June 19--Universal Orlando's march to expand its Wizarding World of Harry Potter included a red-carpet affair, a peek into Diagon Alley and the announcement of the much-anticipated opening date: July 8.
Film stars including Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, James Phelps and Oliver Phelps hit the red carpet Wednesday night and faced a horde of international media as screaming fans watched from behind barriers.
Universal then gave the media a quick preview of Diagon Alley. Guests wandered through the narrow cobblestone streets lined by familiar Potter landmarks such as the Leaky Cauldron, Ollivander's Wand Shop and the signature attraction, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. They then entered a grand lobby with dazzling chandeliers and studious animatronic goblins attending to their banking. They descend in a jarring elevator ride before boarding.
The dark twisting ride brings guests face to face with Potter villains and at one point gives the sensation of plunging over a cliff.
Earlier in the day universal announced its July opening -- a surprise to many theme-park watchers who had hoped for a June debut.
Comcast Corp., Universal's parent company, had predicted earlier this year that the new land would help boost its April-through-June quarter. Many had expected the attraction to open immediately after this week's media event.
Theme-park experts said Universal is likely moving cautiously to ensure that new technology on unique rides will work as well as possible.
With so much fan anticipation, "they don't necessarily feel, 'We've got to get it open so we can get that 'wow' factor out there,'" said Scott Smith, a University of South Carolina assistant professor whose specialties include theme parks. "They want to make sure that everything is right."
That was little consolation to Heather Kester of Rochester, Minn., a Potter superfan who has seen the movies dozens of times. She will fly to Orlando on Friday and depart June 29. Already coming to town for a professional conference, Kester had hoped for the June 20 opening that Variety magazine had reported without attribution and that others had anticipated.
"My husband's been trying to talk me off the ledge," Kester said Wednesday. "For that much money, being that close to something and not seeing it all, it's just a bad feeling. But it's our fault for looking forward to it, I guess."
There still may be hope for fans such as Kester: the "soft opening." A sort of dress rehearsal, a soft opening is typically not announced until the last minute. Expectations are lower, and hours may be shortened.
Guests should "watch for social channels, watch our website" for information on when soft openings might start, Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said.
Universal had an irregular pattern for the original Wizarding World's soft opening in 2010. Attractions were open one day but closed the next. On some soft-opening days, the Wizarding World was open for just a few hours or to select people, such as guests at Universal hotels.
This time, Universal has sold Potter-themed hotel packages starting June 29. Those customers will be able to experience Diagon Alley, Schroder said.
In the Potter universe, Diagon Alley is the shopping district for wizards such as Harry. It's hidden from Muggles -- that's Potter-speak for nonwizards. At Universal, Diagon Alley is fronted by a scene of London architecture that guests will pass through to see the attraction.
Diagon Alley is heavy on shopping. You can buy Butterbeer ice cream, Slytherin iPhone cases, "9 3/4" T-shirts and robes like the ones wizarding students wore at Hogwarts.
"Enchanted" wands selling for $44.95 can be used to cast "spells" throughout the park when pointed in the right direction. In one section, the interactive wand sends water pouring down from an overhead umbrella. In another, it lights an entire room of lamps in a second-story window.
Faux storefronts include the Daily Prophet newspaper and displays of magical wares such as self-knitting needles.
There are window displays that include displays of magical wares such as self-knitting needles.
At Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, store employees ring a bell and make an announcement when someone buys a Pygmy Puff. There's a doll resembling Professor Umbridge riding on a unicycle, carrying two cauldrons. Look up at the ceilingm and you can see see a video fireworks display.
At Gringotts Bank, guests can stare up into the mouth of a fire-breathing dragon atop the building. In the Leaky Cauldron, they can see displays of witch-themed art on the walls.
The original Wizarding World opened next door at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park four years ago. The Hogwarts Express train featured in J.K. Rowling's fiction will join that section with the new one at Universal Studios Florida. Guests must have a $136 park-to-park ticket or an annual pass to ride the train.
Unlike Diagon Alley, the first Harry Potter land had an opening date announced months in advance.
Some industry experts figured that Universal wanted to avoid a repeat of that opening, when lines extended into CityWalk and guests endured hours-long waits.
Experts also theorized that Universal might not have committed to a date because of fears new technology on rides wouldn't meet the deadline.
When it opened in 1990, Universal Studios Florida had stayed committed to the June 7 date it had set three months ahead of time. It turned out to be a disaster, with major rides such as Kongfrontation and Earthquake: The Big One not working. Hundreds of customers demanded opening-day refunds. The park also had lingering problems with its Jaws ride, an attraction removed to build Diagon Alley.
"That's kind of burned into the memory of this place," said Jim Hill, an industry blogger and editor of JimHillMedia.com. "They would really prefer that when it opens, it all runs smoothly and looks terrific."
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