July 20--Theme parks have heavily promoted merchandise for years, but with its new expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando has gone a step further.
It has based an entire new area on a fictional shopping district called Diagon Alley, the street in the Potter series where wizards buy wands, robes and quills.
The meticulously re-created version that opened this month at Universal Studios Florida is a sort of magical-themed shopping complex. It has just one ride but includes nine shops, a restaurant, an ice cream parlor and a photography studio.
"Any part of the story you love is in there to buy," said Jim Hill, an industry blogger and editor of JimHillMedia.com. "It's just nuts. It's heavily retail-tainment."
Not everyone is a fan, however.
Travel writer Arthur Frommer has bashed both Harry Potter lands for their commercialism. Frommer recently visited the original Wizarding World, which opened in 2010 at Universal's Islands of Adventure.
Though he hadn't yet visited Diagon Alley, "I have heard enough about its workings and policies to be absolutely certain that Universal has again been motivated by the most crass and selfish urges," Frommer wrote in a blog post this month. "The great majority of the structures will be stores and shops, and the potential for spending is apparently several hundred dollars."
Through a spokeswoman, Universal declined to comment.
Steve Kirn, executive director of the University of Florida's David F. Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research, views Diagon Alley less cynically than Frommer. Buying souvenirs is an integral part of visiting a theme park, Kirn said, letting tourists "take with them part of the experience they had there."
Indeed, many guests seem to find the shopping area enchanting. They have eagerly bought items such as $7 "U-No-Poo" candies, $17 Gryffindor wallets and $240 Bellatrix Lestrange dresses.
The excitement of immersing herself in Harry Potter's world cast a spell over Hillary Hawkes of Ann Arbor, Mich. She purchased a $15 Pygmy Puff at the Magical Menagerie stuffed animal shop and planned to spend about $100 more.
"I want to take it home with me, a tangible item," Hawkes said.
Then she and her 5-year-old daughter Caroline headed off to a "naming ceremony" at nearby Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. A clerk asked Caroline what she wanted to call her pet, then rang a bell and announced the creature's new owner and name -- Fluffy.
A similar shop called Zonko's opened originally in the first Harry Potter land, but closed there and was incorporated into the new Weasleys'.
Some of what Diagon Alley does expands on ideas from the original Wizarding World, now known as Hogsmeade. That area has three rides and includes five shops and a restaurant.
Hogsmeade sold wands in 2010 that cost $29 then and sell for $35 now. For Diagon Alley, Universal created new interactive ones for $45. The upgraded wands can cast "spells" throughout the park, such as lighting chandeliers and making marionettes dance.
Butterbeer, a staple for wizards, was brought to life as a sweet beverage at Hogsmeade. Diagon Alley now sells butterbeer in ice cream form. It costs $4.99 for a cup and $10.99 in a souvenir glass.
Diagon Alley also has a money exchange, where visitors can talk to animatronic goblins, buy commemorative coins for $35 and trade their Muggle money for Wizarding Bank Notes they can redeem around Universal.
Many stores have indoor queues that provide their own entertainment. A line to get into the Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions store winds through Eeylops Owl Emporium. It's not a real store, but visitors can see animatronic owls blink and flap their wings in cages overhead there. Stores also have faux second stories that store merchandise, both real goods and props.
Souvenir photos have taken some unusual twists in Diagon Alley, too.
In a photography studio called Shutterbutton's, $80 DVD packages show tourists in various Potter scenes. The DVD scenes resemble pages a photo album featuring Potter-style moving pictures.
Because of their entertaining nature, the shops attract many browsers as well.
Kristian Maldonado of Deltona and his girlfriend Victoria Correa took selfies in $110 robes but didn't plan to buy one -- that day, at least.
"Eventually we'll get one," Correa said. "He's getting me one soon."
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