towheaded nemesis Draco Malfoy, has visited the property twice, once when construction was just getting started and again in recent days. “We always say on set, ‘If this place was real, it would be absolutely fantastic,’ ” he said in a telephone interview. “To actually walk into this world and be able to touch it and taste it and smell it — well, it’s just going to be fantastic.”

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