Harry Potter is about to arrive in Florida — not via broomstick or Floo powder, but by a mystery technology that will sweep fans along on a life-and-death adventure in the realm of young wizards.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which officially opens in June, will be the newest themed zone — or "island" — at Islands of Adventure, one of Universal Resort's two Orlando parks.
While the Wizarding World will have other attractions — two roller coasters and a Hogsmeade Village of shops straight from the book — it is the centerpiece ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, that has Harry Potter fans and thrill ride aficionados atwitter.
Literally. Fan blogs and online bulletin boards are filled with breathless speculation. But Universal has maintained a vow of secrecy when it comes to the new ride, saying only it combines new robotic-arm technology and 360-degree film technology to deliver guests to a Quidditch match, where they will have the sensation they are flying in the game.
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A handful of media (including The Miami Herald) and tourism officials — plus Ellen DeGeneres — have been allowed in the ride area, but not on the Journey itself.
Among them was Andrew Sims, news editor at Mugglenet.com, a fan website, who toured the park in September.
"What really struck me about this is you're really going to feel like you're in the movies, like you're in Harry's world," Sims says. "Especially that walk-through for the Forbidden Journey ride. Those are some of the more iconic Harry Potter scenes."
The Cloak of Invisibility was lifted Friday, when people who bought special hotel/park packages were able to enter Wizarding World. The grand opening for everyone else is on June 18.
The Wizarding World isn't all that's new at the theme parks.
In Tampa, Busch Gardens opened its Sesame Street Safari of Fun for the preschool and kindergarten set in March. At Disney, Epcot has a DIY thrill ride, Sum of all Thrills, that allows guests to design their ride, then climb into a capsule on a robotic arm that simulates it.
But for now, the theme park buzz is all about the boy wizard.
Enter the gate into Wizarding World and you're in Hogsmeade Village — the Hogwarts Express puffing steam on the right, shops on the left, the peaked roof of the Owlery ahead. And in the distance, the imposing towers of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which serves as the entrance to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
The queue is an attraction in itself, jammed with characters, scenes and a stunning level of detail from the Harry Potter books and movies — the Daily Prophet with its pictures that move, the Mirror of Erised where Harry sees the reflection of his deepest desires, the greenhouse where Professor Sprout teaches Herbology.
The ride itself is rumored to last about 4 minutes. But combined with the queue for the ride, the attraction will take about an hour, Universal says.
While many of the scenes will be familiar to those who saw the movies, some will not. As the pre-show queue winds through the Portrait Hall, fans see the founders of Hogwarts for the first time as the four — Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw and Salazar Slytherin — talk to passersby and to each other, slipping in and out of their frames and appearing in other people's portraits.
The line moves into the office of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. The office and its props — including the pensieve, which played a critical role in "The Goblet of Fire" — were recreated from the films, "down to the finest detail," says Thierry Coup, Universal's creative director. "It was extremely important for us to be authentic. The expectations of the fans are so high, we wanted to deliver beyond those expectations."
Dumbledore appears on a landing, welcomes everyone to the school and points them toward the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, where Professor Binns will lecture on the history of Hogwarts. In the classroom, heroes Harry, Ron and Hermione appear out from under the Invisibility Cloak.
In both scenes, the characters appear as a sort of hologram — Universal isn't yet revealing the technology — so lifelike it appears Daniel Radcliffe and the other actors are in the room.
"The technology is pretty impressive," says Melissa Anelli, webmistress of a Potter website (www.the-leaky-cauldron.org). "And the paintings in the Portrait Hall — I've seen many incarnations of the moving portrait and it's usually just a TV screen with a frame around it. These really look like moving portraits."
Binns is boring, the classmates say — dead actually — and suggest the Muggles attend a Quidditch match instead. The portrait of the Fat Lady lets visitors into the Gryffindor common room, the sorting hat gives a safety message and the queue moves into the Room of Requirement, lit by hundreds of floating candles. There, they board enchanted benches, and take off with the help of Floo powder.
"You fly into the Quidditch match — you are part of it," says Coup, who also designed The Amazing Adventures of Spider Man ride in the same park. "It's a new technology, one that has never been used before... . You really feel like you're flying along.
"You fly over the castle, into the forest. You run into a dragon with Harry, run into the Whomping Willow, feel the coldness of the dementors. This is going to feel like an epic journey with Harry and the other characters."
Riders exit through Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods into Hogsmeade Village, where they'll also be able to buy Potter merchandise in Zonko's joke shop; Honeydukes, with treats including Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans; Ollivanders wand shop, a branch of the original on Diagon Alley; Dervish and Banges, which sells Quidditch equipment and Triwizard apparel; and the Owlery, where visitors can mail a postcard with a Hogsmeade Village postmark.
The Three Broomsticks and Hog's Head pub will feature traditional British fare and a "feast" inspired by meals in the Hogwarts dining hall. They'll also serve pumpkin juice, which reportedly tastes like pumpkin pie, and Butterbeer, a non-alcoholic brew described as tasting like a cross between shortbread and butterscotch.
The new island also includes two existing rides that were redesigned to fit the Harry Potter story. The former Dueling Dragons twin roller coasters has been transformed into the high-speed Dragon Challenge, featuring elements from the Triwizard Tournament from "The Goblet of Fire." (The old Dueling Dragons queue, which had elaborate theming, has been stripped of the bones, armor, candles and other props and has a new entrance, which has not been shown to the public. The ride itself changed little and reopened after a brief closure in March.)
The former Flying Unicorn, a junior roller coaster, had more extensive changes, including new cars. It will reopen as the Flight of the Hippogriff, named after one of the magical creatures — part eagle, part horse — under the care of Hagrid. Hagrid's Hut is next to it, along with the Weasleys" enchanted Ford Anglia, badly damaged by an encounter with the Whomping Willow.
Time to leave the magical village.
Next door, at Universal's other park, Universal Studios, a roller coaster unveiled in August lets you choose the music for your 1 1/2-minute ride. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit then makes a vertical climb up a 167-foot tower — the car goes straight up, and you're lying on your back. The car dives at 65 mph, then climbs back up, twisting around the world's largest non-inversion loop, never quite going upside down.
The track traces a treble clef lying on its side, but you might not notice this whimsical touch, part of which disappears into a building facade and bursts out the other side.
Instead of the snapshot photo now ubiquitous on thrill rides, you can buy a video that shows you experiencing the coaster from launch to finish, with the music you chose providing the soundtrack.
Universal also added two restaurants to CityWalk this spring: Fusion Bistro Sushi & Sake Bar, a walk-up bistro with sushi rolls at $5-$16; and Fat Tuesday, a Bourbon Street-themed purveyor of frozen daiquiris.
This park updated and expanded the old Land of the Dragons to create the Sesame Street Safari of Fun, which opened March 27 and picks up the Africa theme with characters dressed in safari gear.
Like Wizarding World, Sesame Street relies in part on old attractions that have been rethemed, but the area has been expanded and rides and entertainment added. The former dragon cars in the junior flume ride were exchanged for hippos; a circular swing ride was pulled from storage, refurbished and called Rosita's Djembe Fly-Away.
Sesame Street's anchor is Elmo's Treehouse, which got a makeover from its dragon days. At its feet are Bert & Ernie's Watering Hole and Oscar's Swamp Stomp, two splash playgrounds for toddlers, while netted canopy bridges overhead connect the treehouse to other play areas.
New is "A Is for Africa," a show in which the characters have an adventure in Africa; upgrades to a dining pavilion and the park's first regular character breakfasts and lunches.
The highlight is Air Grover, a 42-second coaster ride with mini-dives and two horizontal loops — a starter coaster for kids within view of two of Busch Gardens' heart-stopping adult coasters. With Grover in helmet and aviator glasses at the controls, the coaster flies over the Sahara.
Busch Gardens is also building a thrill ride, set to open next year, but has not released details about it.
Most of Disney's attention is focused on its biggest expansion ever, one that will double the size of Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland. The Fantasyland — which opens in two parts, in 2012 and 2013 — will play heavily on interactive attractions, including "homes" for three princesses with whom guests can chat, along with Journey of the Little Mermaid and a renovated and expanded Dumbo's Flying Circus.
This year, Disney World's newest ride is an undisguised math and science lesson where guests design their thrill ride. Sum of All Thrills is part of Epcot's Innoventions attraction, a complex of quasi-educational interactive exhibits, and is sponsored by Raytheon.
Guests use a touch- screen work table to design their choice of ride — a bobsled, roller coaster or jet — and a customized series of corkscrews, inversions and steep hills. If a hill is too high or speed too fast, a "virtual test dummy" lets the designer know that section needs to be reworked. (Tip: Take too long with your design and the computer will take over and finish it for you.)
Two guests take seats in a robotic simulator, capsules are lowered over their heads, and they experience the ride they designed. The simulator doesn't go anywhere, but it turns and shakes, and high-definition video, sound and air motion create a not-quite 100 percent sensation of speeding through space with dips, dives and twists.
If a simulated thrill ride feels odd inside the capsule, it's an even odder sight for those outside: An array of robotic capsules moving in place at helter skelter angles, two pairs of legs sticking out of each, tracing the arc of the ride in the air.
Fans can get back in line and re-engineer their ride, or come back with their design card for up to six months and experience the same ride.
Elsewhere at Disney:
At Epcot, guests can play an interactive high-tech game inspired by the animated TV series "Disney's Kim Possible" as they walk through the park. Armed with a "Kimmunicator" — a specially programmed cellphone that they can pick up at kiosks for free — guests become secret agents trying to save the world.
Players connect with Kim Possible characters, learn about villains and their dastardly plans and are assigned a mission. When a player arrives at a designated pavilion, he receives instructions to stop the bad guys from taking over the world.
Each player's Kimmunicator sets off special effects at the pavilion — perhaps a wall or piece of decor will light up — that are key to accomplishing the mission.
The Main Street Electrical Parade returns to the Magic Kingdom this summer for the first time since 2001. Tinker Bell will lead the parade on a new float; Snow White and Pinocchio also have new floats.
The parade is part of Summer Nightastic!, which runs June 6 through Aug. 14. Other summer events include a daily dance party for tweens in the courtyard of Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios and a series of tribute concerts at Epcot.
Mobile Magic, a new Disney app for smart phones, combines GPS technology with real-time information about rides, attractions, events and characters. Guests can use their Verizon phone to find out which rides are closest to their location; the wait times and Fastpass return times; daily events (including the schedule for Disney characters); park maps and information about park restaurants.
The app is available only to Verizon customers and costs $9.99 for six months. Guests who are not Verizon customers can get a limited amount of information on browser-enabled phones, but they can't get any of the features that are tied to the GPS.
Inspired by the popularity of dressing up like a princess, Magic Kingdom has introduced The Pirates League, an opportunity for boys and girls to become pirates. The basic package — bandana, scars, tattoos, fake teeth, earring and eye patch for boys; bandana, shimmering makeup, face gem, tattoos, nail polish, earring and eye patch for girls — runs about $30. The new pirates can also take part in the daily Pirates Parade through Adventureland.
While the kids are on a ride, adults can slip away to the new La Cava del Tequila in the Mexico pavilion at Epcot. La Cava offers shots of more than 70 tequilas, with prices ranging from $8 to as much as $55 for a rare tequila, plus exotic margaritas and a small menu of snacks.
At Downtown Disney, Paradiso 37, featuring 37 varieties of tequila and cuisine of the Americas (Chilean salmon, Argentinian skirt steak, tacos, enchiladas, cheeseburgers and chili dogs), opened last fall at Paradise Island. Entrees $8.99-$26.99.
Disney"s two water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, have added cabanas that, for an extra fee, provide a roof or umbrella, locker and cooler, plus an attendant to take food orders.
The cabanas were part of Disney"s Year of a Million Dreams and were so popular that the park decided to add them permanently.
Omaka Rocka opened at Aquatica, SeaWorld's water park, this spring. It consists of two closed slides that widen into funnel shapes that spin tube riders and rock them so that they might end up facing front, back or sideways when the ride spits them out. The addition of two slides brings to 38 the number of slides at Aquatica.
Aquatica, which already had cabanas, converted some to premium cabanas with more privacy, including one "ultimate cabana," with two tents, a dining table for six and a daily rental fee of $600.
At SeaWorld, the killer whale show continues with some temporary changes after one of the orcas killed its trainer Feb. 24.
Whale trainers are still doing everything from the deck, says Jill Revelle, park spokeswoman, but eventually will return to the water after the park finishes reviewing its practices.
Tilikum, the 12,000-pound orca who grabbed his trainer in his mouth and held her underwater, is expected to return to the show as well, but the date has not been set.
GOING TO THE THEME PARKS
—Busch Gardens Tampa Bay: One-day Florida resident admission — adult or child — is $64.95; an annual pass for Florida residents is $69.95, good for unlimited admission through Dec. 31. To celebrate the opening of Sesame Street Safari of Fun, kids ages 5 and under who are Florida residents get in free all year; young guests must register online before visit. See website for deals on multi-park passes (including SeaWorld), www.buschgardens.com ; 888-800-5447. Busch Gardens also operates a water park, Adventure Island (www.adventureisland.com).
—Disney: A one-day, one-park pass for Florida residents, purchased online in advance, is $71.10 for adults, $61.20 ages 3 to 9. A variety of multi-day, multi-park passes is also available. In addition to the four theme parks — Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios — Disney has Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon water parks, DisneyQuest, Oak Trail golf course and Disney's Wide World of Sports. www.disneyworld.com ; 407-W-DISNEY (407-934-7639).
—SeaWorld Orlando: One-day Florida resident admission — adult or child — is $68.95; an annual pass for Florida residents is $69.95, good for unlimited admission through Dec. 31. Special deal: With certain adult tickets purchased online, children 12 and under are admitted for $5; the $5 goes to wildlife conservation. Details at www.SeaWorldCares.com (offer not good with the Florida resident rate). See website for deals and multi-park passes (including Busch Gardens), www.seaworldorlando.com ; 888-800- 5447. SeaWorld also operates the Aquatica water park and Discovery Cove.
—Universal: One-day Florida resident admission is $70.99 for adults, $60.99 ages 3-9 (not available July 1-31, Dec. 23-Jan. 1) for one park, Universal Studios or Universal Islands of Adventure. Multi-day and multi-park deals available online. Universal also operates the Wet 'n Wild water park. www.universalorlando.com ; 407-363-8000.
—Orlando Magicard: This free card, which can be downloaded at the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau website (www.VisitOrlando.com/deals), offers discounts at certain hotels, restaurants and attractions. For information on lodgings, www.VisitOrlando.com.