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Universal's new Harry Potter-Diagon Alley park: Butterbeer ice cream, 3-D thrill ride, 7 shops

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Harry Potter fans helped increase attendance by 50 per cent at Universal Orlando Resort in the past few years, and interest in a second Harry Potter park opening there July 8 could keep numbers going up. But even if the new park doesn't lead to the surge in visitors that accompanied the original Harry Potter park, Universal's cash registers will surely be ringing.

The new Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley has just one ride, a 3-D thriller called Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (which coincidentally wasn't working Thursday during a media preview). The first Harry Potter park had three rides. But Diagon Alley has seven shops, all so visually stimulating that you almost don't notice you're shopping.

Diagon Alley even has its own currency, so guests can swap U.S. dollars (muggles money) for wizard cash, to spend or to keep as a souvenir.

The rich level of detail in the park, inspired by J.K. Rowling's books and the Potter films, is authentic and exciting enough to thrill hardcore fans and casual visitors alike. There's a fire-breathing dragon, animatronic fantasy animals, and "The Monster Book of Monsters," a tome with teeth. There's butterbeer ice cream, an outdoor performance stage, and a Hogwarts Express train that takes visitors to Universal's original Harry Potter area, which opened on the other side of the park in 2010.

Shops here aren't selling the typical, tacky amusement park fare of T-shirts, sunscreen and ball caps. Instead, Diagon Alley is a showplace for cleverly curated items like $250 wizard's robes and $35 interactive wands that make trolls dance and light lamps. Backdrops include musty-looking books, creepy eels and cool stone-and-brick facades.

Even the train ride between the two parks is immersive. Visitors board at either King's Cross Station (built like a real Tube station) or Hogsmeade Station for a two-minute trip in enclosed compartments. A video screen (instead of windows) shows a passing urban landscape, then countryside, along with Harry Potter characters. Outside the car door, silhouettes flit in the corridor and familiar voices from Potter movies are overheard.

Attendance at Universal Orlando Resort has jumped over 50 per cent since 2009, to 15 million annual visitors in 2013, according to Andy Brennan, an industry analyst at IBIS world, a market research firm. "We expect this number to climb higher in 2014," Brennan said. "NBCUniversal's theme park revenue is up nearly 40 per cent since 2009, much of which can be directly attributed to the popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter."

Brennan thinks it's "unlikely" that Universal will have the same surge from Diagon Alley, partly because the first park was a novelty that benefited from pent-up demand for leisure activity as the recession eased.

Universal won't say how much it cost to build Diagon Alley; some experts have put the number at $400 million. To see both the new and original Potter areas, guests must buy a two-park ticket — $136 for adults, $130 for kids — because Diagon Alley is located at the Universal Studios park, while the original Wizarding World attraction is at Universal's Islands of Adventure park.

But even if the new park doesn't draw as many visitors as the first, the Potter attractions have helped position Universal as a leader in the theme park industry, especially in the hyper-competitive Orlando park corridor, according to Dennis Speigel, president of the International Theme Park Services trade group.

"Disney always sets the bar for our industry," he said. "But during the last 15 years or so, Universal has been coming along very strong in terms of product adaptation and development."

Universal is also trying to get more visitors to stay at its hotels, something Disney has done well. Universal recently opened its fourth hotel, the Cabana Bay Beach resort. With 1,800 rooms that include kitchenettes, and half of them suites, the park is courting extended stay visitors.

Universal plans to open a Harry Potter area this summer at its park in Osaka, Japan, and in California at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2016.

Speigel called the Potter parks a "once-in-a-generation" attraction, adding that Universal has done a good job capitalizing on the "product potential."

"There's enough story line in Harry Potter to allow Universal to continue on with it for another 15 years," Speigel said.

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Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush

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