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Universal Studios to add Harry Potter Diagon Alley theme area

Diagon Alley, the Harry Potter-inspired London shopping district, will be located within Universal Studios Florida.

Universal Orlando Resort

Diagon Alley, the Harry Potter-inspired London shopping district, will be located within Universal Studios Florida.

ORLANDO — Capitalizing on the success of a bespectacled boy wizard, Universal Studios Florida is creating a new themed area devoted to Harry Potter's hangout, Diagon Alley.

Universal Orlando Resort and Warner Bros. Entertainment announced Wednesday the addition of the Potter-inspired London shopping district, scheduled to open in 2014. The attraction will be within Universal Studios Florida, adjacent to Universal's Islands of Adventure, a separate park with separate admission.

Diagon Alley will bring to life some of the experiences and places described in J.K. Rowling's books and subsequent films. Few details have been released, but officials said the area will be just as large, immersive and authentic as the existing Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where guests experience Hogwarts and Hogsmeade.

Industry experts said the addition takes the concept of theme-park storytelling to new levels and takes a jab at Disney World's latest $425 million New Fantasyland expansion. The four- and five-story buildings in Diagon Alley will make visitors forget they are in Florida.

"For Harry Potter fans, there will be no way to describe this," said Jim Hill, a theme park analyst and writer. "They were crazy before. Families will come in and spend $350 on a child without breaking a sweat."

Although Disney still rules with four Orlando parks and 20-plus hotels, Universal has smartly figured out how to lengthen the amount of time people spend at its two parks, he said.

The only gamble may be in charging guests separate admission to the parks.

"They must be so confident in what they have with Potter that they're willing to do that,'' said Len Testa, co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. "This will no doubt be one of the most incredible lands in any theme park in the world.''

Work on the area is already under way and, once completed, will have shops, a restaurant and a ride inside Gringotts Wizarding Bank. An artist's rendering shows a busy town area with a dragon atop a large tower and Hogwarts Castle off in the distance.

Park visitors will be able to travel between the two parks aboard the Hogwarts Express using a park-to-park ticket. Pricing and other particulars haven't been announced, but this will be the first time one attraction connects two theme parks.

"We are continuing the journey and adding an entirely new level of adventure," said Tom Williams, chairman of Universal Parks & Resorts, in a press release. "And we are bringing the same drive, commitment, enthusiasm and innovation to this project as we did to the first."

Expansion plans for Diagon Alley had been rumored for months and come nearly three years after the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in June 2010 at a cost of about $200 million. The themed area proved a game-changer for Universal, boosting attendance by 30 percent in 2011 over the previous year and doubling merchandise sales to $104 million. Butterbeer alone, the frothy, butterscotch, nonalcoholic drink, poured in about $5 million in the first six months.

"I have a new best friend in Harry Potter," declared Williams several months after the opening. "It's a close friendship that should last for years."

To make room for the expansion, Universal last year closed its signature Jaws boat ride, which like other attractions in the park had become outdated. The area will replicate Diagon Alley, a wizarding shopping district behind London's Leaky Cauldron pub — completely hidden from the Muggle (non-magical) world — where Harry and his classmates buy their school supplies for Hogwarts.

The announcement is the latest in a string of significant changes for Universal Studios. The park recently upgraded its decades-old Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride and added a Despicable Me attraction based on the popular kids' movie starring thousands of cute yellow minions.

Just last week, the park set a June 20 opening date for the highly anticipated Transformers 3-D attraction. The ride uses flight simulator technologies to immerse passengers in an intense chase with Megatron involving wind, heat and water and smoke.

All the material remaining from Potter's seven novels gives Universal fodder for growth over the next 15 to 20 years, said Dennis Speigel, president of the International Theme Park Service Inc. Spreading the attractions between Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios makes sense toward maintaining the balance between both parks.

"If you had to go to the roulette wheel, this is where you'd put your chips,'' he said. "On Harry Potter.''

Staff writer Jeff Harrington contributed to this report, which includes information from wire services. Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

Universal Studios to add Harry Potter Diagon Alley theme area 05/08/13 [Last modified: Monday, May 13, 2013 7:14pm]

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