WB execs, cast members attend red-carpet event

Gallery: A look inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Thirteen years after J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard first cast a spell on the book biz, Harry Potter is poised to enrich another segment of the entertainment industry, luring millions to Orlando, Fla., for an expansion of Universal’s theme park.

Today’s opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at U’s Islands of Adventure will add to a franchise that has proved a merchandise machine and reliable box office draw. Harry Potter films have earned more than $5.4 billion for Warner Bros., with each pic selling about 25 million DVDs. Bill Davis, president and chief operating officer of Universal Orlando Resort, is optimistic that millions of fans will similarly flock to the latest park expansion. “We certainly hope there are a lot of them,” he said.

Universal is bracing for a strong turnout today, opening its parking garage at 5:30 a.m. to accommodate the throng of Muggles expected to brave Florida’s muggy summer weather and explore the streets of Hogsmeade village and halls of Hogwarts castle for the first time.

Every dollar of the estimated $300 million spent to build the 20-acre park is on display — with the faux snow-covered village and towering castle meticulously brought to life from designs seen in the films or descriptions from the books.

Universal execs are betting the project will quickly help the park emerge from the shadow of rival Walt Disney World, just minutes away, and guarantee that Islands of Adventure, at least, will be a big draw for years to come.

Universal could certainly use a shot in the arm to start winning back some of the 73% of Orlando’s theme park biz that Disney controls. The Orlando resort has roughly 18% of the take, and has seen its attendance decline over the years — down 12% last year and 10% this year.

Long before the doors opened, the attraction was already boosting the local economy through construction jobs and additional staff positions across various divisions.

“Expectations were very high on this,” said Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. “It’s a fictional world that comes to life in three dimensions and the fanbase knows every detail.”

The Three Broomsticks pub, Ollivanders wand shop and Honeydukes’ sweet shop have been re-created. The golden snitch, the Marauder’s Map and purple triple-decker Knight Bus can be examined up close. Moaning Myrtle can be heard chatting with herself in the bathrooms. Subjects inside portraits move and ATMs are even branded Gringotts Bank. While there are only three rides — Dragon Challenge (a retrofitted Dueling Dragons coaster that already existed at Islands of Adventure), a kid-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff coaster and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey — they feature the pics’ stars, creatures and locations in innovative ways.

Hogwarts’ Forbidden Journey, a raucous version of Disney’s Soarin,’ is the main attraction and has guests face a dragon, spiders, whomping willow and fly through a Quidditch match by experiencing a blend of high-tech video and physical visuals.

It’s one of the few lines guest may not mind waiting in, considering it features classrooms from the books, halls of moving portraits and Dumbledore’s office. And they’ll be waiting for two hours over the next several months, staffers said.

More than 600 items, including everything from Potter’s Firebolt broomstick for $300 to $3 bottles of pumpkin juice, can be purchased by guests. Even the food is “authentic,” with butterbeer (a frothy cream soda-like concoction) on tap and strawberry peanut butter ice cream — something some fans frowned upon until executive chefs noted its existence in the pages of the Potter books.

“We saw the movies and read the books and said this is a theme park waiting to happen,” Woodbury said. “We were drawn by the characters and stories.”

Something from every book has been included in the park’s design, according to Alan Gilmore, art director of the Potter pics and Wizarding World.

While the ad campaign for the park never gives a good feel of the sheer scale of the project, Hogwarts’ turrets are clearly visible from the highway leading up to the park, jutting above Orlando’s strip malls. Up close, the structure, while 30 feet shorter than Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, is still imposing and its silhouette rises above the rest of Island of Adventure’s themed areas.

Universal and Warner Bros. stress that Rowling approved every detail of the park’s development. What also helps is that the films’ art director and Stuart Craig, its production designer, shepherded most of the park’s final designs, making the setting instantly recognizable.

“We expect it to have a nice effect on attendance starting this weekend,” Davis said. “We expect it to help attendance and tourism in Orlando overall.”

In fact, Universal’s parks — its Orlando resort turns 20 this year — have been on a building boom of late, adding attractions at a rapid rate to boost ticket sales.

photos/_storypics/hogwarts_highs_lows.jpg” hspace=”3″ vspace=”3″ align=”left’>The Wizarding World had been in development for five years, with Universal having initially courted Rowling with a pop-up book of its proposed plans and touted names like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Stephen Sommers, who have helped create attractions at its various parks. Michael Bay is helping develop a “Transformers” coaster for Hollywood.

“We gave it the pitch of our life,” Woodbury said.

New rides typically increase ticket sales almost immediately, and Universal hadn’t opened a major one since spending $40 million on “The Simpsons Ride” in 2008. It does have the Rip Ride Rockit coaster in soft-launch now and is opening a 3D King Kong attraction at its Hollywood park next month, after the devastating fire of 2008 on Universal’s backlot destroyed the previous attraction.

With Wizarding World, Universal will have the newest attraction in Orlando for the next several years. Down the line, Disney plans to expand Fantasyland at its Magic Kingdom with a $300 million emphasis on its popular fairies and princesses.

Disney’s “Cars Land” is revving up to open at the Mouse House’s California Adventure in 2012 as part of a $1 billion overhaul.

Universal is already upbeat about early signs that attendance will increase thanks to Potter and has launched a lot of hype to assure the outcome.

At a premiere for the park Wednesday night, John Williams conducted the theme from the “Harry Potter” pics for guests. Daniel Radcliffe led the gathering and fellow cast members, as well as Warner Bros.’ chief Barry Meyer and Universal’s topper Ron Meyer, to cast an illumination spell on Hogwarts — which ignited an elaborate fireworks and lighting display.

Even Rowling made a rare appearance to roam Hogsmeade and inspect merchandise inside shops.

Now comes the challenge of opening and satisfying fans.

“We’ll get through it,” Davis said. “We’ll be fine.”

Gallery: A look inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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