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Inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

07 August 2010 by Richard Corliss / Orlando

One reason so many wizards wanted to get rid of Albus Dumbledore was that he was soft on Muggles. Now he's gone too far: the headmaster has let those decidedly unmagical humans into Hogwarts. Tens of thousands a day swarm through the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a 20-acre (8 hectare) swatch of Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Fla. Beneath the looming redoubt of Hogwarts School, these undocumented aliens clog the quaint main street of Hogsmeade, buying Sneakoscopes and Fanged Flyers at Zonko's Joke Shop, mailing postcards (with special Potter stamps) from the Owlery, posing for a photo in front of the Hogwarts Express, slurping Butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks restaurant. Why, the clerk of the Hogsmeade branch of Ollivander's is bestowing holly wands on Muggle children. The whole spectacle is enough to turn a pureblood's stomach. Somebody alert the Ministry of Magic! Page Lucius Malfoy! This may require the attention of ... You-Know-Who.

The visitors are all votaries of J.K. Rowling's seven Potter novels, which have sold more than 400 million copies worldwide, and the six movies the books have so far spawned, which have earned nearly $5.5 billion in theaters and quillions more on DVD. Universal has spent a reported $265 million (or about the production cost of the sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) to concoct a grand, obsessively accurate replica of Rowling's vision.

The author made sure of that. Rowling had final approval on all aspects of the Wizarding World. From her home in Scotland, she signed off on the design, rides and some 600 pieces of merchandise, most of them unique to the park. Her involvement helped induce many of the films' stars — including Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) — and artists (designers Stuart Craig and Alan Gilmore) to work with Universal's park sorcerers, Mark Woodbury and Thierry Coup. Rowling may hope to transform Muggles into wizards. Universal's goal is to turn the Potter legions' ardor into a major magnet for the company's two Florida theme parks and three hotels.

The great age of theme-park creation in the Sunshine State spanned a decade, from Disney-MGM Studios in 1989 to Islands of Adventure in 1999, with Universal Studios Florida and Animal Kingdom in between. The four parks, along with Disney's existing Magic Kingdom and Epcot, consolidated the Orlando area's status as a top vacation destination. This millennium has seen less expansion: a new attraction here (Universal Studios' the Simpsons, the funniest, best-scripted ride ever), a fireworks display there (the entrancing Wishes at the Magic Kingdom). The Great Recession took a big bite out of family-vacation budgets — attendance at Universal's Florida parks dropped about 10% last year — and stifled the ambition to build. Even the Wizarding World is just a new section of an existing park.

World of Wonder
But what's here is choice. Unlike the candy-colored palette of any Disney park, black, gray and white are the dominant shades at the Wizarding World: the daunting slate of Hogwarts, the subtly ornamented shops, all capped by the rooftops' perpetual snow, which in the oppressive summer heat serves as both a daydream and a taunt to sweltering guests. Cute, or Disney's robust American form of it, is out. Quaint, British-style, is in. The Wizarding World is a bit like Stratford-upon-Avon, except that Rowling, not Shakespeare, is the presiding genius. And you don't walk into the house she once lived in; you experience the dream she created.


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