Florida set for flood of 'Harry Potter' fans

* ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ park opens Friday

* Outsized fans won’t fit in ‘Forbidden Journey’ ride

ORLANDO, Fla., June 18 (Reuters Life!) - They’ve devoured the books. They’ve camped in front of theaters to see the films. Diehard fans are now expected to clog major routes into Orlando on Friday for the official grand opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando.

“We expect those areas to be extremely congested,” said Sergeant Kim Montes of the Florida Highway Patrol.

Within the past two weeks, one of the top two online travel agencies has reported double digit increases in trips booked to Orlando, according to Gary Sain, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I gotta believe Harry Potter is part of that,” Sain said.

Universal executives provided only vague descriptions of attendance or revenue projections for the new attraction.

“We obviously expect this to have a very, very nice effect on our attendance,” said Bill Davis, chief operating officer and chairman of Universal Orlando Resorts. “We expect it will help tourism overall in the state and Orlando.”

Universal is opening its parking garage at 5:30 a.m. to accommodate the expected crowds for the 9 a.m. grand opening ceremony.

In the days leading up to the opening, the theme park has maintained a round-the-clock media center on a back lot soundstage for reporters here from around the world to cover the event.

Universal Orlando is co-owned by the Blackstone Group private equity firm and NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co.

The 20-acre Harry Potter attraction reportedly cost $250 million to build and recreates the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and other sites dreamed up by author J.K. Rowling in her seven fantasy novels about the boy wizard.


Major attractions include the Dragon Challenge, a high-speed ride based on the Triwizard Tournament, a fictional 13th Century contest between students of the three most prestigious magical schools of Europe.

Flight of the Hippogriff is a roller coaster based on Rowling’s magical creature with the head, wings and front legs of a giant eagle and the body, hind legs and tail of a horse.

The stars of the Harry Potter movies have been walking red carpets, doing interviews and mingling with guests who qualified by virtue of special travel packages to get a preview of the attraction. They were also scheduled to attend Friday’s grand opening.

Rowling made a special appearance at one of two VIP evening extravaganzas in which kegs of “Butterbeer” were flowing and fireworks provided the backdrop to Hogwart’s Castle.

On Wednesday Rowling rode on the signature “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” ride, which puts film, technology and robotics together in a new way to bring riders physically close to the action. It is touted as creating a more realistic sense of flying than other soaring rides on the market.

“She was very pleased. She was actually thrilled,” said creative director Thierry Coup said.

So were guests.

“It made you feel like you were flying. You wanted to just reach out and touch stuff,” said Susan Benoit, a tourist from Fredericksburg, Virginia, after her first ride.

Jeff Guillaume of Lansing, Michigan, who in 2002 founded an early online Harry Potter news aggregator and fan site, said fans like him will be disappointed because of limitations on body size to ride the Forbidden Journey.

At 5 feet, 8 inches and 265 pounds (1.72 meters and 119 kg), Guillaume said his mid-section would not allow the restraint system to close, so he could not board the most heavily promoted ride. He said some other rides include special cars for larger guests.

But Coup said that Orlando Magic basketball player Dwight Howard fit into the restraint and rode the ride this week. Howard is listed on the NBA’s website as 6 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing 265 pounds (2.11 meters and 119 kg).

The only posted restriction is a minimum height of 48 inches (1.22 meters). Coup said the ride is designed the way it is “to ensure the safety of our guests. It’s No. 1.” (Editing by Jane Sutton and Patricia Reaney)