Fans stream into Harry Potter theme park for grand opening
Droves of Harry Potter fans flooded Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park Friday, which marked the grand opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The lines formed early after Universal opened its parking garage at 5:30 a.m. Within 30 minutes, more than 5,000 guests were at the turnstiles. They were then queued up in a long, snaking fashion through several “lands” of the park and out into Universal CityWalk.
“We were pleasantly surprised” by the turnout, said Bill Davis, president of Universal Orlando. “It was a little more than we expected.”
To control the crowds, “we’re phasing people into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so when people leave, we’re inviting other people inside,” said Tom Schroder, Universal spokesman.
Shifts of parkgoers surged beneath the attraction’s archway, whooping and hollering as they glimpsed the snowcapped village of Hogsmeade, part of the Harry Potter universe created by author J.K. Rowling in the popular series of books and films about a boy wizard.
The opening moment featured the conductor of the Hogwarts Express train, a drop of a curtain that resembled a giant invitation and the introduction of Daniel Radcliffe, who stars in the movies, and other castmates.
“We are very, very, very excited to be here today,” Radcliffe said to the crowd. “We are very, very grateful that the next part of the Harry Potter legacy has been so well done and well-made, and it really is absolutely fantastic.”
Radcliffe and the other actors greeted schoolchildren who had won a contest to be the first official guests at Wizarding World.
Thus began the formulation of more lines. Hundreds queued up for butterbeer, while others crowded into the Owl Post. By mid-afternoon, a line of 200 hopefuls stood outside Ollivanders wand shop. And another location to buy souvenir wands was added outside the Owl Post, which has been a bottleneck for shoppers.
At lunchtime, the line for Three Broomsticks restaurant extended out to the entrance of the Wizarding World, and more than 150 customers stood in the heat to buy butterbeer.
For most of the day, the posted wait time for the attraction’s signature Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride was at least 90 minutes and on two occasions hit 120 minutes. All of its winding, elaborate queue housed in Hogwarts castle was in use, including the sprawling greenhouse area, Universal officials said.
The lines were not magical for Patrick Greenwell of Owensboro, Ky. After waiting two hours to get into Islands of Adventure, he found the situation chaotic.
“There were no ropes or queue lines anywhere,” he said. He and seven family members received conflicting information from Universal employees about where to stand, and they were once told it would be 10 hours before they’d hit Wizarding World.
They opted instead to go to guest services for refunds — but that took two and a half hours.
“They were totally unprepared,” Greenwell said.
Despite the lines and the hot temperatures, many fans came in good spirits and costumes. Nicole Hamblin, 25, of Sanford, and Hilary Klein, 24, of Boca Raton, came dressed in full-length black gowns as seen in the films.
Hamblin took a vacation day to attend the grand opening even though she had seen the area during the attraction’s previews. She said Klein got her hooked on the Potter series.
“It’s what got me started reading,” Hamblin said.
“All my British friends are jealous that this opened here,” said Klein, who lived in London for two years. “Now they all want to visit me.”
Kurt Jolly, an elementary school teacher from Bradenton, arrived wearing a big star-spangled wizard hat.
“I just thought it would be fun,” said Jolly, who attended with his sister, Michelle Bush, and her 10-year-old son, Nathan Bush. “We love grand openings,” Jolly said.
On Thursday night, they attended a midnight movie at the Universal Cineplex, only to discover that the area would be cleared at 2 a.m. So they drove around until the garage re-opened.
Universal was attempting to accommodate all customers, Schroder said.
“Our goal is to let everyone here today experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” he said. “Everything is running wonderfully.”
Teacher Steven Thorne accompanied students from his Centreville, Va., school, where students had won a trip in a contest on NBC’s Today show. They were treated to a visit by the Potter actors and park privileges. He gave high marks to the Forbidden Journey ride.
“That is one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever been on,” Thorne said. “This ride is going to bring people to Orlando.”
Zach Foster, 18, of Clermont was among the early arrivals, along with three friends from high school. They called themselves the Potter Posse.
“We sprinted from the parking lot,” said 18-year-old Zach Foster of Clermont. The foursome — including Matt Weber (age 20), Brandon Cicco (17) and Felix Rosado (18) — spent the night at IHOP and survived on iced coffee and iPods, they said.
Once inside, they were a little disappointed by not being able to see the actors or the opening ceremony.
“I thought it would be more than a curtain drop,” Cicco said. They also thought there might be a commemorative pin or souvenir for first-day attendees, and reported a few impatient and rude folks in the line.
But they also had seen Wizarding World in previews. “We’re going over and over again,” Rosado said. “It’s that good.”
Also in line early were were Adrienne Isgrigg of Athens, Ohio, with her friend Kjersti Stenehjem of Klamath Falls, Ore. They both have master’s degrees and Isgrigg is a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology.
“We’re top-of-the-line nerds,” Stenehjem said. “This is where we belong.”
Jason Garcia of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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