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Thursday, July 24, 2014

What's Orlando without Harry Potter?


When Universal Studios opened the second of its big attractions in Orlando, Fla., the one called "Islands of Adventure," it hoped that by jamming super-scary roller coasters, Jurassic Park, Spider-man and Dr. Seuss into one fun park, it would at last pose formidable competition to Walt Disney World, which is a few miles away.

It never really did. Though Islands of Adventure enjoys respectable visitor figures, it has been outdone by the constant expansion of Disney parks in Orlando — not only within each Disney area but in the addition of such new Disney locations as Animal Kingdom. By creating weeklong passes that sell at an attractive discount, Disney has been able to give visitors a mighty financial incentive to confine their visits solely to Disney properties. They play a hard game out there in Mouseland.

But late this spring, conditions may change with the opening of Universal's new "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter." Benefiting from a superbrand that has an irresistible appeal to multitudes of both young people and adults, Universal has bet tens of millions of dollars on the proposition that people coming to Orlando will have to spend at least one full day with Harry, Ron, Hermione and friends.

It's important to point out that "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" is not simply a single structure, but an entire, multi-acre display of the magical scenery portrayed in this worldwide best seller among books and movies. The entire site was recently photographed from an Air Florida Helicopter flying overhead, and spread in revealing pictures onto the Web, of buildings and exhibits under construction.

From those apparently unauthorized helicopter photographs, it's probable that visitors will see not only Hogwarts — the castlelike School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where Harry and his buddies learn their craft — but also the invisible section of London where the wizard population lives (unseen by muggles like us), the train station from which they board an otherwise-invisible rail track to Hogwarts, the village close to Hogwarts where Harry and his friends down tankards of ginger beer, the various classrooms and dorm-like residences, the stadium where wizarding students play Quidditch (on flying broomsticks), and of course the magisterial dining hall where students and faculty gather for meals and grand occasions. I assume you also will be able to visit the much-depicted office of kindly but strong-minded headmaster Dumbledore.

All this is heady stuff. Can you imagine yourself visiting Orlando and NOT paying a visit to Harry and Hogwarts? The prospect of a real dilution in their visitor numbers has proved so troubling to the Disney people that, last month, they scheduled a two-day press conference in Orlando for travel journalists, designed to show off all the stupendous new Disney features that will keep visitors confined to those world-famous parks. Although I wasn't there, I've heard from participants that few of the writers in attendance were much impressed by Disney's recent additions or future plans.

And so I leave you with a repeat of the earlier question: Can you imagine going to Orlando and not visiting Harry Potter? It may be that Universal's game-changer will alter the comparative popularity of the Orlando theme parks.

Arthur Frommer is the pioneering founder of the Frommer's Travel Guide book series. He co-hosts the radio program The Travel Show with his travel correspondent daughter Pauline Frommer. Find more destinations online and read Arthur Frommer's blog at frommers.com.

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