30 May 2010 by By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel
Universal Orlando is about to get a second chance to make a first impression.
The arrival of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — which began admitting guests with select hotel packages this weekend, ahead of a grand opening next month — caps more than five years of planning and almost $400 million of investment aimed at re-establishing Universal as a true multi-day destination capable of challenging Walt Disney World for theme-park supremacy.
In Harry Potter, the boy-wizard hero of author J.K. Rowling's beloved book series, Universal has a powerful franchise around which to build, one on par with Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Buzz Lightyear or anyone else in Disney's vaunted stable of children's characters. And in Wizarding World, Universal has the only theme-park attraction on Earth where fans can wander in Potter's world.
It adds up to a golden opportunity for breathing fresh life into a resort whose fortunes have sagged in recent years.
"We know the spotlight will be on us," said Alice Norsworthy, Universal's executive vice president for marketing and sales. "It's an opportunity for us to introduce people — or reintroduce people — to Universal Orlando Resort."
Universal is leaving little to chance. The resort has spent more than $200 million meticulously re-creating settings from the Potter books and movies inside its Islands of Adventure theme park. But it has also spent nearly $100 million more adding a pair of marquee attractions — The Simpsons Ride and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit — inside Universal Studios Florida next door, to ensure that visitors lured by Wizarding World ultimately spend time in both parks.
In the months leading up to Potter's debut, Universal has overhauled its ticket structure to steer guests toward longer stays and repeat visits. It has revamped its website and online ticket store. And it has launched a new brand campaign that pairs Harry Potter with other park stars such as Spider-Man and Shrek, and dubs Universal Orlando as a place where guests can "Be Extraordinary."
"They really are gambling the future of both parks on Harry Potter," said Scott Smith, a professor at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management. "I think it's a good gamble."