ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Harry Potter fans helped increase attendance by 50 percent at Universal Orlando Resort in the past few years, and interest in a second Harry Potter park opening there July 8 could keep numbers going up. But even if the new park doesn't lead to the surge in visitors that accompanied the original Harry Potter park, Universal's cash registers will surely be ringing.
The new Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley has just one ride, a 3-D thriller called Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (which coincidentally wasn't working Thursday during a media preview). The first Harry Potter park had three rides. But Diagon Alley has seven shops, all so visually stimulating that you almost don't notice you're shopping.
Diagon Alley even has its own currency, so guests can swap U.S. dollars (muggles 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 Universal's original Harry Potter area, which opened on the other side of the park in 2010.
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.
Even the train ride between the two parks is immersive. Visitors board at either King's Cross Station (built like a real Tube station) or Hogsmeade Station for a two-minute trip in enclosed compartments. A video screen (instead of windows) 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 over 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," 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."
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