Universal ups the magic with additions to Wizarding World

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Harry Potter and friends will cast their spells anew at Universal Studios this summer with an expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that opened in sister-park Islands of Adventure in 2010.

This new area inside Universal Studios includes King's Cross station in London and Diagon Alley, London's wizarding hub. It will also be home to the new ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and a station stop on the new Hogwarts Express train.

But if you want to take a journey on Hogwarts Express between London (in Universal Studios) and Hogsmeade/Hogwarts (in Islands of Adventure), you must purchase a ticket that allows entry to both parks.

The new Diagon Alley area will include another Ollivanders wand shop. There's already one open in the Harry Potter section of Islands of Adventure, but it's been decided that the existing shop is a second Ollivanders location; the new Ollivanders is the original because it's in Diagon Alley, where it is located in the Potter books and films.

Other shops inspired by the Potter franchise include Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions, Quality Quidditch Supplies and Florean Fortescue's ice cream parlour, all specializing in offbeat flavors, including strawberry and peanut butter.

No official opening date for Diagon Alley and its new attractions has been announced, but a press event is scheduled for June 17-20, often a sign that an opening is imminent, and Universal will begin offering a new vacation package that includes access to Diagon Alley on June 29 (details at: www.universalorlando.com/Vacation-Packages/Harry-Potter-Exclusive-Vacation-Package.aspx?aid=1).

Escape from Gringotts

The Escape from Gringotts thrill ride is designed to be the wilder of the two new attractions. It's similar in basic design and mechanics to Universal's Transformers ride.

After passing animatronic goblin bankers in the Gringotts line queue, a vehicle on a track whisks viewers into 360-degree themed sets that feature both projected film images and live, practical special effects.

The ride simulates racing through underground Gringotts vaults and includes encounters with a 60-foot fire-breathing dragon, Voldemort and Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange, played once again by Helena Bonham Carter.

Alan Gilmore, art director for Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions (he also worked on the second-through-fourth Potter movies), said designing a theme park ride differs from work on a film.

"We still film like a movie, so we build sets and use actors, but the new part is building all the real scenery around the media," he explained. "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts has full 3-D immersion, an amazing ride vehicle and has amazing scenery all around the journey. The trick is to blend all that together and make it feel like you're in the movie."

New footage for both Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express ride was shot with the films' stars (and some doubles) in London over a one-month period about two years ago.

"It's a new film in its own right," Mr. Gilmore said. "And ['Harry Potter' author] J.K. Rowling helped develop the scripts and storylines."

Hogwarts Express

For the train trip from Platform 9 ¾ at King's Cross Station (at Universal Studios) to Hogsmeade (at Islands of Adventure), visitors can gaze out the "windows" (actually video screens) to watch the British countryside pass by. A story unfolds during the journey, which is different on the trip to Hogsmeade from the story going the other direction to King's Cross.

Hagrid greets guests; Buckbeak the Hippogriff soars past as do the Weasley twins on their broomsticks.

"It's a completely different type of ride [from Gringotts]," Mr. Gilmore said. "It's the train from the films, a Hall Class, classic British steam train. We built a replica of King's Cross station, and there's a new Hogsmeade station. Guests of any age can ride this, and it will feature cool media throughout the journey out the train windows."

Mr. Gilmore is also at work on the addition of a Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood, which is expected to open in 2016.

If you go ... The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Park tickets: Single-park tickets start at $96 ($90 for a child); dual park, single-day tickets start at $136 ($130 for a child).

Length of new rides: Approximately four minutes each.

Minimum height for new rides: 42 inches for Gringotts ride but no height requirement for Hogwarts Express.

No special passes: Universal's Express Pass (an add-on for tickets that starts at $29.99, although on certain days in June it's $89) cannot be used at the new Diagon Alley rides.

Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.

First Published June 1, 2014 12:00 AM

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