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THEME PARKS AIM FOR MAGICAL TOUCH

Updates and new attractions are in the works at Disney and Universal.

Wrapping up one of the weakest seasons ever, Orlando's theme parks are beating the drums early for upcoming attractions to lure crowds over the next few years.

On the weekend, Walt Disney World outlined the biggest expansion of Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom in decades and an upgrade of the 1989 Star Tours at Disney's Hollywood Studios that uses 3D animated pod racer scenes from more recent Star Wars movies.

On Tuesday, Universal Orlando for the first time filled in many of the details of its $200 million Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a 20-acre "theme park within a theme park" slated to open next spring at Islands of Adventure.

Universal even trotted out Tom Felton, the actor who plays Draco Malfoy in the Potter films, for his impressions after a sneak peek at the construction site.

"It's just unreal how they are taking the film sets, which have nothing behind them but scaffolding, and making a real world with real buildings and all these fantastic gadgets from the film," he said.

There's a reason for the early drumbeat. The business model for theme parks is rooted in big, new attractions that justify a return trip. Unlike Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa or Disneyland in California that get most of their visits from locals, the Orlando parks live off bigger-spending vacationers to fill the city's 110,000 hotel rooms that have been deeply discounted all year. Up to a fifth of the vacationers come from overseas, so priming the world travel industry pump takes time.

Besides, Universal, where attendance was down 16 percent the first half of 2009, missed the full benefit from its new $45 million Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster. The ride opened two months late at Universal Studios Florida, after the peak of the summer season.

Now, four weeks after opening, lines stretch up to two hours. Some of it is the popularity of a new ride. But the lines are lengthened by a moving ramp system that's geared to speed loading but isn't working. Universal also runs only three or four of the seven trains needed for peak capacity. In fact, the seventh train is yet to be delivered.

"We're still perfecting the experience," said spokeswoman Myra Lyons.

Under construction for more than a year, the elaborately themed World of Wizardry will feature scenes, shops and restaurants pulled from the Harry Potter films and real-life versions of many foods, beverages and gadgets created in the J.K. Rowling novels. There's even Zonko's, a joke shop stocked with Extendable Ears, Boxing Telescopes and Sneakoscopes.

The star of the show is inside a massive re-creation of forboding Hogwarts Castle. Visitors will wander through several rooms familiar to Potter film fans that lead to a dark ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey that spins a new tale using a first-of-its-kind ride system. Not a roller coaster, the German-built system uses massive robotic arms to spin, lift and move multi-seat cars from scene to scene.

Islands of Adventure's two Dueling Dragons coasters will be rethemed with a Dragon Challenge storyline. The park will also add a tame family-coaster called the Flight of the Hippogriff.

Universal is counting on its attention to detail to deliver an experience that looks like Harry Potter's world. That includes the steam engine to Hogsmeade Village, Ollivanders Wand Shop, note-delivering owls in a towering Owlery and a restaurant that serves English fare, butterbeer and pumpkin juice.

"We are transferring the film to a real place where you can touch, taste and experience Harry Potter in a way that is true to both the books and the movies," said Alan Gilmore, art director for the Warner Brothers film, who collaborated on the theme park version.

Many of the magical gadgets will be for sale as licensed products. A candy shop will stock chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans. The Dervish and Banges will feature Quidditch equipment, Triwizard apparel and Spectrespecs. Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods will be full of Ministry of Magic merchandise, including remote control Golden Snitches.

At Disney World, the new production for Star Tours debuts in 2011. The addition to Fantasyland opens in 2013. The work on Fantasyland is still in the design stage, so park officials could not say when they would close the current exhibit to start construction.

But the anchor will be a Little Mermaid ride called Ariel's Journey Under the Sea. Like a sibling under construction at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, the attraction will use a ride system similar to the Haunted Mansion. To reduce lines, the park gets a second carousel and second Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride.

The current Toontown village that includes Mickey Mouse's home will be leveled, and new, elaborately themed cottages, castles and chateaus built for dramatically expanded costumed character meet-and-greets. Tinker Bell gets a bigger Pixie Hollow. Kids will be able to dance with Cinderella, celebrate Sleeping Beauty's birthday with the Good Fairies or watch and listen to Belle act out a story.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

16% Decrease in Universal's attendance in the first half of 2009.

$200M What Universal is spending on the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

2013 When Disney expects to open the overhauled Fantasyland exhibit in the Magic Kingdom.

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