ORLANDO (CNN) — First, it was a record-breaking book series, selling more than 450 million copies worldwide. Then, it became the most successful movie franchise in history. Now, it is a theme-park phenomenon that has fans in a frenzy.
Diagon Alley, a second area of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, opens July 8 at Universal Studios Florida.
Guests will be immersed in the new Potter paradise, which spans about 20 acres and includes a high-tech ride, the Leaky Cauldron restaurant, a handful of elaborate shops and stage shows, and the Hogwarts Express train between Diagon Alley and the separate Hogsmeade area in the adjacent Islands of Adventure park.
“Universal smartly involved (“Harry Potter” series author J.K. Rowling) and the production designers from the Harry Potter films in every step of the design process,” said Robert Niles, editor of themeparkinsider.com.
This means nearly every detail, down to the cobblestone streets and the Hogwarts Express, is just as it was in the films.
The marquee ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts puts guests smack dab in the middle of the recognizable grand bank lobby filled with hardworking animatronic goblins, some counting money, others jotting down bank records. Turn the corner and head down the hallway, and you realize you’re in Bill Weasley’s office.
Then, board souped-up elevators that make you feel as if you are going deep into the cavernous vaults. Finally, hop into a 12-person vehicle that takes you into Gringotts Bank. It’s part roller coaster, part 3-D motion-based ride.
The other attraction, the Hogwarts Express, where Harry meets pals Hermione and Ron in the first movie, is equally detailed. It takes about four minutes to shuttle people back and forth between Hogsmeade (in Islands of Adventure) and Diagon Alley (in Universal Studios).
Once on board, guests step into train carriages. As the doors shut, the 3-D video screens show images of Hagrid on a flying motorcycle, the Weasley twins on their brooms and the Knight Bus in London. But keep an eye on the doorway, where shadows of Dementors, Harry, Ron and Hermione make guests feel like they are in a scene from the movies.
The themed land also includes a number of shops frequented by the young wizards in the movies, such as Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, which sells unusual items like Skiving Snackboxes that come with Fainting Fancies, Nosebleed Nougats, Fever Fudge and Puking Pastilles. (In the movies, wizards use these to make themselves appear ill. In real life, they are sweet treats.)
Inside Wiseacres, you’ll find armillary spheres ($179.95), which wizards use in astronomy class, and in Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, there are loads of Hogwarts ties and robes, quaffles and brooms ranging from $34.95 to $300.
The Leaky Cauldron has a menu featuring British classics like toad in the hole (sausage baked in a flour-egg batter, $8.99), fish and chips, and bangers and mash. Plus, there are draught beers brewed specifically for Diagon Alley, including Wizard’s Brew and Dragon’s Scale, and non-alcoholic drinks like Fishy Green Ale and Tongue Tying Lemon Squash.
Perhaps the most talked-about food item is butterbeer ice cream, served at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.
There are live shows throughout the day. “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” features a troupe of four from the Wizarding Academy of Dramatic Arts. The lively performers retell two of the famed tales of Beedle the Bard, a 15th-century author of wizarding fairy tales. The other show is a lively musical performance featured in the Potter movies.
The boy with the lightning-bolt scar on his forehead is ingrained in pop culture. So, it comes as no surprise that Universal continues to invest in the franchise.
“The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Hogsmeade (which opened in 2010) has been one of the most successful attractions in the history of themed entertainment, in terms of attendance numbers, Universal’s bottom line and the impact it has had on the rest of the industry,” said Andy Brennan, industry analyst with IBISWorld.
Likewise, expanding the Wizarding World by creating Diagon Alley at Universal Studios, which Brennan says has cost about $400 million to construct, was a no-brainer.
“Hogsmeade reportedly cost over $250 million,” he added, “so this is NBCUniversal’s most significant investment to date.”
Plus, “combined attendance at Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios has jumped more than 50% since 2009,” Brennan said. “NBCUniversal’s theme park revenue is up nearly 40% since 2009, much of which can be directly attributed to the popular WWHP.”
Diagon Alley will certainly lure park-goers to Orlando, which is experiencing one of the most significant expansion periods in the destination’s history. According to Visit Orlando, there were 59 million visitors in 2013, up 27% from 46.6 million in 2009.
If you go:
Admission into Universal Studios Florida ($96 for adults and $90 for kids ages 3 to 9) allows you to roam around the park and visit Diagon Alley. However, if you’d like to pop over to Hogsmeade (at Universal’s Islands of Adventure) via the Hogwarts Express, you must purchase park-to-park admission ($136 for adults, $130 for kids ages 3 to 9).
By Sarah Sekula
Special to CNN