Expectations high for Wizarding World second time around

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Sandra Pedicini talks about the new features that will differentiate Diagon Alley from Hogsmeade.


When Harry Potter made his debut four years ago at Universal Orlando, it seemed there was nowhere for the boy wizard to take the lagging resort but up.


Universal had been hit hard by the economic downturn, and attendance had plunged by double digits.


The Wizarding World of Harry Potter became a huge success, and today the question is whether Universal’s second Potter land, Diagon Alley, can meet the high bar set by its predecessor.


“It has great potential to show that what they did with the original Harry Potter-themed area was not a fluke,” said John Gerner, founder of Leisure Business Advisors in Richmond, Va.


On the other hand, Gerner said, “now they have the potential to disappoint more than they ever had before. … It works both ways.”


The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure dramatically increased year-over-year attendance by more than 30 percent. It also established Universal Orlando as the center of the universe for fans of the magical-themed books and movies.


Many visitors who were enthralled by Wizarding World’s faithful re-creations of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and by the Hogsmeade village anticipate something more breathtaking this time. Diagon Alley, which is being previewed for media starting Wednesday at Universal Studios Florida, is opening this summer, though Universal has not announced a date.


“I would say my expectations are a little higher, just from all the news that has come out, all the updates, that level of excitement,” said Katy Cacolice, a 24-year-old Valencia College student who runs a Harry Potter blog.


The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley won’t disappoint, Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said in an email.


“Our standards are very high. We want to give our guests an incredible experience,” he said.


“That kind of pressure is always there. But we’ve created a very different environment from what we created in 2010 — and we are sure our guests will love it.”


The New York Times reported that the company hired 60 designers for Diagon Alley, as opposed to 18 on the original Wizarding World. Universal would not confirm the numbers.


The new signature attraction, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, is being billed as an entirely different type of ride, with new projector technology and an almost 360-degree screen. On Tuesday, Universal announced that it will kick its trademark souvenir wands up a notch, too. This time, customers can buy wands that can “cast spells” around the park — lighting chandeliers and making marionettes move, for example.


There also will be a unique feature expected to spur the purchase of two-park tickets and annual passes: Hogwarts Express, a re-creation of the train that carries Harry and friends to the wizarding academy. It will shuttle visitors between the two Harry Potter lands, and customers must have either a park-to-park ticket, starting at $136, or an annual pass to ride. A one-park ticket starts at $96.


The train is a smart revenue move, experts say — but it carries with it the pressure to impress.


“They’re saying, essentially, if you really want to enjoy it [the Harry Potter experience] completely, you’ve got to buy two-park tickets. That’s a lot of money,” Gerner said. “If they [visitors] don’t feel like they got enough for that, there’s going to be a lot of bitterness as well.”


Adding an element of uncertainty to the opening of Diagon Alley is the lack of a Potter movie to fuel interest among more casual fans. In 2010, the first film in the two-part “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was ready to hit the big screen. The last movie in the series came out in 2011.


Still, branding and children’s book experts consider Potter a classic that can remain a strong draw for generations.


“It’s a cultural phenomenon,” said Eli Portnoy, a Miami-based brand consultant.


The possibility remains, too, of extending the series with prequels or sequels. A movie trilogy of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is in the works. Written by “Potter” author J.K. Rowling, it features the creatures encountered in the wizard’s Hogwarts textbook.


Universal sees so much promise in Potter that it will open Wizarding Worlds in its Japan park next month and in Hollywood the following year.


In Orlando, Harry Potter helped Universal gain market share among major theme parks, from 16 percent in 2009 to 21.6 percent last year. Disney is not expected to sit by while Universal expands, however. It likely will fire back with a popular franchise of its own, Gerner said: “Star Wars.”


Walt Disney Co. Chairman and CEO Bob Iger said last year that the company plans “to expand the ‘Star Wars’ presence in California and in Orlando and eventually in other parks around the world.”


After Potter opened, Universal’s increased attendance gave it a record-setting fourth quarter in 2010, with operating profit nearly quadrupling from $30 million to $115 million.


This time, “they don’t necessarily have to duplicate it to the same level,” Gerner said. “Even if it comes up short in attendance or financials, it can still be hugely successful. I wouldn’t say they have to beat the original one. The goal is to show they can repeat, and that will give confidence that … this and similar efforts can work.”


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