The Hogwarts Express arrives at Hogsmeade station at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando in Orlando, Fla. The train carries guests between the original park to the Diagon Alley area, a 4-minute, immersive ride.
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ORLANDO, Fla. — Harry Potter fans helped increase attendance by 50 percent at Universal Orlando Resort in the last few years. A second Harry Potter area that is set to open there July 8 could keep numbers going up. But even if the new area doesn’t lead to the surge in visitors that accompanied the original Harry Potter park, Universal’s cash registers surely will be ringing.
The new Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley is at Universal Studios, one of two separate — but side-by-side — parks that are part of the resort. The original Wizarding World of Harry Potter — a re-creation of the village of Hogsmeade from the Harry Potter books — opened at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 2010.
Diagon Alley re-creates the London wizard shopping district imagined in J.K. Rowling’s series.
It has just one ride, a 3-D thriller called Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. The first Harry Potter park had three rides. But Diagon Alley has seven shops so visually stimulating that you almost don’t notice you’re shopping.
Large swaths of the four-story shopping district are covered by glass with ceilings made to look like sky, allowing comfortable shopping even during a Florida summer storm.
The actors who attended the preview gasped and grinned as they walked though Diagon Alley.
“It’s absolutely brilliant. It totally takes you in,” said Warwick Davis, who played Professor Filius Flitwick in the film series.
Diagon Alley even has its own currency, so guests can swap U.S. dollars — Muggle money — for wizard cash, to spend or to keep as a souvenir.
The rich level of detail in the park, inspired by J.K. Rowling’s books and the Potter films, is authentic and exciting enough to thrill hardcore fans and casual visitors alike. There’s a fire-breathing dragon, animatronic fantasy animals, and The Monster Book of Monsters, a tome with teeth. There’s butterbeer ice cream, an outdoor performance stage, and a Hogwarts Express train that takes visitors to the Harry Potter area at Islands of Adventure.
Shops here aren’t selling the typical, tacky amusement park fare of T-shirts, sunscreen, and ball caps. Instead, Diagon Alley is a showplace for cleverly curated items like $250 wizard’s robes and $35 interactive wands that make trolls dance and light lamps. Backdrops include musty-looking books, creepy eels, and cool stone-and-brick facades.
Dimitri Abbondandolo holds up denominations that can be purchased at Gringotts Bank.
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Even the train ride between the two parks is immersive. Visitors board at either King’s Cross Station —built like a real London Tube station — or Hogsmeade Station for a four-minute trip in enclosed compartments. The windows — a video screen — shows a passing urban landscape, then countryside, along with Harry Potter characters. Outside the car door, silhouettes flit in the corridor and familiar voices from Potter movies are overheard.
Attendance at Universal Orlando Resort has jumped more than 50 percent since 2009, to 15 million annual visitors in 2013, according to Andy Brennan, an industry analyst at IBIS world, a market research firm.
“We expect this number to climb higher in 2014,” Mr. Brennan said. “NBCUniversal’s theme park revenue is up nearly 40 percent since 2009, much of which can be directly attributed to the popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter.”
Mr. Brennan thinks it’s “unlikely” that Universal will have the same surge from Diagon Alley, partly because the first park was a novelty that benefited from pent-up demand for leisure activity as the recession eased.
A dragon atop Gringotts Bank breathes fire. The area has just one ride, but it boasts seven shops where Muggles can buy butterbeer ice cream and wands.
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Universal won’t say how much it cost to build Diagon Alley; some experts have put the number at $400 million. To see both Potter areas, guests must buy a two-park ticket — $136 for adults, $130 for kids — because Diagon Alley and the original Wizarding World attraction are at different parks.
But even if the new park doesn’t draw as many visitors as the first one, the Potter attractions have helped position Universal as a leader in the theme-park industry, especially in the hyper-competitive Orlando park corridor, said Dennis Speigel, president of the International Theme Park Services trade group.
“Disney always sets the bar for our industry,” Mr. Spiegel said. “But during the last 15 years or so, Universal has been coming along very strong in terms of product adaptation and development.”
Universal is also trying to get more visitors to stay at its hotels, something Disney has done well. Universal recently opened its fourth hotel, the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, joining Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, and Hard Rock Hotel.
With 1,800 rooms that include kitchenettes, and half of them suites, the park is courting extended-stay visitors.
Universal plans to open a Harry Potter area this summer at its park in Osaka, Japan, and in California at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2016.
Mr. Speigel called the Potter parks a “once-in-a-generation” attraction, adding that Universal has done a good job capitalizing on the “product potential.”
“There’s enough story line in Harry Potter to allow Universal to continue on with it for another 15 years,” Mr. Speigel said.
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