First look: Harry Potter's new theme park

By Sarah Sekula, Special to CNNUpdated 23rd January 2014
A fire-breathing dragon, self-stirring cauldrons and dancing skeletons. These are the things Muggle dreams are made of.
But they won't be dreams much longer. This summer, Universal Orlando will open the doors, or rather the secret entrance, to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.
Once inside the elaborately themed area, which has been in the works since the summer of 2010, guests will feel like they've stepped onto the London film set, complete with the popular wizarding pub The Leaky Cauldron, several iconic shops and a marquee roller coaster-type attraction based on Gringotts, the goblin-run bank from the series.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Hogsmeade, which opened in June 2010 at Universal's Islands of Adventure, was one of the most talked about new attractions of the past decade within the industry and has been wildly popular ever since. By August 2010, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the star attraction at Hogsmeade, hit a million riders.
Parent company NBC Universal reported a theme park revenue increase of more than 30% in 2010, thanks in large part to the Wizarding World's opening that year. In 2011, theme park revenue jumped again by nearly 25%, followed by a modest gain in 2012 of about 5%.
"Park operators from around the world were impressed by the immersive experience Universal created and the meticulous attention to detail they used to bring the Harry Potter stories to life," says David Mandt, vice president of communications for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. "There is great anticipation within the industry to see how Diagon Alley will build on that success."
CNN got a tour of the 20-acre construction site, which roughly doubles the size of the Harry Potter experience, where thousands of designers, engineers and craftspeople are hard at work preparing for opening day.
Here are some things to know:
It's hidden: The outside of this attraction is a hodgepodge of building facades built to scale, including the Wyndham Theater, Leicester Square's tube station and Grimmauld Place, which mask the entrance to Diagon Alley. Here, guests will be able to meander along the London waterfront, sit under the shade of trees and gaze at a replica of London's Eros fountain. Guests will enter under the arches of the Leicester Square facade. However, Universal has not said how exactly. In the series, Harry enters Diagon through a magical wall of bricks.
Once inside, guests will be immediately immersed in a bustling wizarding hub within a Muggle city where towering buildings are slightly askew, with steep staircases and jagged edges galore.
There will be goblins: The star of it all is Gringotts, which in the series is a massive, goblin-run bank that Harry visits to get money for his school supplies. In the real-life version, visitors will be in awe of the marble lobby and cavernous passageways. They'll take off from here on a multi-sensory thrill ride through the vaults. And the dragon that will perch atop the bank building (reminiscent of when it escapes from the bank in the series) really does blow a giant ball of fire quite frequently, says Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative.
Your ticket to Universal Studios gives you access to Diagon Alley: Admission into Universal Studios Florida ($92 for adults and $86 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 via the Hogwarts Express, you must purchase park-to-park admission ($128 for adults, $122 for kids ages 3 to 9).
The train, where Harry meets pals Hermione and Ron in the first movie, will shuttle people over to Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. Along the way, rather than seeing backstage areas between the parks, guests will see views of London and the British countryside thanks to some high-tech features.
It goes beyond the books/films: J.K. Rowling provided Universal with names that didn't exist in the book. For instance, in Diagon Alley, visitors will find Horizont Alley and Carkitt next to Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes and the train trellis.
Although the world-famous author has not toured the site yet, "She has been involved as usual in the development process and has been a great supporter throughout the process as she was in the original in 2010," says Woodbury. "Just a delight to work with and a wonderful author. And someone we are eternally grateful to for creating a body of fiction that is so rich that gives us an opportunity to develop what we've been able to do."
There will be new merchandise and foods: All the bits and bobs that any good wizard needs will, of course, be available.
Shops will include Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions for Hogwarts scarves and character costumes; the three-story Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes shop for magical jokes and toys; the Magical Menagerie for owl and Hippogriff stuffed animals; Quality Quidditch Supplies for brooms and quaffles and more. Wand shop Ollivanders will be there, too. (Note: The Ollivanders location found within Diagon Alley is the original location, as referenced in the Harry Potter books and films. This shop will be larger than the current one found within Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure.)
The Leaky Cauldron, a popular wizarding pub and inn from the series, will be a "colossal space" serving Butterbeer and traditional English pub fare. Nearby, Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour will serve weird flavors like strawberry with peanut butter.
It will blow Hogsmeade away: "We think the experience is exponential," says Woodbury. "It's not just one and one is two. In this case, it's one and one is six."
Actor Matthew Lewis, who plays Neville Longbottom in the films, concurs: "It's ridiculous," Lewis said after touring the site yesterday. "The scale of it, it's just enormous."