ORLANDO — Universal Orlando is braced for an onslaught of Potterheads.
After generating enough hype to levitate one of its new fire breathing dragon robots, the theme park will throw open the gates Friday to its new Wizarding World of Harry Potter area at Islands of Adventure.
The crowds are expected to start pouring in when the parking garage opens at 5:30 a.m. and keep the place jammed and the lines long through fall.
The opening caps Universal's latest attempt to out-Disney Disney with an extraordinarily detailed experience that re-creates Harry Potter's strange and magical world. Center stage is Harry Potter's Forbidden Journey, a thrill ride bubbling with the latest high-tech innovations in theme park ride trickery.
"It is this industry's most highly anticipated new dark ride in probably 25 years," said Bob Rogers, a Burbank, Calif., attractions designer.
"The word at Disney is this is the new gold standard," said Jim Hill, whose Jim Hill Media tracks Walt Disney Co. animation and attraction designers. "It's the reason Disney is spending $300 million to expand Fantasyland and calling it Project Potter Swatter."
Potter's story is more than just a rivalry between one park with 18 percent of the Orlando theme park industry market trying to get more of the 73 percent Walt Disney World controls.
The economy treated Universal tougher than competitors. Both its Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida parks slipped below Sea World in attendance for the first time since Universal landed in Orlando 20 years ago. Attendance at the two Universal Orlando parks dropped 12 percent in 2009 and ran 10 percent down since then. Pleasing Potter author J.K. Rowling's insistence on authenticity to the film and books, combined with some micromanaging, helped inflate the tab to more than $300 million — and still counting.
Universal president Bill Davis said his park's international Potter promotion blitz, bolstered by $14 million more in ad money, should provide Central Florida's vacation industry with a lifesaver this summer, as a spreading gulf oil spill threatens Florida tourism.
"What's happening on the coast is a tragedy, but one study shows people who would have vacationed there are likely to visit Central Florida," Davis said.
The size of the investment is a relatively new strategy for theme park giants. While a $40 million coaster can boost attendance 15 percent for up to five years, more sprawling ones like Potter, the biggest grossing film franchise in history, can draw internationally (half the park's foreign attendance comes from the United Kingdom).
"And a franchise like this can last Universal 50 years," said Dennis Spiegel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati consultant. Indeed, Disney's top dark rides like the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World date to the 1960s.
The project blossomed quickly by Hollywood standards. Universal pitched Rowling in Edinburgh, Scotland, five years ago right after Disney declined to accede to all her demands.
"We were drawn by the characters and stories," said Mark Woodbury, head of Universal Creative Group. "They are a theme park waiting to happen."
The challenge was making real-life versions of familiar castles, rooms and illusions that never existed except as sets and computer graphics.
Rowling insisted that the designers put nothing in the park that was not in the books or films. So no Coke or Sprite. The stores sell school backpacks but not fanny packs. Hagrid's Hut was going to be a walk-through experience, but the Americans with Disability Act would have required a ramp. There were no ramps in the films, so it's now a walk-by exhibit.
Universal also hopes to reverse an 18 percent slide in food, beverage and merchandise sales since 2007 with more than 600 new Potter products. They range from "I served time in Azkaban" T-shirts to Sneakoscopes. Already the park underestimated the demand for broomsticks. The $250 Nimbus 2001 model and Harry's own Firebolt, which goes for $300, sold out in previews. More were air-freighted in.
Universal also used many new technologies in new ways at Forbidden Journey, which engineers code named Project Science Experiment.
"One thing about Universal is they always swing for the fences," said Bob Sehlinger, a Birmingham, Ala., engineer who authors Orlando park guides like The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. "Sometimes it takes a while to get out all the kinks. But this so far is breathtaking."
Universal normally soft-opens headliner rides a month ahead of a time to get the bugs out and familiarize the crew.
In contrast, Forbidden Journey has been open only a few hours a day since late May, mostly for people who bought preview hotel packages. The ride has been open a full day only twice.
Not everybody will be happy. The sense of flying (described by some as similar to Soaring at Disney's Epcot) causes many to get motion sickness. One- and two-hour lines to get on rides will be common.
Already some British vacationers complained they thought the Potter area was an entire theme park, not just a 20-acre corner of an existing park.
There are some complaints from visitors that the Potter exhibits don't look as big as expected, a notion possibly enhanced by park designers using forced perspective, an artist illusion that makes Hogwarts towers that are 150 feet tall appear to be 600 feet. In fact, it is the second tallest structure at Islands of Adventure and 30 feet shorter than Cinderella's Castle at the Magic Kingdom.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.