Tourism industry waits for Potter attraction to open at Universal Orlando

When John Hansen and his family began researching flights and hotels for a trip to Orlando next year, they were thinking about spring break. Now, however, they aren't planning to come until 2011.

Tourism industry waits for Potter attraction to open at Universal Orlando

When John Hansen and his family began researching flights and hotels for a trip to Orlando next year, they were thinking about spring break. Now, however, they aren’t planning to come until 2011.

The family does not want to risk traveling all the way from Boise, Idaho, before The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has opened at Universal Orlando.

“I wanted to be absolutely certain that Wizarding World would be open when we planned on coming,” said Hansen, a 46-year-old father of two.

The Hansens aren’t the only ones waiting. Many other people — from overseas tourists trying to time their vacations, to local tourism executives attempting to forecast next year’s business prospects — are anxious for Universal to set an opening date for Wizarding World, the $200million-plus “theme park within a theme park” based on author J.K. Rowling’s internationally beloved book series.

Universal, which has said little about Wizarding World since announcing it more than two years ago, promises a “first-ever glimpse” of the project Tuesday. But it will not say whether the announcement will include an opening-date target more precise than 2010, which is all it has offered so far.

A spokesman for the resort declined to comment last week.

It is a question with big implications not only for Universal but for Orlando’s entire tourism industry, hit hard this year by a travel slump brought on by the global recession. Travel promoters are banking on Harry Potter to help end that slump.

The Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau currently projects that travel to Orlando will flatten out in 2010, after sinking 9.1 percent this year to about 44.5 million visitors. But those figures could shift based on how early in 2010 — or how late — the Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuts.

“Harry Potter’s a big variable,” visitors bureau President Gary Sain said.

There are some clues. For example, Universal’s licensing contract with Rowling and Warner Bros. Entertainment states that a grand opening for Potter must occur by June 30, 2010.

But beyond that, there has been little more than often-conflicting speculation. Some people say they have been told that Universal will open a first phase as early as December of this year; others say construction has fallen far behind schedule.

Making some people nervous: Universal’s struggles earlier this year with its new Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster. The attraction was initially supposed to open this spring but did not start operating until about three weeks before Labor Day.

“If one ride can be delayed beyond their expectations by a few weeks, I can easily see how a ‘theme park within a theme park’ could be delayed even further,” said Wendy Buckley of Clara, Ireland. Buckley said her family went ahead and planned a trip to Orlando next year — but booked it as late in the summer as they comfortably could in hopes of making sure they can visit Wizarding World.

“We’re leaving the few days we will spend in Universal until last, to ensure our best chance of it being open,” Buckley added.

Whenever Harry Potter does arrive, industry experts say, the boy wizard’s effect on both Universal and the broader Orlando economy should be profound.

Although the 20-acre Wizarding World is not a stand-alone theme park — it will be an island within Universal’s Islands of Adventure — boosters say it is nonetheless the biggest addition to Orlando tourism since Walt Disney World opened Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in 1998.

“Arguably, Harry Potter has almost a new-park impact,” said Ray Braun, a senior vice president at ERA AECOM, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm that does economic research for the theme-park industry. “We think it’s the most powerful brand that hasn’t been exploited in this industry.”

Harry Potter should prove an especially strong lure for tourists from the United Kingdom, which has long been Orlando’s most important overseas market but which is struggling mightily right now. The convention-and-visitors bureau forecasts that travel to Orlando from the U.K. will plummet 16.4 percent this year to about 800,000 travelers, which would drop it behind Canada as the region’s busiest international feeder market.

Rowling’s seven-book series is set in England.

There is plenty of evidence of Harry Potter’s financial magic at the box office. The first six films based on the books have grossed more than $5.4 billion worldwide, according to, a tracking Web site. Five of the movies rank among the 15 biggest worldwide box-office hauls of all time.

The results are a testament to the attachment Harry Potter fans feel to the series — something that promoters fully expect will translate to theme-park attendance.

“That’s 300 million fans worldwide — brand-loyalists,” Sain said. “This is going to really help us.”

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