ORLANDO — The books and movies have long since wrapped up the epic tale, with Voldemort vanquished, Snape lionized, and the young heroes sending their own children off to Hogwarts. But the specter of Harry Potter will continue to dominate the landscape of central Florida for years to come.
“The Wizarding World of Harry Potter brought millions of new visitors to Orlando,” said Robert Niles, editor of the consumer website Theme Park Insider. “What we’re seeing now is a competitive moment, and the Orlando parks are all trying to take advantage of the momentum.”
The Wizarding World attractions opened to nearly mile-long lines in June 2010 at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure park, with a resulting 30 percent leap in attendance over 2009 — this in just a half-year of wand shopping and butterbeer. The din has barely subsided in the ensuing two years.
“The word of mouth was excellent,” said Niles, “which led into Christmas 2010, which led into last summer, and so on. If something gets big enough, it creates a buzz that goes way above theme-park fans; it got to that level with Harry Potter.”
Mouse ears across town perked up, and as summer 2012 begins, the battle for hearts and wallets is joined, with an unprecedented array of new offerings.
“Some of the new attractions were already in the planning stages,” said Niles. “But Disney knew that Harry Potter was going to be big for Universal, and for the Orlando market. They have no intention of ceding their No. 1 position.”
Walt Disney World has undertaken the largest expansion project in the history of its Magic Kingdom, the world’s most popular theme park with 16.9 million visitors in 2010. When completed, its Fantasyland section will have doubled in size.
SeaWorld has launched the first phase of the biggest expansion in that park’s 40-year history with its innovative TurtleTrek experience having opened in late April.
Universal will build on its wild success with an update of its popular Spider-Man ride, a new attraction based on its smash animated movie “Despicable Me,” and other new experiences in its two parks and at its CityWalk entertainment complex.
“Never before have we created this many new experiences across the resort in a single year,” said Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative earlier this year.
TURTLETREK In what SeaWorld calls the world’s first 360-degree domed theater, the trek is undertaken by a solitary sea turtle in a film by recently formed SeaWorld Pictures called “Turtle: The Incredible Journey.” The tale is billed as “nature’s greatest survival story,” and it is also noteworthy for the way it is delivered.
Each frame of the film, which runs on 34 projectors, holds about 26 million pixels (more than 13 times what is considered high definition), resulting in one of the most spectacular 3-D films ever created. In fact, it’s two films running simultaneously, one for the left eye and one for the right, and it happens all around and even above you.
Before they get to this film, visitors will encounter four species of turtles (about 20 in all) and four West Indian manatees (all rescued by SeaWorld and deemed non-releaseable by the state of Florida), as well as thousands of fish, in floor-to-ceiling saltwater and freshwater habitats.
“The manatees definitely play a supporting role here to the turtles,” said David Siegner, a project manager for SeaWorld. “The messaging throughout is on educating people about how they can be everyday heroes for the animals and the environment.”
“Educating people on the natural environment is a big part of SeaWorld’s identity,” said Niles. “And TurtleTrek is in a way an appetizer for their Antarctica ride [Empire of the Penguin], which is scheduled for 2013.”
DESPICABLE ME MINION MAYHEM Universal Pictures’ “Despicable Me” was one of the most successful animated films of 2010, and project manager Mike West of Universal Orlando learned a hard lesson while making appearances to promote this attraction.
“You know the old [W.C. Fields] line, don’t work with children or animals? You can add minions to that; they will take everyone’s attention,” West said with a laugh.
The zany minions — short, yellow, bespectacled creatures with high-pitched voices — are sure to steal the show in this collaboration with movie creators Chris Meledandri and Illumination Entertainment that is slated to open this summer.
“The 3-D projection system was also used in our new Spider-Man ride, and the detail and clarity are like nothing you have ever seen,” said West.
The premise of the ride is that Gru, the film’s main character ( voiced by Steve Carell), needs to recruit more minions to complete his dream of world domination, and as West puts it, “If you don’t like being short and yellow, don’t bother coming.”
Gru’s three girls and the minions combine to take the “minion-ization” process wildly off course as the ride zips through Gru’s secret lab, culminating in an interactive dance party. The fun will likely be ramped up in summer 2013 when “Despicable Me 2” hits the big screen.
SUPERSTAR PARADE and CINEMATIC SPECTACULAR Both of these shows opened May 8 at Universal Studios and they are in some ways a product of the park’s recent success. Take the Superstar Parade:
“Theme parks have parades at midday because that’s when the park is at its busiest, and the show draws a bunch of people away from the rides and keeps the lines from getting too long,” said Niles. “Disney has employed this strategy for years, while Universal really hasn’t had the need for it before now.”
The parade includes enormous floats, state-of-the-art technology, hundreds of street performers, and favorite characters such as the “Despicable Me” minions, E.B. from the movie comedy “Hop,” SpongeBob SquarePants, and Dora the Explorer and her cousin Diego.
“It took 1½ years just to build the floats, and they include sophisticated navigational systems so we can be very precise with their placement,” said Jim Timon, senior vice president of Universal Entertainment. “We want to know where they are in relation to each other, because there can be as many as 16,000 to 18,000 people along the parade route.”
The Cinematic Spectacular is an evening movie, music, and water show on the Universal Studios lagoon, a 20-minute presentation of some 200 Universal films representing 100 Oscar winners. The show is narrated by Morgan Freeman and set to lights, sounds, and other special effects, not to mention the 30-foot-high programmable water curtains onto which the moments are projected.
“We tend to forget how many great movies Universal has made,” said Timon. “But this isn’t just film clips — there’s an emotional arc to it with broad family appeal, from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ to ‘The Lorax.’ ”
THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF SPIDER-MAN One of the most popular attractions at Universal’s Islands of Adventure reopened March 8 with 4K digital high-definition animation, a new music score, and new 3-D “Spider-Vision” glasses that ramp up the details and the interactivity.
“Universal does film-based, 3-D attractions better than anyone,” said Niles.
In 1999, Spider-Man was a groundbreaking theme-park ride that combined motion-based ride vehicles, 3-D film technology, and live action, and in the re-rendering fans can now see details as fine as the stitching on Spidey’s gloves while watching for new cameo appearances by Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee.
Thierry Coup, senior vice president of Universal Creative, was also involved in the creation of the initial ride, and a thumbs-up from a longtime rider, his now 18-year-old son, assured him that the new ride was worthy. “He was my benchmark,” said Coup.
MAGIC KINGDOM FANTASYLAND The Fantasyland expansion project bore its first fruit in mid-March, with the Storybook Circus area replacing what had been Toontown Fair. Guests can take the Great Goofini family coaster, and long lines for the classic Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride will be eased with a companion Dumbo ride opening in July, accompanied by a water-play area. You can also board the Disney World Railroad train from the new Fantasyland Station.
“This is an area where Disney hadn’t done anything for a while,” said Niles. “They needed to refresh it and improve the technology. And after years of blockbuster films like ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ they hadn’t really expanded rides and venues to focus on those characters.”
A new Princess Fairytale Hall greeting area, Enchanted Tales with Belle experience, and Little Mermaid ride are all scheduled to open in the next year, with a Seven Dwarfs Mine Ride slated for 2014.
DISNEY’S ART OF ANIMATION RESORT A new hotel inspired by Disney animation will feature 1,120 family suites themed after “The Lion King,” “Cars,” and “Finding Nemo,” and 864 themed rooms in “The Little Mermaid” wing. Animated scenes and larger-than-life icons from the animated films are on display in common areas. “Finding Nemo’’ will be the first wing to open, on May 31, with the others all debuting by Sept. 15.
CITYWALK Universal’s massive just-outside-the-parks entertainment complex also features a new production of the iconic Blue Man Group show, which blends innovative theatrical spectacle with improv and comedy, while giving longtime fans new twists on the routines. Also new is Hollywood Drive-In Golf, which features great fun on two 18-hole miniature courses based on classic drive-in-era movies, one with a horror theme and the other sending up sci-fi movies.
“Universal has gone from just hoping that people will visit them for a day or two after Disney to becoming a prime destination all their own,” said Niles. “In order to do that, they’ve got to have two theme parks as well as the hotels, restaurants, the movies, the theater, and the mini-golf that CityWalk provides. Now they can be the home base for people’s vacations.”