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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is expanding at the Universal theme park in Orlando. Following record profits and attendance from its first Potter attraction, Hogsmeade, the park is opening Diagon Alley next month. Amy Kiley of member station WMFE in Orlando offers a sneak peek at the attraction and the business gamble behind it.
AMY KILEY, BYLINE: Universal's Diagon Alley is, at its core, the same as in the books. It's a place where people who love magic can buy things. It's lined with shops selling spell books, cloaks and magic wands. At the end of the street is Gringotts Bank. Inside is the park's newest ride and on its roof...
(SOUNDBITE OF DRAGON BREATHING FIRE)
KILEY: ...Sits the fire-breathing dragon that helped Harry and his friends escape from banker goblins. The mind behind this scene is Harry Potter film and ride art director Alan Gilmore.
ALAN GILMORE: I want people to walk in here and experience every level of detail. I want them to look at the buildings and realize these are real buildings. This is really old, magical London. I want them to think, my gosh, I've been transported to a different time.
KILEY: That attention to detail is designed to hook die-hard Potter fans like Erin Pyne.
ERIN PYNE: All the fans of Harry Potter have just made it so personal to them that they want to live the books.
KILEY: Pyne once organized a Quidditch match at a Potter convention. In the books, it's played on flying brooms, so her team used a pool. Pyne runs the Orlando Harry Potter Fan Club. She knows J.K. Rowling's work so well, she wrote a book about its fans. Universal Orlando once hired her to help with understanding the culture of Potter fandom.
PYNE: Before the theme park opened, people would make their own outfits, make their own wands. And once the theme park opened, now everyone had a place to gather where they could literally go step into their world.
KILEY: Behind the bustle of Diagon Alley, Universal executives are betting on fans like Pyne. The first part of Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, called Hogsmeade, opened in 2010. Since then, park profits have more than doubled, and attendance has increased more than 30 percent. Some of this can be attributed to the end of the recession, though Universal and industry analysts consider Hogsmeade a smashing success. But back at Diagon Alley, expectations are high. The construction costs almost twice as much as Hogsmeade. Universal would not reveal exact numbers, but analysts estimate its price tag so far as about $400 million. Duncan Dickson teaches theme park management at the University of Central Florida Hospitality College. He says to recoup its investment, Universal needs the Harry Potter craze to spur profits and attendance for years.
DUNCAN DICKSON: You have to take a look at how long it's going to last. Does this story have legs?
KILEY: Dickson says it probably does. After all, publisher Scholastic says the Harry Potter books have sold more than 400 million copies. Dickson says capitalizing on that enthusiasm is all about something called guestology. From luxury hotels to theme parks, that means studying what people want and giving it to them.
DICKSON: If I go to the Ritz Carlton and I tell them I want green M&Ms, you know, all I have to do is tell them once. And the next time I go to a Ritz Carlton, in my room are going to be green M&Ms.
KILEY: Potter fans might not want green candy, Dickson says, but what they do want is a story. He points to Ollivander's Wand Shop. A new version is going into Diagon Alley, but Hogsmeade already has one. There, people wait in line an hour for guidance from a wand master. He's an actor in a checkered suit with a tasseled hat who peers down his spectacles at perspective witches and wizards.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: No two Ollivander wands are the same. You will never get such good results with another wizard's wand.
KILEY: The performance exits into a gift shop.
UNIDENTIFIED CASHIER: So with your Gryffindor crest and your Dumbledore's Army Set, it's going to be $188.46.
KILEY: Dickson says enthusiasm like that could make Harry Potter the next "Star Wars." It has stayed popular and profitable for almost 40 years. Theme park economist Sean Snaith thinks the success of the Harry Potter franchise will have similar longevity. Though, Snaith warns it could end up like another record-grossing film series that spawned a multimillion dollar Universal theme park venture. The Jaws attraction closed in 2012 after being opened for 22 years.
SEAN SNAITH: It's not a magic spell that they're casting here that's going to give this magnificent, desired result. They're in the real world.
KILEY: The real world, Snaith says, has PR scandals and recessions. Maybe so, but park executives are betting fans will pay the $136 million to see both halves of the Potter world. Thierry Coup is the vice president of Universal Creative.
THIERRY COUP: I don't have a crystal ball. I can't predict the future, but what we've seen in the success and popularity of Harry Potter, this is a global phenomenon.
KILEY: Of course, knowing the outcome of Universal's wager on Harry Potter will have to wait until Diagon Alley opens. Unless of course, one has the power of divination. For NPR News, I'm Amy Kiley in Orlando.
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