Harry Potter will soon be working his wizardry in Florida with a 20-acre attraction that could spawn Hogwarts castles at theme parks worldwide.
On Thursday, Warner Bros. Entertainment and Universal Orlando Resort took the wraps off the $200-million-plus "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter," capturing the amusement park industry's most sought- after cast of characters.
The project, expected to open in late 2009, extends the global juggernaut of British author J.K. Rowling, whose tales of wizards, "muggles" and broom-riding games of Quidditch have sold 325 million books and produced four films grossing $3.5 billion.
"Winning this is the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, the NBA and the Indy 500 all rolled into one," said Dennis Speigel, president of Cincinnati-based consulting firm International Theme Park Services.
The addition to Universal's Islands of Adventure comes amid a relatively healthy theme park business that has rebounded from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But soaring fuel prices, and a potentially slower economy, threaten to crimp family vacation plans.
Nonetheless, Universal's licensing deal with Warner triggered an immediate frenzy among Potter devotees, Internet bloggers and industry observers. Because of the popularity of the "Harry Potter" books and films, many believe similar attractions could eventually come to Universal Studios Hollywood, Japan, Spain and other areas where Universal has theme parks, or plans new ones.
"The potential to expand is there if it turns out that this meets everyone's expectations as we think it will," Warner Bros. Chief Executive Barry Meyer said. "We will then look to other places to expand."
The international fan base of "Harry Potter" is expected to give Universal the kind of ammunition it badly needs to challenge Walt Disney World's dominance in Florida, where it has long lagged behind its bigger rival.
Disney in 2005 had a shot at landing the Potter theme park rights but is said to have balked at the deal largely because of cost. Disney declined to comment.
"This is disappointing for Disney not to have the franchise, but in terms of traffic it could actually help bring more people to their park," media analyst Harold Vogel said.
In building a major attraction around bestselling children's books, Universal is borrowing from the playbook of the late Walt Disney, who in the early years of Disneyland used theme park rides to bring to life characters from such tales as "Pinocchio," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Peter Pan."
"This is as good as it gets Cinderella's Castle for the first time has a rival — and it's Hogwarts Castle," consultant Speigel said, referring to Disney's signature landmark in Orlando.
Universal's agreement with Warner Bros. is limited to Florida and runs for 10 years after the attraction opens, with renewals for two additional five-year terms. Rowling had to approve the deal and all future plans must be run by her.
Warner licensed the rights to the characters and stories to Universal for an undisclosed fee believed to be tens of millions of dollars. Warner, which is not investing in the park, will also receive merchandise royalties and other payments.
According to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing Thursday by a Universal development arm, the company initially is expected to invest $230 million to $265 million on the Potter project and a planned ride based on the animated hit TV show "The Simpsons."
The Potter attraction will be the seventh and largest feature built at the 110-acre Islands of Adventure theme park, considered a disappointment since its opening in 1999.
Universal, which has gone through a tumultuous series of owners in recent years before being bought by General Electric Co. in 2004, has made few investments in Islands even though fresh attractions are considered crucial to boosting attendance.
Last year, Universal's two Florida parks had a combined annual attendance of 11.5 million, down 2.5% from 2005. The previous year, it dropped nearly 11%.
The rich plots and characters of the "Harry Potter" series give Universal a shot at developing the kind of attractions and merchandise opportunities Disney has successfully created with its popular animated characters such as Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear.
"It has endless thematic possibilities," industry expert Speigel said. "You could develop this for the next 25 years."
Plans call for three main areas: Hogwarts Castle, Hogsmeade Village and the Forbidden Forest. They will include a high-tech ride through the imaginary world, two roller coasters, a Three Broomsticks restaurant and Hagrid's Hut. Tourists will be able to buy butterbeer from the Hog's Head tavern, chocolate frogs from Honeydukes and magic wands from Ollivander's.
"You're going to be able to touch, feel and smell it," said Tom Williams, chief executive of Universal Parks and Resorts.
For Warner, "Harry Potter" has been one of the studio's most lucrative film franchises. It will release the fifth of its seven films, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," on July 11. Rowling's final book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," is due out July 21.
Ever since "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" launched the film series in 2001, the Warner brass envisioned theme park possibilities. Meyer said that over the years the studio had received countless inquiries, including from Disney, private investors and others.
Conversations between Warner and Universal got serious when Meyer and Warner President Alan Horn were invited to Orlando by Universal Studios President Ron Meyer in early 2006.
Universal's staff pitched the group with a presentation that included elaborate models of what the rides might look like. They subsequently showed the plans to Rowling.
"It was very important to us that the design of the environment be the same high quality that we sustain in the movies out of respect for Jo Rowling's books," Horn said.
To ensure that the theme park remains faithful to the books and the films, Universal hired Stuart Craig, the Oscar-winning production designer behind the Potter movies, to lead a team of 20 designers for the attraction.
Craig was first approached in October when Horn and Barry Meyer visited the set of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" in London. The following month, Craig — who was under pressure to start designing the sixth film — flew to Orlando to canvas the park.
He has since been working with two Universal park designers to make sure that the designs and the engineering structures mesh. Craig said there were specific timetables built into the schedule to present the latest designs, plans and new shop names to Rowling for approval.
With the success of "Harry Potter," the author has been able to extract creative control that enables her to put her imprint on every aspect of the franchise.
"The plans I've seen look incredibly exciting," Rowling said in a statement, "and I don't think fans of the books or films will be disappointed."
firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com Times staff writer Dawn C. Chmielewski contributed to this report.