ORLANDO, Fla. —From behind scaffolding and beneath tarps, scenes from the Harry Potter books have been emerging at Universal's Islands of Adventure for months: the imposing towers of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; the snow-covered roofs of Hogsmeade Village; puffs of steam from the Hogwart Express.
Each new sighting of a detail from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter lights up fan websites. And each squeal of excitement brings a virtual tingle to wallets at Universal Orlando.
For fans of the boy wizard, the wait — for that first taste of Butterbeer, for the thrill of being chosen by a magic wand at Ollivanders, for a ride on the much-touted Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey — is almost over.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened Friday to those who bought a special hotel/theme park package. Everyone else must wait until the grand opening on June 18, when three-plus years of planning and construction, frequent consultations with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, and an estimated $265 million will bring the Harry and his friends to glorious 3-D life.
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For Universal, the highly anticipated attraction — included in admission to Islands of Adventure — is a rare marketing opportunity to capitalize on 400 million copies of Rowling's seven Harry Potter books and six movies that have raked in $5.4 billion at the box office.
Like most non-Disney theme parks in North America, Universal saw significantly smaller crowds last year. The economy was partly to blame, but experts also say fans were waiting for Harry.
"Major new attractions draw new guests and encourage past visitors to return to the park," said Gene Jeffers, executive director of the Themed Entertainment Association.
As travelers curtailed their vacations, only 4.6 million people passed through the turnstiles at Universal's Islands of Adventure last year, an 11.3 percent drop from the year before, according to an industry report by theme park attendance estimator AECOM. At adjacent Universal Studios, attendance dropped about 10 percent, to 5.5 million. Universal declined to comment.
When Wizarding World opens, demand will be so high the park could be overloaded, said AECOM senior vice president Ray Braun. Other Orlando parks will see a bump as well, he said — including Disney parks, where admissions increased 1 percent or less last year, and SeaWorld, which saw a 6.8 percent drop.
"It's a significantly bigger investment than just a ride; it's a whole other level of impact, and it's going to bring people to the other Orlando parks," Braun said.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Islands of Adventure's biggest addition since its 1999 opening. It is a 20-acre themed zone — or "island" — built partly on unused land while cannibalizing part of adjacent island Lost Continent.
Wizarding World will boast two Harry Potter-ized roller coasters from Lost Continent; Hogsmeade Village, filled with restaurants, shops and merchandise from the books; and the centerpiece, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a thrill ride combining new robotic-arm and 360-degree film technology to deliver guests to a Quidditch match, where they will have the sensation they are flying in the game.
Universal has focused attention on the village and the queue for the ride, which is jampacked with scenes, details and apparitions of characters from the book. They have deflected questions about the three rides, forcing would-be visitors to follow the progress of Wizarding World via fan websites.
Some information posted there is sanctioned by Universal, which has brought representatives of a half-dozen websites to the park at least twice. And some is unofficial — rumors, reports of sightings and photos surreptitiously shot through narrow openings, over fences, even from helicopters.
As opening day approaches and Universal metes out information and official pictures of the new attraction at a pace calculated to stoke anticipation, chatter on the forums and bulletin boards has grown ever more heated.
"OMG!!!! It keeps getting better and better!!! I can't believe how amazing it all looks!! I'm so EXCITED I could EXPLODE!!" iwantorlando05 posted on mugglenet.com.
It's not uncommon for a park to be mysterious about a new attraction — it helps build anticipation, said Adam Roth, a thrill-ride lover studying theme park management at the University of Central Florida. "Especially for Orlando ... we get the anticipation here when an attraction is shrouded in secrecy."